Imitation of Life/Double Indemnity Atavistic Unheard Music

3 Pianos

Versatile from the get go, since moving to London in 1974,

multi-instrumentalist Steve Beresford has probably been involved in more undertakings than any other British improviser.

Although he’s a full-fledged member of the jazz/improv community with appearances at guitarist Derek Bailey’s Company week and recording sessions with the likes of saxophonist Evan Parker and drummer Han Bennink — among many others — on his resumé, he hasn’t limited himself to that. Over the years he has also been a member of punk and reggae bands, created middle-of- the-road pop music, and fully scored music for film, TV, dance groups and corporations. Additionally, he has taught audio production, piano and improvisation at different times and places, as well as produced CDs for other free improvisers.

These discs, recorded more than 20 years apart cinematically expose the three faces of Steve. Reissued and expanded from two LPs released on Y, the London-based punk label in 1980 and 1981, the Atavistic CD features the pianist in duet with skewed American expatriate cellist Tristan Honsinger on most tracks. The others reprise the second LP, adding Japanese trumpeter Toshinori Kondo and British multi-instrumentalist David Troop. Since the venue lacked a piano, Beresford instead plays what he calls bags of other instruments, including an euphonium, a flugelhorn, a siren, a metal violin, a Winfield organ, a toy electric guitar and a bass guitar.

In 2001, however, Beresford is one of three improvisers recorded on three grand pianos in a London studio. His confreres here are his near contemporary Veryan Weston and slightly younger Pat Thomas. Although all 264 keys are often put into action, the chances of anyone confusing the disc for a Ferrante and Teicher or a Roger Williams session writ large are remote indeed.

Playing in the early 1980s with the formerly all-female punkettes The Slits, the pianist’s association resulted in these diverting improv sessions appearing on a punk label. Like nearly all attempts to mix free improv with any sort of rock music from prog to punk, the response was underwhelming. Honsinger, Beresford et. al may have been noisy and entertaining, but they ignored any conventional beat and sloganeering lyrics. The punks may have wanted “Anarchy In The U.K.” all right, but only as part of the existing music business, distributed by major labels and with proper accounting. For example, Rough Trade, the oh-so-hip initial distributor of Y records was so outraged that the disc could be made so quickly that the owners suggested the LPs sell for lees than normal price. So much for DIY and standing up to the establishment.

Of course that didn’t stop the four improvisers from having a good time producing a session of disorganized anarchy in the Boys Just Wanna Have Fun ethos of the time. Had the punks a sense of humor, they would have recognized that Honsinger’s antics easily put their imitation teenage rebellion in its place.

Wondering around Europe following an earlier stint in Montreal, having decided that American military concepts weren’t for him, the cellist had already begun his one-again-off-again association with Holland’s anarchistic ICP orchestra that continues to this day. In London, no matter who else is playing, he seems to be going very much his own way. And if that disrupts the proceedings, so much the better.

On the first number, for instance, he appears to be playing “Comin’ Through The Rye” at one point, sawing away on a polka at another, plucking out strange patterns and burlesquing “My Darling Clementine” elsewhere. He whistles, baas like a sheep, quacks like a duck and moos like a cow — or is that Kondo’s trumpet? — and even appears to be tap dancing. Then suddenly he begins shouting “I didn’t do it. Don’t take it out on me.” Later on, after a sudden silence has been succeeded by Troop playing a bass guitar line that sounds like the beginning of The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Outta This Place” the tune is expanded by trumpet obbligatos before Honsinger begins singing in French. Soon afterwards he’s yelling: “Lend me a dollar” to no one in particular.

Here and elsewhere Troop seems to be trying to keep things together by vamping on a flute line or strumming conventional (in this setting) electric guitar. Kondo adds some growls, gargles and stratospheric blasts, not to mention the odd percussive scratches and rattles. Meanwhile Beresford tosses around his literal bag of tricks, creating a retching reverb from his euphonium, metallic tinkles from what sounds like a toy xylophone or toy piano, not to mention some Hawaiian-style shudders from his toy guitar. Tying up the simian shouts and scratched cacophony into a package that ends with what appears to be an elongated solo on the spoons and a few squeaks from what sound like plush toys, the four easily prove how punks were too musically conventional to accept free improv.

In duo Honsinger and Beresford are almost as out-of-control, but at least the later has a bigger, many-keyed, metaphoric stick with which to beat off the cellist’s lunacy. Not that the motor mouthed, nervous foot-tapper is tranquilized. On “Pre-echo”, for instance Honsinger begins sawing away madly while talking about going to the barber and a friend making a salad. Beresford’s response is flugelhorn blasts and a few smashes of the piano lid. Canine howls escape from the flugel on “Stolen Time”, the better to counter Honsinger humming along with his cello like Slam Stewart after a protracted session of ECT.

Still, as the cellist effortlessly showcases arco and pizzicato legerdemain in all registers, as the pianist barrels ahead in a style that shirts from frenzied to free in a nanosecond, you can easily hear the method behind the collective madness.

Moving from the positively ridiculous to the sublime, Beresford gets to match wits and finger tips with two other BritImprov keyboard specialists. The game plan involves nine trios, three of which individually involve rules set by each of the players, a duet with Beresford and each of the other pianists, plus a Weston-Thomas duet.

After a hesitant start the three use clipped tones to carve out separate places for themselves on the keyboard and elsewhere. Not one is averse to diving into the instrument’s innards, excavating warbling trills, harp glissandos and steel guitar strums. Key are dampened and deadened as small balls, paper and other foreign objects are introduced. At times no one seems to be sounding the keys, other times, with a stop-and-start motion, phrases and phrasing are tossed back and forth as the performances slow down and then speed up again.

Sporadically with 30 fingers in use the outcome gets very busy and dense as all appear to hitting the same notes a half-step or so apart. Noticing this, they immediately switch gears and begin creating three variations of the melody or three variations on three melodies or three medleys out of the variations. Chords, notes and motifs seem to move by faster than the speed of sound, though at intervals what could be snatches of familiar tunes appear. As you can hear, this involves a lot more than three guys harmonizing on “Heart And Soul” or “Honky Tonk Train”.

With embellishments varying from rococo to rapid and from fastidious to freedom sounds, it’s hard to imagine a better showcase to show how experienced freeform improvisers can cooperate, yet maintain a distinct representation of their talents.

Exposing three of Beresford’s pianist personalities on these discs confirms that one can be a master of many as well as a jack — or Steve — of all trades.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Imitation: 1. Out-take F 2. Out-take B 3. Imitation of life Side One* 4. Say hello to the cello 5. Pre-echo 6. Stolen Time 7. Imitation of life Side Two*

Personnel: Imitation: Toshinori Kondo* (trumpet, voice, mutes, rattles, small instruments); Steve Beresford (euphonium, flugelhorn, siren, metal violin, Winfield

organ, toy electric guitar, bass guitar, automatic instruments, small instruments); David Toop* (electric guitar, bass guitar, flute, alto flute, wooden flutes, small instruments); Tristan Honsinger (cello, voice, whistling, violin)

Track Listing: 3 Pianos: 1. ACOrn 2. ATLas 3. HOGarth 4. FLAxman 5. FREmantle 6. VIGilant 7. RIPpleway 8. ELGar 9. WEStern 10. BERmondsey 11. THOrnton heath 12. SPEedwell

Personnel: 3 Pianos: Steve Beresford, Pat Thomas, Veryan Weston (pianos)