The Tony Oxley-Alan Davie Duo
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Application Interaction And...
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Pioneering Scottish Abstract Expressionist Alan Davie had his first one-man exhibition in London in 1950, at height of the Cool Jazz era, when he was also making his name as a painter, poet and multi-instrumentalist. Keeping up with musical changes, Davie, born in 1920, eventually developed a longstanding playing partnership with percussionist Tony Oxley, born in 1938, who is one of the founders of restrained BritImprov and a painter in his own right. The improv duo sessions here were recorded in 1974 and 1975, and are reissued with two additional tracks for the first time since their appearance on LP in 1975.

Oxley’s chief rival as pioneering BritImprov percussionist, the late John Stevens (1940-1994), didn’t move in the same artistic circles. Although he studied to be a commercial artist, he was a musician first, last and always. APPLICATION, INTERACTION AND… is a reissue of a 1978 disc with longtime associate, saxophonist Trevor Watts, and a startlingly longhaired Barry Guy on bass, who had already begun his playing partnership with saxist Evan Parker and organized the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, which also featured Watts.

Davie, who become a professional jazz musician after the Second World War, has always insisted that his mature style arrived when “I really began to paint in the way I had learned to write and to play jazz and in the way I had learned to make love”. His associates in New York included Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, and his more recent work shows a preoccupation with Zen and Oriental mysticism.

There’s not too much mysticism here, though eclecticism may be a better adjective. At least David plays trombone sopranino saxophone, bass clarinet, vibraphone, xylophone, piano, cello and ring modulator on different tracks, while Oxley plays percussion, violin, ring modulator, compressor and octave splitter.

What’s most noteworthy about the two newly issued tracks is that Davie plays piano on both of them with exerted finger pressure and high frequency tremolos. This rapid-fire, arpeggio-rich attack is somewhat like Cecil Taylor’s, the American pianist who would become a frequent Oxley playing partner a few years later. Were these tracks preliminary bouts for latter piano-percussion championship meetings perhaps?

Other tracks show the different personalities Davie adopted for each of his axes. As notable, in hindsight, is how many conceptions including World music echoes, folk root allusions, musqiue concrète and pure improv, were touched upon on these tracks. Even more conspicuous is how the two were mixing and matching the genres at that early date, more so than Oxley does now.

For instance “Song for the little dog” and “Fruit flambé”, recorded live in concert in Zürich, find Davie advancing his ideas with reed attack of repetitive, elongated high pitched squeals that makes it appears that he’s playing a Middle Eastern mussette. Primitive, hard-edged, heavy snare and cymbal bangs accompany part of this, but so do buzzing tones probably arriving from the ring modulator, with electronic impulses altering the percussion oscillation.

These same fluctuating whistles and chugs appear via the miracle of electricity in some of Davie’s cello and keyboard discharges as well. Wood-based drones and snorts enliven the proceedings as do lustrous, almost-prepared-piano-like xylophone plinks that meet with phase-shifting, shattering and clattering percussion.

It was Davie, who gave Oxley a violin, and on “‘Bird trap’ for violin and cello” the two create a non-folkloric, non-chamber suite for their strings. Electrified, but not amplified fiddle tones scratch and whistle as they meet low undertones from the cello.

More codified, the three selections from Stevens, Watts and Guy show pioneering free improvisers in a more jazz-like mode, especially on the almost 25 minute “Application” that begins the CD. Although Stevens’ name is above the title, he’s characteristically muted, letting Watts take the lead role. No hierarchical arrangement, this is a meeting of equals. After all, the drummer and saxist had played together starting in the early 1960s and almost every day in the Spontaneous Music Ensemble during the later part of that decade. Guy had been a member of bands with first one, then another and with both from about that same time.

Oldest of the three, it’s Watts with his whistling chirps and astringent, elongated reed squeals who is most attuned to the Free Jazz ethos. Beginning with smears almost reminiscent of a violin’s tone, midway through the alto player switches to blues-based Ornette Coleman-Julius Hemphill emphasized lower register lines and higher-pitched elastic tones that swell without breaking. His sax tone, mixed with Guy resonating finger-picking pulse and Stevens’ rumble and bass drum involved chromatic pressure, suggest that everyone was listening to Coleman’s Prime Time band of the time. Earlier, though, when his reed multiphonics produce Eurasian tones and overtones, there are hints of the pan-Africanism that Watts would later bring to fruition in his Moiré Music groups.

Exoticism closer to home appears at the end when the saxman — now probably on soprano — creates a repeated bagpipe-like pulse. His sax is the chanter, with the droning overtones portrayed by Guy’s focused bow work.

Taken andante, “Interaction” is a more experimental piece, featuring reed drones, bottle-cap percussion ejaculations and press rolls, as well as straightforward low-key plucking and bowing from Guy. Watts’ Free Jazz connection again differentiates him from younger improv saxophonists such as John Butcher and Parker. And as he heads into bird-whistle territory for a time, lower-case pitches and squeals arrive from the bass. When the percussionist drags out more rhythm, the bass line gets denser and faster, Watts then propels himself to twisting, flutter tongued lines and Texas reed cries, if those can arise from a Yorkshireman.

That’s the value of reissues; they allow you hear fine music that were ignored or overlooked in its day. Both these releases are at that level. Comparing lively arts though, it would be superb if even a small number of the art collectors throughout the world who appreciate Davie’s painting knew the names of musical fine artists like Oxley, Guy, Stevens and Watts as well as they do those of visual fine artists

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Duo: 1. Song for the little dog 2. Cavern of the snail for cello and cymbals 3. Adventures with magic ring 4. Fruit flambé 5. Song for the serpent 6. On the seashore 7. Fragment from a suite ‘Country music’ 8. Fish fascinator 10. ‘Bird trap’ for violin and cello 11. High Tide Mark

Personnel: Duo: Alan Davie (trombone sopranino saxophone, bass clarinet, vibraphone, xylophone, piano, cello, ring modulator); Tony Oxley (percussion, violin, ring modulator, compressor, octave splitter)

Track Listing: Application: 1. Application 2. Interaction 3. And...

Personnel: Application: Trevor Watts (soprano and alto saxophones); Barry Guy (bass); John Stevens (drums)