Responses, Reproduction & Reality

Outgrowth of a Butch Morris-led conduction that took place in London a few years ago, the London Improvisers Orchestra (LIO) has evolved into a once-a-month gig where some of the British capital’s best improvisers get together to try out new ideas.

Involving a revolving cast of 30-plus players as well as different conductors and composers, the LIO has taken on an identity far beyond that of a BritImprov kicks band. However as these seven tracks, recorded at 2003’s and 2004’s Freedom of the City festivals demonstrate, the outcome is still inconsistent.

Corralling three dozen top players into a somewhat regimented atmosphere to play exacting compositions as well as improvisations can be a struggle – ask pioneers like Alexander von Schlippenbach or Carla Bley who did so in the past. So while six conducted-compositions and a free improvisation are featured here, in truth the pieces that are most notable are those which revolve around a strong soloist or soloists rather than rigid, non-developmental leitmotifs. This concept may be anathema to the collectivist impulse that has traditionally characterized BritImprov, but larger groups call for different strategies.

“Ism”, for example, conducted by electronic manipulator Pat Thomas, could almost be Free Jazz. Here the creative shape revolves around tenor saxophonist John Butcher’s winnowing slurs and smears plus trombonist Alan Tomlinson’s pedal-point plunger blasts and snorts, rather than the agitato overtones from the massed instruments around them. Including hyper-kinetic piano cadences at the finale, polyphonic string crescendos as well as triple counterpoint from the drums, the orchestra’s most important function is as a framing device.

“Wit’s End,” conducted by Dave Tucker – which in many ways begins as a concerto for Paul Rutherford’s trombone – develops in a similar fashion. Moving among harsh vamps from the horns and percussion, the trombonist shuffles and smears his timbres, later vocalizing to match the oscillations from B. J. Cole’s pedal steel guitar. Other influences surface as the almost-12½-minute composition develops, most noticeably the avant spin Orphy Robinson gives the traditional steel pan and the wave forms bouncing from interference to accompaniment from Adam Bohman’s so-called amplified objects. More conventionally, the LIO here includes legato orchestral string parts that only touch on dissonance and some call-and-response riffs from soprano saxophonist Tom Chant and trumpeter Roland Ramanan.

By replicating writ large the gullet gymnastics of guest vocalist Jaap Blonk, from the Netherlands, “Hearing Reproduction 5 – conducted by Caroline Kraabel – impresses as well. Spiccato string stops, hocketing irregular horn lines, aviary squeaks from the flutes and blacksmith-like thumps from the percussionists match if not mirror the retching, growling, barking and throat gurgles that characterize Blonk’s sound.

Elsewhere, compositions designed to showcase the smallest fraction of a musical idea in one case or elongate a non-linear, so-called script of timbres rather than thematic development really only come alive when the strictures are ignored. Developing almost rococo detailing of various orchestral tones after the swaying, slapping and scraping of plunger trombone and shivering electronics helps one. Pizzicato violin strums, low-frequency tremolo patterns from both pianists and a crescendo of pitch-sliding semitones from the brass liven things up for the other. But until a fade, most LIOers appear to be patterning rather than playing.

These and other tunes capture some fine playing, but singularly, rather than as part of a larger grouping. Hunting horn–like harmonies from the trombones, reverb from two guitarists and portamento chording from dual pianos were no doubt exciting to play and convincingly exciting for the live audience. But minus visuals some of the sounds come across as a cross between polytonal advancement from dedicated free players and a parody of a symphony orchestra at rehearsal.

A valuable listen for those curious about how analytical musicians labor to solve the conundrum of multi-person improvisation RESPONSES, REPRODUCTION & REALITY offers practical evidence of what does and doesn’t work.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Wit’s End 2. Improvisation Panels (1) 3. Hearing Reproduction 5* 4. Proceeding 6 5. Responses 6. Ism 7. Fantasy and Reality

Personnel: [tracks 1 & 7]: Harry Becket and Roland Ramanan (trumpets);

Robert Jarvis and Paul Rutherford (trombones); Neil Metcalfe (flute); Catherine Pluygers (oboe); Terry Day (bamboo pipes); John Rangecroft (clarinet); Jacques Foschia and Harrison Smith (bass clarinets); Tom Chant, Lol Coxhill and Adrian Northover (soprano saxophones); Caroline Kraabel (alto saxophone); Evan Parker (tenor saxophone); Susanna Ferrar, Sylvia Hallett and Phil Wachsmann (violins); Charlotte Hug (viola); Marcio Mattos (cello); B. J. Cole (pedal steel guitar); Dave Tucker (guitar); David Leahy, John Edwards and Simon H. Fell (basses); Tony Marsh and Louis Moholo-Moholo (drums); Orphy Robinson (steel pan); Adam Bohman (amplified objects) [tracks 2 - 6]: Harry Becket, Ian Smith and Roland Ramanan (trumpets); Robert Jarvis and Alan Tomlinson (trombones); John Rangecroft (clarinet); Jacques Foschia and Harrison Smith (bass clarinets); Tom Chant, Lol Coxhill and Adrian Northover (soprano saxophones); Caroline Kraabel (alto saxophone); John Butcher (tenor saxophone); Susanna Ferrar, Sylvia Hallett and Phil Wachsmann (violins); Charlotte Hug (viola); Marcio Mattos (cello); Dave Tucker and Keith Rowe (guitars); Steve Beresford and Veryan Weston (pianos); David Leahy, John Edwards and Simon H. Fell (basses); Tony Marsh, Mark Sanders and Louis Moholo-Moholo (drums); Pat Thomas (electronics); Jaap Blonk (voice)*