The London Concert
psi 05.01

Mining the seam - the rest of the Spotlite sessions
Hi 4 Head Records HFH CD003

Combining and splitting apart numerous times in various bands – ad hoc and not –during a period in the late 1960s and early 1970s now seen as the genesis of British Free Music, guitarist Derek Bailey and drummer John Stevens (1940–1994) are almost universally acknowledged as dual catalysts who nurtured the nascent scene.

Although over the years both improvised with just about anyone and mentored a large number of younger musicians, Stevens had, and Bailey still has, a fairly prickly personality. That meant that at the same time newer players were being initiated into freer sounds, one or both was usually carrying on a feud with older associates and sometimes with one other. Bailey has maintained from that time that every performance should be completely improvised with each creation a tabla rasa. Less rigid, Stevens didn’t disdain composition and wasn’t above playing jazz, Free Jazz and a touch of jazz-rock.

MINING THE SEAM and THE LONDON CONCERT, both recorded in the mid-1970s, are historical documents, which preserve mature manifestations of Bailey’s and Stevens’ sounds that continue to shape British improv. Each distinctively reflects the protagonist, yet the scene was then so small that the other musicians featured negotiated a path between the two.

Initially, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME), Stevens’ original cooperative band, featured his army buddy, alto saxophonist Trevor Watts, and the reedman is on this CD. Bailey briefly joined the SME, but soprano and tenor saxophonist Evan Parker, who partners the guitarist on THE LONDON CONCERT, evolved his distinctive reed style though a more extended tenure with the SME, sometimes alongside Watts. Bassist Barry Guy who provides much of the rhythmic impetus on MINING THE SEAM, was associated with Bailey in the Iskra 1903 trio with trombonist Paul Rutherford. Yet more notably for the past 30 years, he and Parker have worked together in situations ranging from a duo to big bands.

Considering the trio assembled, it may be surprising to note that MINING THE SEAM is out-and-out, circa 1977 Free Jazz. Made up of alternate and unedited versions of three of the five tunes session issued as NO FEAR (Hi 4 Head Records HFHCD001), it offers another look at what long been viewed as a masterful BritJazz session. Most surprising is the soloing of Watts. At that point, before he began his ongoing flirtation with so-called world music, Watts was firmly in the Ornette Coleman school, with his jagged phrasing and interjections harsh and relentless.

Not only does he trot out pet licks that seem to enliven each track, but all three players are also committed to the song form, with nearly every tune ending with a recapitulation of the head after variations have been sounded. Matching the saxophonist’s squeaks and staccato flutter-tongued excursions, Stevens rattles each part of his kit with ruffs and flams and pays more attention to the bass drum than is the wont in BritImprov.

Ruffling passing tones, Guy too is removed from the cerebral interface he often exhibits with Parker. At different points, his shuffle bowing highlights the jagged edges of the strings, the better to sabotage the drummer’s steady beat. Alternately contrapuntal, his chiming bass lines are the perfect antidote to the speedier and staccato dog-like barks from the saxophonist. Walking, thumping or stopping, he moderates a space between the other two.

As the multiphonic reed tones, bull fiddle sweeps and percussion rebounds and strokes coalesce, taken together the five tracks provide a substitute, but equally valid version of the already released proceedings.

Equally valid too are the 30-odd minutes added to the previously released

LP version of 1975’s THE LONDON CONCERT (Incus 16), which now boosts its length to more than 69 minutes. Still in their honeymoon period, Bailey and Parker offered both solo and duo material, with the reedman playing soprano and tenor saxophones and Bailey a stereo guitar with volume pedals and a modified 19-string guitar.

Despite the hardware, there are no signs of ProgRock, electronica or – as Bailey would probably insist dogmatically – jazz. That’s open to debate, but what is noticeable in this context is how each of the eight tracks seems to be moderate and unhurried compared to the urgent staccato of the Stevens’ trio work.

There’s no mistaking Bailey, plinking, slightly flattish tone and attack, whether he’s using the so-called stereo guitar or the 19-string mutant. “Part 1”, for example, is almost 15 minutes of constant plectrum plink and plucks intersected by masticated curt note patterns and duck squawks from Parker’s soprano.

As the piece develops so do the saxophonist’s jagged snaps, slurs and smears while the guitarist’s steady rhythmic guitar fills include additional vibrations. With the pedals allowing him to output an unusual vibrating pulsation, Bailey’s contrapuntal display is matched by trills within the body tube, shrill penny whistle tones and undulating columns of colored air from Parker’s axe. Seemingly mumbling to himself and evidentially concentrating on what rhythm can be constructed by stroking strings on the guitar neck, the guitarist leaves space for Parker to buzz his reed and bubble lip forms. For the finale the reedist contorts his snarls to a legato tone, then showcases his characteristic circular breathing as Bailey plucks away.

Previously unreleased, Bailey’s strategy on “Second Half Solos” find him demarcating sharp, single-note friction on the 19 strings as the crinkling vibrations add rattling hum and tone resonation. For his part, Parker reveals a nephritic shout as repeated tongue slaps, pops and diaphragm vibrations expand to multiphonics and usher in “Part 3” from the original LP.

Spectacularly, shredded split tones and irregularly pitched vibrations then explode all over the aural space, causing Bailey to turn to harder plectrum interface, as node response swells into unique counter patterns. Soon you start to feel like a spectator at a particularly frenetic tennis game, with the ball constantly in motion, jumping, soaring and bouncing from one to another. Each man is concentrating on an individual strategy, but as polyphony emerges, so does the shape of the cooperative contest. Climatically, Bailey announces a variation change as his flat-picking suddenly clangs like an egg timer. Parker vibrates ghostly slurs beneath him, as if he was playing a chanter, with a renal squeak for a coda. Elsewhere the two intertwine harmonies that include glottal punctuation and staccatissimo overblowing from Parker and distorted finger-tapping and harsh, scraped fret actions from Bailey.

Although 30 years later what they did then may sound standardized, the duo performance is invested with the novelty and excitement of musical discovery. So too is the trio set. Both prime slabs of interactive improv, these CDs should attract anyone desirous of a deeper insight into the musical currents of those times.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: London: 1. First half solo 2. Part 1 3. Part 1A 4. Part 2 5. Part 2A 6. Second half solos 7. Part 3 8. Part 4

Personnel: London: Evan Parker (soprano and tenor saxophones) and Derek Bailey (stereo guitar and modified 19-string guitar)

Track Listing: Mining 1. No Fear (alternate take) 2. Ah! (unedited version) 3. Ah! (alternate take) 4. Speed from the light (alternate take) 5. Speed from the light (alternate take)

Personnel: Mining: Trevor Watts (alto saxophone); Barry Guy (bass) and John Stevens (drums)