Festival Report:

Freedom of the City 2010
By Ken Waxman

“To Thine Self Be True” is lettered horizontally in careful script above the stage at Conway Hall in London’s Bloomsbury district, where London’s annual Freedom of the City (FOTC) festival took place May 2 and 3. Although related to the philosophy of the Ethical Society which built the edifice in 1929, the slogan can easily also be applied to five dozen or so improvisers featured at FOTC.

Organized about decade ago by saxophonist Evan Parker and AMM percussionist Eddie Prévost to showcase the city’s vibrant improvising scene, FOTC today welcomes as many tyros as veterans – and from the Continent and North America as well as the United Kingdom. Participants ranged from eccentric soprano saxophonist Lol Coxhill, 77 and American trumpeter Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith, 67, to young participants in Prévost’s weekly improv workshop and American brassman Peter Evans.

One first-class demonstration of FOTC’s mix’n’match philosophy was the set by London guitarist John Russell’s Quaqua, consisting of musicians he plays with elsewhere, but who never worked as a group. Besides Russell, pianist Chris Burns, synthesizer player Matthew Hutchinson violinist Satoko Fukuda and trumpeter Henry Lowther are British; alto saxophonist Stefan Keune is German and soundsinger Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg is from Brussels. Shifting among Russell’s licks that ranged from rhythm guitar strums to pinging twangs plus spiccato fiddle scrapes and buzzes and bell-like twitters from the synth, the ever-shifting interface made room for bursts of lyrical trumpet, unaccented air from the saxophonist – both sounds which are replicated by Hutchinson’s synthesizer – and slides, stops and strums from the piano’s internal strings created by fingers, mallets and an e-bow. Most expressive in reflecting the split-second decisions that go into group improvising was Van Schouwburg whose facial expressions contorted themselves differently whether he was soothingly lullabying, Apache yelling or duck quacking.

German vocalist Ute Wassermann was much less flamboyant but as expressive during her meeting with two British electronic manipulators – Adam Bohman and Paul Obermayer – plus percussionist Phillip Marks. Marks, a last-minute replacement for Obermayer’s FURT partner Richard Barrett, varied his output among rat-tat-tats, rim shots, snare pops and drum top rubs, leaving ample space for squeaks, crackles, hisses and reverberations from the electronics. Meanwhile Wassermann – whose vocal gymnastics ranged from mouth-widening cries and gurgles to bel-canto warbles – ensued that her improvisations were in synch with the others’ sonic shifts.

Percussion sounds were more upfront when South African Louis Moholo-Moholo and Briton Steve Noble combined behind trumpeter Smith. Although more jazz-oriented than most improvisations during FOTC’s 16 concerts, this was no Rich vs. Roach battle royal. Instead either could elaborate on any rhythm generated by the other, although Moholo-Moholo’s smacked ruffs and tympani-like resonations toughed the beat, which was nimbly redefined by Noble’s vibration of undersized cymbals on drum tops, swish through the air of what resembled palm fronds, or bongo-like pops with bare hands or wetted fingers. Blasting grace notes with a clear, bright tone or fluttering rubato through a Harmon mute, the trumpeter eventually settled on staccato and juicy bugle-like flutters after the drummers’ rhythms dislocated his sedate tongue flutters.

Smith’s musical adaptability was highlighted in two other situations: as featured soloist in a concerto backed by the 40-member London Improvisers Orchestra conducted by guitarist Dave Tucker; and as part of FOTC’s last set with clarinetist Alex Ward guitarist John Coxon, keyboardist Pat Thomas and drummer Paul Lytton.

Unlike the conductions and group improvisations that made up the remainder of the LIO’s set, which lurched from passages of controlled tutti cacophony to miniature set pieces for soloists such Charlotte Hug’s spirited, sawing violin runs or Coxhill’s understated off-centre lyricism, the Smith piece was as interconnected as Gil Evans’ arrangements for Miles Davis. Unruffled, Smith splintered timbres that floated as often as they popped, isolating his textures from the riffing reeds, lowing brass and the clamber let loose when three drummers, two electric guitars, two pianists, a vibraphonists and three electronics manipulators polyphonically sound simultaneously.

Before Smith and crew wrapped things up, other notable meetings included a set by the Stellari String Quartet of violinists Hug and Philipp Wachsmann, cellist Marcio Mattos and bassist John Edwards whose layered textures demonstrated that intersecting and combining well-designed arco and pizzicato run extends classic string ensemble strategies into atonality and multiphonics, while retaining moments of lyricism; and the duet between tenor and soprano saxophonist John Butcher and percussionist Mark Sanders. Switching from one horn to the other, and utilizing staccato pops, gravelly tones and a wide, round mouth vibrato, Butcher’s elongated flutters, reed bites, slaps and flutters enlivened the duet either mid-range, barely there or fortissimo. Meanwhile Sanders clattered, slapped and shook different parts of his kit, at one point stabilizing the interaction with military precision, anther not only whapping a small bell and wood block, but using them instead of sticks on drum tops.

Percussionist rather than drummer, Prévost played in two formations, most notably eschewing the standard kit for an enormous gong and ancillary cymbals in a set with baritone saxophonist David O’Connor, violinist Jennifer Allum and Grundik Kasyansky on electronics. With the saxman expelling high intensity, tongue slaps and fortissimo yelps; the fiddler striking her strings with the bow’s frog when not scrubbing them, and Kasyansky dislocating time with bursts of static, crackles and snatches of processed voices, Prévost maintained equilibrium, by sawing upon the gong or rubbing squeaking timbres from the tempered metal.

Parker played in a unique trio filled out by cellist Okkyung Lee and Evans – who used piccolo and regular trumpet in a solo set that opened FOTC; puffing, vocalizing, screaming and even melodiously sounding his horn(s) with effects and to spectacular effect. With Lee’s connective ostinato underneath, Evans’ phenomenal brass command was matched and reined in by Parker on tenor and soprano saxophone, demonstrating the ease in which tone splintering, circular breathing and flutter tonguing could be amplified with lyrical twitters and peeps. In double counterpoint the horn players both exercised super-fast tonguing or built gurgles, puffs and tongue clacks into a satisfying textural display.

Also satisfying was the concluding quintet set. Mixing metallic twang from Coxon’s guitar, a combination of breakneck piano runs plus jagged synthesizer pumps from Thomas and the steady clatter and cymbal scratches from Lytton, the developing stop-time improvisation finally reached a point of layered cacophony. But this wasn’t before Ward extended the sound palate from his purposely whiny lines and altissimo screams by blowing into his unattached mouthpiece. Meanwhile Smith used vibrato buzzes to propel soaring high-pitched triplets over the others’ sounds.

Told after the climatic finale that there was only time for a short tune, Smith theatrically unleashed a curt flourish of brassy insouciance and led the others off stage. Adding a particular brand of Yankee showmanship to the proceedings and confirming the slogan above the stage, the trumpeter summed up the proceedings and set the stage for future FOTCs.

— For All About Jazz – New York June 2010