July 28, 2010
The Early Years
Ping Pong 003
Calling Signals 08
From Café Oto
Loose Torque No #
Perhaps it’s an example of the dry sense of humor that those in the United Kingdom are supposed to possess, but less than five years separate the fine trio improvisations featuring saxophonist Lol Coxhill on The Early Years from the equally stirring quartet improvisations with Coxhill and Norwegian reedist Frode Gjerstad in the front line.
If earlier in this century are “early years” what about the prior career of Coxhill, which in improvised music dates from the late 1960s and professionally from the 1950s – and who sometimes seems to have played with absolutely every musician in the UK and the Continent? His associates on the disc, drummer Steve Noble, who was involved with jazz and improvised music by the early 1980s with Rip, Rag and Panic among others; and bassist John Edwards was committed to the sound at a similar juncture, at first with the Pointy Birds and B-shops for The Poor..
Coxhill’s confreres on the other disc, who make up Calling Signals 08, aren’t tyros either. Bassist Nick Stephens was playing with drummer John Stephens in the 1970s as did Gjerstad in the 1980s. Only Norwegian percussionist Paal Nilssen-Love is young enough is to have “early years”, and he was working with top improvisers such as Gjerstad by the time he was in his late teens. Maybe the answer is that, unlike pop musicians who need such a large amount of studio boosting and engineering help that they can only release discs every few years – or decades – improvisers possess such a high level of talent and technique that, especially with new technology, means they can put out numerous discs annually Like reverse dog years, perhaps improv sessions are so numerous, that one from five years ago can literally be The Early Years.
Nomenclature aside, both of these CDs offer impressive playing. From Café Oto is a live situation, so Calling Signals 08 plays one long and one gargantuan track. The Coxhill/Edwards/Noble trio is a studio date, so The Early Years is made up of nine improvisations, only one of which breaks the 10-mimute mark. Perfectly matched, The Early Years’ trio members operate in triple counterpoint, where the resulting polyphony depends on each man’s techniques.
For instance, the concluding “Endgame” is a pseudo-blues built up with Noble’s backbeat, rim shots and cymbal sizzles as well as Edwards’ percussive string slaps plus Coxhill’s repeated tongue trills and split tones which become multiphonic as the piece progresses. With the bass-drum interaction primarily swinging and rhythmic, the saxophonist maintains edginess with kinetic corkscrew cries and tongue slaps. The connective tension exhibited here is noticeable as early as “Episode No. 1”, with friction created by Edwards’ sul ponticello scrubs and Coxhill’s reed bites finally dissipated by bass drum thumps. Climax occurs in the contrast between the bassist’s physically challenging pace and the saxman’s curved, intense vibrato.
This triple-barreled improvising continues throughout, as the players use either col legno string extensions, percussion flams, ruffs and clatter or altissimo reed squeals to make their point(s). Coxhill may twitter what could be a chromatic Bop lick on “Hook Point”, but whether by accident or on purpose is another question. The session isn’t all unrelieved intensity however, as most tracks include contrasting breaks. On “Out of the Past” for instance the drummer’s thick rolls and rebounds give way to gentle bell-ringing; the bull fiddler’s flashing flanging is allayed by string stops and shakes; while the saxophonist’s dog-whistle range textures are mitigated by steady, chromatic blasts.
Similarly, near-legato interludes exist on From Café Oto. But layers of kinetic friction are even more prominent, especially on the over 43-minute “Communication Two”. Coxhill’s improvising is no less staccatissimo or stentorian than it was five years previously, while the bass strategies from Stephens are at least as technically adroit as Edwards’ work on The Early Years. However Nilssen-Love who frequently works the kit for hard-blowing saxophonists such as Peter Brötzmann or Mats Gustafsson appears to rag his percussion with more muscle and dynamics during this live date. Meanwhile Gjerstad, who for years was Norway’s only acknowledged atonal improviser, constantly appears to be making up for lost time by blasting rough multiphonics through his alto saxophone and clarinets.
Very shortly after the improvisation’s exposition, Gjersatd’s woody clarinet tone ratchets up a notch to reed-biting, with descending tonal slaps from Stephens as his seconder, as Nilssen-Love’s cross pulses and pops back up Coxhill’s soprano saxophone shrieks. While Stephens continues thumping alongside, the saxophonist’s tone narrows to ney-like, adding slippery trills and tapering puff, while the clarinetist introduces guttural snorts and tongue stops. As another development moves the pace from allegro to andante, the percussionist kicks his bass drum to extend the speed. In the interim, downward-rolling clarinet split tones and soprano saxophone whines squeeze the narrative while maintaining chromaticism in the face of rhythmic cacophony. Pauses plus clanking cymbals signal a further discursive move, with the theme pitch-sliding to moderato, punctuated by spetrofluctuation and flutter-tonguing from Coxhill plus clarinet tone squeezes and snorts. The drummer’s parade-ground beat coupled with roiled double bass string thumps signal another variation, which also matches mid-range slurps and peeps from Gjerstad with almost-painful strident licks from Coxhill. Eventually a conclusive variant finds the two horns accelerating from double-tonguing and glossolalia to a solid drone of almost Aylerian intonation, then shrinking to constructed peeps, as Stephens plucks and bumps his strings and Nilssen-Love varies his percussive texture with snaps, pops and rolls.
Whether you prefer sessions of improvisation be all-encompassing 3-D styled extravaganzas or would like them to evolve with the brevity of a multi-episode, TV mini series, you’ll find much to like on each of these CDs.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Early: 1. Tijuana rendezvous 2. Episode no. 1 3.Coming through 4. Hook Point 5. The Set Up 6. Stray Dog 7. Out of the Past 8. 3 Tales 9.Endgame
Personnel: Early: Lol Coxhill (soprano saxophone); John Edwards (bass) and Steve Noble (drums)
Track Listing: Café: 1. Communication One 2. Communication Two
Personnel: Café: Frode Gjerstad (alto saxophone, clarinet and alto clarinet); Lol Coxhill (soprano saxophone); Nick Stephens (bass) and Paal Nilssen-Love (percussion)