Festival Report:

Freedom of the City 2011
By Ken Waxman

Electronics, percussion and home-made instruments were prominently featured in many contexts during London’s annual Freedom of the City (FOTC) festival, April 30 to May 2. In spite of this, some outstanding performances involved the hyper-traditional piano or saxophone.

A snapshot of contemporary, mostly European, creative music, FOTC encompassed sounds as different as electronic processing from the likes of Adam Bohman and Lawrence Casserley; rarefied ensemble minimalism; unabashed free jazz from saxophonist Lionel Garcin’s and pianist Christine Wodrascka’s quartet; an entire evening devoted to the massive London Improvisers Orchestra (LIO); and pianist John Tilbury’s and bassist Michael Duch’s interpretations of Cornelius Cardew and Morton Feldman compositions.

Despite his air of sangfroid Catalan pianist Agustí Fernández created some of FOTC’s most emotional music during his solo set. Alternately tremolo and kinetic or gentled and understated, his cascading reverberations were produced from both inside and outside the piano frame. Repetitive, mid-range timbres were scratched on the inner harp or resulted from locked hands or forearm chording on the keyboard, with pedal pressing and bass clef ostinatos intensifying much of the vigor.

Accompanied by fellow Gauls Garcin, bassist Guillaume Viltard and British percussionist Tony Marsh, Wodrascka’s keyboard command was also outstanding. With patterned chording, positioned arpeggios and wide-ranging dynamics she maintained a high velocity narrative within an interface that, when the bassist struck his bow’s frog on the strings, the saxophonist tongue-slapped and the drummer thumped his sticks, seemed overwhelmingly percussive. Marsh’s shuffles and beats were normally unobtrusive, while Viltard’s sul tasto spanks involved the back as much as the front of the bass. Moving among soprano, alto and tenor saxophones, at points Garcin’s tones were almost identical to Viltard’s stops, elsewhere he projected aviary slurs, reed bites and stuttering reflux.

London’s John Butcher on soprano and tenor saxophone, in a trio with Berliners, percussionist Tony Buck and pianist Magda Mayas, and Oxford’s Tony Bevan playing bass saxophone in a duo with Orphy Robinson on steel drum, bells and marimbula, created more reed prestidigitation. As subtle as Garcin was strident, Butcher’s tessitura varied from chalumeau blows to coloratura circular breathing. Evolving in parallel to these vibrations, Buck’s cymbal scrapes and rim-shots revealed unique dissonance when paired with Mayas’ vibrations strings. Her marimba-like sounds resulted from see-sawing a wire among the piano’s internal strings or banging the instrument’s innards while pressing solidly on its pedals.

Manipulating his mammoth sax with the finesse of someone playing a recorder, Bevan spluttered out diaphragm vibrations that reflected the instrument’s ground-shaking power. It wasn’t all elephantine bellowing however. Supple breath and lip movement allowed for high-pitched staccato breaks and melodies puffed out with tenor saxophone-like facility and tone. Updating his simple instruments’ timbres, Robinson used them not as beat makers, but color-spreaders, resonating pliable vibrations and grace notes from the giant thumb-piano and staccato echoes from the steel drum.

An even wider range of unusual percussion textures was created in a first-time meeting of Steve Noble playing snare, cymbal and Chinese gong, and Paul Abbott using a self-invented collection of drums, cymbals, thunder sheet, different-sized speakers and a mixing board. Replicating the backbeat most drummers need a full kit to produce, Noble struck a small gong for emphasis, rubbed a cymbal onto his snare top, chafed drum heads with tambourines or used mallets to hammer an even smaller cymbal on a drum. Not only did he tap on drum rims, but cymbal sides as well. For his part Abbott responded with a looping electronic drone, interrupted only occasionally by feedback generated by enveloping a small speaker with a hollow floor tom.

In context, the playing of Robinson and Abbott offered more shading than that of France’s Toma Gouband. With a horizontal bass drum as a pedestal, he smashed together or smacked singly with drumsticks or a foot pedal a variety of rocks, stones and bricks, eventually hammering then with leafy tree branches.

Among other appealing uses of electronics was from the duo of veteran Cassidy, signal processing with keyboard and ipad, and young American bassist Adam Linson; plus a power trio made up of Bohman’s amplified objects, Pat Thomas’ synthesizer and Martin Hackett’s electronics. With signal-processed oscillations swelling in power while becoming more granular, Casserley’s strident and abstract textures created a context for Linson’s improvisations which often encompassing col legno sweeps and handfuls of strings pressed simultaneously. At some instances Casserley’s processes amplified bass thumps so that they sounded like marbles striking an unyielding surface; in others the bow movement and triggered sequences were indistinguishable. It was a credit to both players’ innate musicality that the oscillations helped the bassist’s narrative move forward.

Multiplying Casserley’s processes by three, arriving from different sound sources, gives an idea of the Bohman/Thomas/Hackett interface. With his synthesizer pre-programmed, Thomas improvised on the keyboard with free-jazz inflected glissandi, finger jabs and low-frequency vibrations that were somehow melodic at points. Hackett’s rising and falling ostinato cemented the triple connections, although occasionally interrupted by zigzagging outer-space-like whistling. With his table filled with miscellaneous gadgets including a water goblet and a light bulb, Bohman was the image of mad scientist at work even when he produced dense foghorn buzzes. This impression was intensified when he created the sets most stentorian moment, crossing wires for protracted feedback.

Those near-human cries emanating from Bohman’s electronics were paralleled by the retching, burbling, cawing, crying and other vocal extensions of Phil Minton, alongside German drummer Martin Blume and local cellist Marcio Mattos. Spasmodically jerking in his chair as his parlando encompassed mouth-and-throat extensions as characteristic as an old man’s wheeze, a young woman’s whispers and Bedlam shrieks, Minton’s individualized yowls made perfect sense in a concordance that included the cellist’s splayed plucks as well as the percussionist making points by smacking a bass drum, a cow bell and even a hollow wooden box. Minton’s vocalizing was better served in this context than the harmonies he directed from his eight-person, one-child, and one seeing-eye-dog Feral Singers which performed during an LIO interval. Like the orchestra itself, an all-star collection of top improvisers, the effect of both ensembles was that too many imaginative ideas were being offered up too quickly and too frequently from too many players, without proper differentiation or enough time to digest the individual creations.

Although billions throughout the world watched another event taking place in London that weekend: the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, FOTC remained an almost completely royalty-free zone. That is except for the sardonic comments of versatile trombonist Gail Brand. Flanked by drummer Mark Sanders’ subtle and clean technique and pianist Veryan Weston’s delicate clanking and busy chording, she climaxed a spectacular set by verbalizing her views. After slide-extended squeaks and snorts, sibilant tongue flutters, and long-breaths punctuated by the use of different mutes, she muttered “I hate the royal family”. Brand averred that she was further inconvenienced by city travel restrictions in place for crowd control during the days preceding the wedding. Luckily with FOTC, this audience could bypass those distractions to attend a notable musical happening.

—For New York City Jazz Record June 2011