Tony Oxley

A Birthday Tribute: 75 years
Incus CD 63

A superior if somewhat inconsistent homage to British master drummer Tony Oxley for his 75th birthday, this CD concentrates more on his skills as accompanist and pioneering electro-acoustic musician than his breakthroughs as someone who worked out a new style for percussion in Free Music.

Oxley’s new drumming concepts in the mid-1960s moved him from being an in-demand London-based Bopper to early experiments with guitarist Derek Bailey and later long-time associations with pianist Cecil Taylor and trumpeter Bill Dixon. However A Birthday Tribute: is a bit patchy, since the five live tracks match two 1993 improvisations by the drummer, Bailey, keyboardist Pat Thomas and sampler player Matt Wand with three 1977 selections with different players. Using amplified percussion as opposed to an un-electrified set on the first numbers, Oxley plays one number alone, one with the late trombonist Paul Rutherford, whose horn is similarly electrified, and the longest with the still-very-active violinist Phillip Wachsmann plus guitarist Ian Brighton, who seems to have vanished from the scene.

Retreating to distant pops, thwacks and slides, Oxley is pretty much in the background during the 1993 numbers, with the emphasis mostly on Bailey and Thomas. Hyper-distinctive as he melds the clank of 1930s-style rhythm guitar lines with the snap of unexpected tonal formations, Bailey’s statements create a space for themselves whenever they appear. For his part Thomas succeeds in latterly adding piano clip keys to join with Bailey’s harsh twangs to set the pace for the final sequences. Before that, he enlivens the interface with signal processing, buzzing oscillations and harsh flanges. Wand’s samples playa similar tincture-creating role as Thomas’. But two decades on the novelty of weaving snatches of radio-sourced semi-classical music, plumy announcer tones and the posed question: “what kind of policing do you want?” into an improv seem to have lost their sharp point. Eventually, as the contrasts and resonations toughen on the aptly named “Colour Fields”, a satisfying conclusion is stitched together that’s equal parts outer-space-like whooshes from the plugged in instruments and conclusive hard strums from Bailey.

Sixteen years earlier both Rutherford and Oxley were in the process of matching wave forms with split tones. Although the trombonist’s tongue-twisting multiphonics are able to output expanded timbres as well as a jittery continuum, even when matched with the drummer’s percussion-pushed processes, the result was more in the form of an experiment than a finished statement. Texturally Oxley appears to be more in control on “The Earth Sounds” with Wachsmann and Brighton. Again with a descriptive title, “The Earth Sounds” reaches its crescendo as Oxley’s cymbal clashes and buzzes ricochet across the sound field to join wood and metal rasps from the string players. Seeming splitting asunder his fiddle’s wood as he saws away the violinist makes the strongest impression. Eventually rhythms from all concerned combine into a chugging, buzzing finale that’s invigorating if lacking needed emotion.

As a salute to Oxley’s skills, A Birthday Tribute: 75 years, will be welcomed by those who have long followed the percussionist’s career and those hungering for distinctive British Free Music. But regrettably it won’t be able to define for the newbie what has made the drummer’s playing pace-setting over many years.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Colour Fields 2. Urban Forms 3. Kelson 4. The Earth Sounds 5. Times

Personnel: Tracks 1, 2: Derek Bailey (guitar); Pat Thomas (keyboards); Matt Wand (sampler) and Tony Oxley (drums and percussion); Track 3: Paul Rutherford (trombone and electronics) and Oxley (amplified percussion); Track 4: Phillip Wachsmann (violin); Ian Brighton (guitar) and Oxley (amplified percussion); Track 5: Oxley (percussion and electronics)