On Screen

Taking The Dog for a Walk: Conversations with British Improvisers
A film by Antoine Prum

By Ken Waxman

Part travelogue, part history, part performance and part philosophy, Taking the Dog for a Walk is the definitive portrait of British Free Improvisation. Yet from the first sequence showing drummer Mark Sanders improvising alongside a bingo caller, the genre’s sardonic humor implicit in isn’t neglected either – note the vintage clip of Lol Coxhill and other improvisers in zoot suit disguise playing at a beach resort.. Even the title references the hoary jape that three men and a dog was BritImprov’s typical audience.

Encompassing discussions with more than 20 players and informed observers of the scene, interspaced with key performances at London clubs, the film proves that BritImprov is a constantly evolving sound which now involves three generations of players. Reminiscences about drummer John Stevens’ and guitarist Derek Bailey’s mid-‘60s experiments at the Little Theatre club – with accompanying period photos – are given their due. But like stories about Minton’s 1945 bebop sessions which have assumed Homeric proportions, observers counter that the scene didn’t begin and end there. Although veterans like percussionist Eddie Prévost describe how the music initially evolved as a white, British response to the free jazz of Black Americans, drummer Roger Turner posits that the infamous description of BritImprov as hushed “insect music” came about because many of the pioneers lived in bed-sits with neighbors all around. Free music’s infuriating) acknowledgement of musical failure, accepting that every performance can’t be perfect, is also mentioned with pride by many including bassist John Edwards. Drummer Steve Noble also quarrels with those who call the sounds “self-indulgent”. Self-indulgence, he says, is rehearsing and putting on the same show every time. The most profound difference between the first and second generation of free improvisers and the younger third is the interpolation of rock, reggae, electronic, noise and notated sounds into the genre.

Unexpectedly, except for the frequently cited Bailey (1930-2005), who attempted to never play anything but improvised music, Dog’s archetypical figure may be Alex Ward. Someone equally proficient twining hushed abstract clarinet lines with soprano saxophonist Coxhill as playing scorching noise guitar with Edwards and Noble, he along with other young players, demonstrates in speech and performance that UK free improv has an exciting future as well as a storied past. This package also contains another DVD with extended interviews with some of the participants plus a Ward/Edwards/Noble performance CD.

—For The New York City Jazz Record November 2015