Convergences, Divergences & Affinities: Further Beyond Jazz, the Second Wave of English Free Improvisation, 1973-9

By Trevor Barre
Compass Publishing

Forced to exist in a musical universe that values popularity and money over other qualities, Free Music and one particular sub set, British Improvisation, has always inhabited a unique, almost heroic area. It’s unique because most of its major stylists are instantly identifiable once they start playing; it’s heroic because a raft of UK musicians continues to inhabit the field despite mass indifference. Like Theodore H. White writing in his multi-volume The Making of the President series on American politics, Trevor Barre brings the same attention to detail as well as examining overriding trends in order to perfectly situate the musical, societal and sociological circumstances that contributed to the birth and dissemination of this music.

A worthy successor to his first book, Beyond Jazz: plink, plonk & scratch; the golden age of free music in London 1966-1972, Barre has set himself and mostly overcome a tougher task than the first in this volume, which covers an identical seven years period. By 1973 the classic era of British Free Music was already over. Pioneering figures such as Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, John Stevens and the members of AMM had made their premiere challenging musical statements, recorded historically important records and established the sub-genre in the UK and beyond. Yet a feeling of stasis still remained. By the early 1970s major British record companies, venues and media outlets had already distanced themselves from the Free Music innovators in order to follow and promote other more fashionable musics. Government subsidies that would become even more Draconian once Margaret Thatcher was elected Conservative prime minister were cut. More crucially the so-called second generation of Free players, typified in Barre’s opinion by Terry Day, Steve Beresford, David Top and Lol Coxhill, were only tangentially involved with the Free Jazz which had birthed the original pioneers. Frequently added were allusions or whole slabs of other sounds, including Folk ballads, Rock rhythms, Satirical japes, Music Hall nostalgia, Electro-acoustic impulses, pseudo-classical formality – many coupled with the textures of self-invented instruments. At times it seems concerts were as much Happenings as recitals, with ad hoc groupings predominating, and even those players who frequently collaborated taking on Pop-Punk monikers like The Recedents, the Alteration and the Four Pullovers.

At the same time as they were experimenting with new ways of creating improvising, the so-called Second Generation players and still vital First Generation had to situate themselves within larger societal changes. Some like Evan Parker and Derek Bailey with his Company initiatives, tried to interact with as many players as possible, including American avatars such as Steve Lacy and Anthony Braxton. Others moved from the easy communalism of the 1960s to more radical politics, with seemingly every tranche of political though – from left to very far left – represented. And as Barre finds by perusing the publication Musics, which in its short life was practically the improviser house organ, different factions were always ready to take off after other players for perceived slights and deviations. While multi-instrumentalist like Beresford could easily move into the fringes of the Pop Music world, others reminiscent of humorless Stalinists of the 1930s would attack fellow players for such deviations as daring to play melodies.

While this insular in-fighting was going on, more important trends were growing organically. Besides the eventual establishment of the self-help London Musicians' Collective, the idea of creating cadres of improvising players, outside the British capital, who were satisfied to resist London’s lure, was taking hold. Even more importantly was the growth of feminism and the recognition of the underlying sexism that existed and was accepted even in supposed emancipated music such as Free Improv. Articulate commentary from contemporary players such as Lindsay Cooper and the formation of the Feminist Improvising Group came about during this time. Barre must be particularly commended for devoting considerable sections of the volume to the regional and feminist situations and their possible resolution. At the same time he never lets the tracing of any one trend undermine the importance of other discussions and still leaves enough space to include piquant and informed opinions on many of the important gigs, records and musicians of the time, some of whom like Toop who seem to have vanished into academe and pure theory. An informed discography extends the many record reviews that fill the book and with no false modesty direct the reader to other more extensive treatments of many of the trends under discussion. Also like his first book Barre not only has exhaustedly hunted down strands and striations of the scene, but also refusing to reply on chronicles and memories alone, includes first-person interpretations of the era from those on the scene.

Besides lacking an index, as did Beyond Jazz, this volume’s drawback is that seemingly emboldened by too many other so-called New Journalists, the author has a tendency to inject himself a little too much into the tale. Background about his exposure to the evolving sounds, comments on performances and musicians and explanation for the non-British reader some of the peculiarities of the United Kingdom are fine. But when he becomes too arch interrupting the narrative flow to elaborate on his pet theories on numerology, his studies in psychology, the state of the National Health Service and asides about his family, the law of diminishing returns sets in. Also Barre should let more statements pass without appending frequent editor’s notes.

Hopefully all this will be rectified in his next book. For just as Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization dominated all other book about Western history from the 1930s to the 1970s, Barre’s similar expert position regarding British Improvisation should lead to future volumes.

—Ken Waxman