Ezz-thetics

a column by
Stuart Broomer


John Butcher, Guillaume Viltard, and Eddie Prévost                                                           © Andy Newcombe


Eddie Prévost has just released four CDs on the Matchless label, each with a different group. None is from his greatest project, AMM, but each is a significant episode in the oeuvre of a musical thinker who has explored improvisation in more dimensions than many can even recognize.

In the origins of AMM with Cornelius Cardew, Lou Gare and Keith Rowe, Prévost sought an escape from jazz ‒ its particular vocabulary and stance ‒ but his work has frequently acknowledged its tug, especially for a musician known in his youth as the “Art Blakey of Brixton.” While he has frequently used a collection of individual percussion instruments in improvisatory settings, he also has a clear relationship to the standard kit and a command of its polyrhythmic potential, a skill regularly revisited here.

 

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The most traditional of the musics heard here is the Eddie Prévost Band’s Bean Soup and Bouquets (Matchless MRCD 101), a reunion concert held at Café Oto in February 2020. The band’s years of sustained performance were the late ‘70s to early ‘80s and their last performance was in Wales in 1993. The liner note provides Prévost’s memories of the band’s stranger performance venues, including the rewards of touring West and East Germany, respectively commemorated in the CD title. There’s documentation of the band’s early work available on Matchless, but what’s remarkable about the reunion is the sustained vitality of the music the band produces given that 27-year layoff.

With bassist Marcio Mattos, trumpeter Gerry Gold and tenor saxophonist Geoff Hawkins, Prévost has reassembled a free jazz band of the first rank, a group that readily generates thematic material, that’s consistently supportive and that builds and releases tension curves with aplomb. The opening “Bean Soup” opens with just drums and bass, Prévost and Mattos establishing a ground, at once solid and fluid, on which this music can be built. Gold and Hawkins are both expressive, lyrical players possessed of energy and invention; the close listening and fireworks of the 41-minute opener would never suggest this is a reunion. The band plays in a mature idiom, reminiscent of the kinds of bands to which Ed Blackwell and Don Cherry brought such distinction, the whole moving freely in the absence of predetermined themes. Along with sustained drive and invention in support, Mattos contributes an inventive solo that begins with arco wisps and fragments from his instrument’s varied registers, eventually ceding to Prévost who gradually brings the piece to a quiet conclusion.

“Bouquets” catches fire immediately with an opening oration from Hawkins that captures the heart of the tenor tradition from R’n’B to “new thing.” Gold’s wobbling, whispering, muted trumpet speaks to a long-standing tradition of vocalic transformation, jazz as rhythmic/mythic encoded language. Prévost is a magisterial presence here, rhythmic layers pulsing with a sense of melodic direction. Towards the end of this piece, the band has found an ideal groove, splashes of melody and vocalic exchange floating over Mattos’ walking bass and Prévost’s shifting splashes of time and timbral color. It’s a classic approach that demonstrates its continuing vigor.

 

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That sense of an idiom realized doesn’t apply as directly to a couple of the other CDs in the batch, rather the musics are much more sui generis, and each achieves a special significance.

Nous (MRCD 102) presents the trio of Prévost, N. O. Moore (on electric guitar and effects) and Jason Yarde (alto and soprano saxophones and electronics) in a performance at the Vortex in February 2020. In her liner essay, Sara Ramshaw cites Moore’s description of free improvisation: it’s not “instant composition” but “social composition.” The distinction might already be argued on the basis of Moore and Yarde’s interaction on the opening “Attunement,” with Moore and Yarde each pitching and inflecting their notes directly into the other’s short, incremental phrases, elsewhere creating rhythmic near-unisons off longer phrases. Both Moore and Yarde use electronics at times and their identities seem to fuse. On “Lorelei of Music” the degree of resemblance suggests that two musicians are sight-reading a complex piece for the first time and not quite lining up, at times locking on divergent riffs and trying to match them to one another. Throughout Prévost is creating a dense kinetic field alive with possibilities, small mine explosions and exploding mines alike, flares lighting up symmetries. There’s a concluding passage in which Yarde initiates a two-note phrase that sounds like an accidental noise ‒ say a flimsy open door in a strong breeze ‒ with Moore gently reinforcing it.

The heart of Nous is a 25-minute piece called “Impossible Meaning,” which may live up to its title, but it also insists on a key element in much free improvisation and one that’s central to this group: mimesis, that is, imitation, representation or echoing. As the earlier pieces suggest, multiplicity and unison are keys for Moore and Yarde. Each explores it in the interface of the acoustic and the electronic. At times, Moore sounds like a group of aliens attached to multiple medical monitors. At another point, Yarde is either playing figures in rhythmic unison on two saxophones or using electronics to create a doubled part. In “Impossible Meaning” the two sometimes match Sharrock / Brötzmann skronk, but take it much further, both in terms of mimicry and in terms of electronics, Yarde (I think) suddenly swirling off into a strange distorted voice, quiet electronic yowls that sing out of the same netherworld as Moore’s guitar. When the tempo comes down, there are moments when the two instruments seem to be weeping in sympathy. There’s more still as the work goes on. So exaggerated is the approach that mimesis becomes a kind of two-headed monster, empathy / mockery, in an essential performance of “social composition,” invoking “nous” as “the faculty of the mind for perceiving what is true or real” and ending in a “Live or Memorex” moment that matches electronic morass against the crisp reality principle of Prévost’s cymbals. If “Impossible Meaning” had been released on its own, it could still be among the most exhaustive (and exhausting) CDs released this year.

 

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I think it’s remarkable that a musician could put out four CDs simultaneously, include one as stunning as Nous, and yet match it in quality with something utterly unalike: Iklectik Live One (MRCD 103), a 2016 performance with saxophonist John Butcher and bassist Guillaume Viltard joining Prévost for a Chinese Whispers Suite in four parts: “Electric,” “Light,” “On,” “Click.”

The trio’s music possesses something fairly rare in improvised music, a refinement bordering on elegance, a quality perhaps most deeply rooted in Viltard’s particular virtuosity, reminiscent in some sense of Barre Phillips’ playing in its ability to emit a kind of radiant calm. There’s a sense of collective self possession that allows the group to create small miracles that at first might go unnoticed. The opening “Electric” has Butcher on soprano and it introduces a surprising orientation, a refined take on a certain kind of Coltrane modality, particularly personalized in the metallic brightness of Prévost’s cymbals, Butcher’s multiphonics slipping into his lines, and the relaxation of Viltard’s descending ostinato. After an especially bright Prévost drum solo, the others return, Viltard bowing high harmonics, Prévost rolling across his toms with something of Elvin Jones’ or Rashied Ali’s signature authority, and Butcher mining multiphonic metallic grit in the lower register of his tenor. It wouldn’t be the first band I’d expect to hear paying homage by way of a late Coltrane Indian adaptation, but I also can’t imagine anyone doing it in a more original or distinctive way, Butcher sticking initially to simple motifs, then expanding with increasingly personal phrasing and varied layerings. There are moments in the drums / tenor continuum in which Butcher substitutes machine-like calm noise where the idiomatic expectation is expressionism. Constant evolution leads to a more complex weave of elements, Butcher moving rapidly from drone to isolated tones against Viltard’s momentum and Prévost’s elegant markings.

While this group can make deliberate passes at specific phases of the tradition, it also has a special collective vision. The longest piece, the 22-minute “Light,” develops a kind of rare independence. While the three will acknowledge levels of support and density, there’s also a sense in which the continuum can support radical shifts in individual roles. While Prévost and Viltard construct an intense groove, Butcher enters and leaves at will, frequently entering in new voices, different densities and altered approaches, embracing and extending the range of post-Rollins tenor approaches. At the opposite end of a continuum that begins with the kind of lock-step identification foreshadowed in the mimesis of Moore and Yarde, this trio can find concordance as if they were orbiting planets in a system lacking a central sun, virtually unresponsive to one another’s stylistic gravitational pull. There is brilliant cohesion here, but part of its genius is that there’s also a certain sense of the arbitrary, a quality that continues to develop in later tracks, the saxophone’s role sometimes extending to penny-whistle highs and granulated air.

 

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A third trio appears on High Laver Reflections (a Matchless / Earshots co-production, ME-1). Prévost is here joined by trombonist Edward Lucas and, on modular synthesizer, Daniel Kordik. The performance space might be considered a fourth performer. It’s the 12th century All Saints Church in High Laver, Essex, a resonant space that conditions each of the instruments. The opening “Chancel, Nave, Tower,” the title perhaps reflecting the placement of the musicians and certain specific distances, begins with Prévost’s almost characteristic scraped metal percussion, it’s harsh edges igniting the resonance and then softening in it. Lucas is a vocalic trombonist, bending and muffling notes before they’re further expanded and distorted amidst the stone walls. For his part, Kordik seems to be literally tuning with the church, harsh, industrial sounds assuming something of the richness of an organ. “Dried Mud Passing Trains” expands the collective sound store significantly. Prévost’s bowed cymbals and lighter metallic percussion are brighter here, while Lucas and Kordik become, in company with the room, increasingly active, the piece climaxing in a dense dialogue of rapid trombone and complementary mutated synth tones, time marked by Prévost’s more varied sounds. While Prévost returns here to the use of isolated and often metal percussion, the eschewal of the drum kit doesn’t move the group closer to the AMM dynamic but onto a track of its own.

“Peal Away” finds Lucas and Prévost initially more active, the latter turning from metal to a snare drum, with Kordik initially entering further into the quality of the space itself, finding low tones between organ and industry that magnify in the space, only later to turn to chirping noises that are close to the sphere of the trombone. Prévost’s isolated drum suggests running feet, gradually speeding up. As the work progresses, the spirit presence (also a set of physical properties) of High Laver grows stronger. High-pitched, brief emissions of sound suggest drips that will become stalagmites, and the echoes increasingly invite play, drawing the musicians into the same sonic orbit, reverberation shaping time, timbre and acoustic envelopes alike. By the time the trio reaches the brief, concluding “Crumbling Orbits,” they seem to have become a band less given to exploration or pairing off with one another or the room, more a coherent unit in a symbiotic relationship that includes All Saints.

 

© 2020 Stuart Broomer

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