Conversation Pieces

Stewart Lee Talks with British Improvisers at Just Not Cricket!

Rhodri Davies, Eddie Prévost + Stewart Lee                                        ©2013 NI-VU-NI-CONNU Productions

Stewart Lee interviewed the 16 musicians who participated in Just Not Cricket!, a three-day festival of British improvised music held in Berlin in October 2011. A four-LP box of selected performances from the festival is now available on NI-VU-NI-CONNU. The performances and interviews were filmed by Antoine Prum, who directed Sunny’s Time Now, a 2008 documentary on Sunny Murray. Prum’s film of Just Not Cricket! is scheduled to be released in late 2013.

Stewart Lee: Okay, how about this for starters ... You’d be the person to ask, Trevor – I mean, you were in when the terms were being defined, weren’t you? You helped set the tone?

Trevor Watts: Yes, partly. There was a kind of crossover between the jazz-influenced improvised music and ... I suppose Steve came along and started doing ... Am I right in this?

Steve Beresford: What did I start doing?

Watts: Well, I’m saying you didn’t have so much of a jazz influence ...

Beresford: Oh, that’s true!

Watts: You kind of cut with that. I’m obviously quite a bit older. When I was a young man there wasn’t any improvised music. The only thing was stuff like jazz, so that’s the thing that influenced me the most. That is why we first started playing jazz-oriented music. Then I think I could blame John Stevens for the start of improvised music. He came in one day – I think we’d been away to Denmark and we’d been playing ... like the music on Challenge, which is arrangements, a bit like Eric Dolphy, or Coltrane-inspired stuff – and he said: “We’re not going to play any of that shit anymore. We’re going to play this!” It was then that he started suggesting that people like Evan and myself should join in on the music. I took it, eventually, that he was trying to get us to play like he was sticking the drums ... like the conversational language from his drums that we were all trying to play. I do firmly believe that this is the beginning of Evan’s style, the beginning of the kind of stuff that I play, which is more pointillistic ...

Lee: So there were rules in place. Did you feel rules or suggestions of practice? Did you feel obliged to follow them or ...

Beresford: ... or break them?

Lee: Or break them, yes. What was the correct thing to do?

Beresford: That’s a hard one.

Lee: I just read a quote from you somewhere in about 1974, where you said you thought technique was overrated. I’m sure it’s out of context and you were trying to ...

Beresford: It was very out of context! I think I was trying to talk about re-defining technique. Interestingly, Martin Davidson has just put out the first improvised music record I was ever on, which was called Teatime, with Dave Solomon, John Russell, etc. When I listen to it now it’s quite clear that we were fairly – in an organised way – avoiding jazz clichés, generally speaking. I certainly was. I can hear myself avoiding clichés all the time on that record.

Lee: But in a way, they’re still evident because you’re making an effort to turn away from them ...

Steve Beresford: Exactly, yes. But at the same time ... I saw Trevor and John. They were playing extraordinarily stripped-down music. I mean there’s the ... what’s that piece called, Trevor?

Watts: “Click Piece.”

Beresford: It was the one where you just played short notes ...

Watts: That was the “Click Piece.”

Beresford: The version that I’m thinking of only came out recently. Basically, Trevor only plays one pitch staccato note irregularly, and John only plays a wood block for the first five minutes of that piece. It’s nothing to do with jazz as we know it.

Lee: But it swings?

Beresford: But it swings like the clappers. I was playing this to The Wire Symposium – I was telling Trevor – and there was absolute dead silence and people would listen to it with incredible attention, and it’s a very, very beautiful performance. But to me, apart from Kenny Clark etc., the touchstones with John were Ba-Benzélé pygmy music and Webern – those were the two things that seemed to me where that stuff was coming from.

Lee: How does that make you feel in relation to the jazz tradition?

Rhodri Davies: I don’t really care about it to be honest. I love listening to jazz and free jazz especially, but it’s not something that I really engage with musically, in my own playing. It’s their loss in a way, the fact that they are so blinkered and un-open to other possibilities, and I suppose that’s what I’m interested in – finding alternatives to the dominant trend or the heavy weight of a tradition in classical music, or even in jazz, or within improvised music itself ... there’s a long history of it now.

Eddie Prévost: It needs to be refreshed and people need to escape from those kinds of responses. It’s plagiarism to some extent if you’re not careful, of course, and you could plagiarise yourself, which is also a problem. I’m a great jazz fan and I would love to see really refreshed free jazz, but it has become formulaic. Even if you were an admirer, you have to acknowledge that that’s what’s happened. Often it’s happened because some of the more established free jazz players are asked to do fairly prestigious gigs and they have to deliver.

Lee: Is there a difference with some of the first wave of sixties’ free improvisers who had a background in being in pit bands and variety shows, or who were more from Vaudeville almost? Were they more like entertainers?

Prévost: There are only a few who were ever like that. I suppose most of the first generation had some experience in jazz, of course ... I think Derek was the one who was in the pit, in the dance band thing, and a lot of the others actually joined the army to get their hands on instruments, or the RAF. So it was a mixed bag. Evan, for example, decided to study biology, until he gave it all up and decided to just concentrate on the saxophone. So there are various ways into this music.

Lee: In the sixties you were ... I don’t want to gloss up what it is that you did, but was it a response to the energy and innovation of American jazz, but trying to make it different? Trying to make it something distinctly European, or British, or just new?

Prévost: I’d characterise it this way: we were in our early twenties, we were inspired by some of the freer jazz that was coming out, and there were two realisations: one is that we were white young English men living in London in 1960, and a lot of things that we admired were coming from mainly black players in Chicago or New York, maybe three or four years before in some cases, New Jazz ... Suddenly they gave you a sense that you could disobey, and you were given the permission to disobey in a weird way. So there was the realisation that we needed to find a music which represented ourselves in our time and our place. That was quite a strong motivation ...

Lee: I don’t think there’s any area of the arts where you see the disparity so greatly as in free improvisation – between the acknowledgment from a certain type of critic done is absolutely amazing, and the lack of obvious commercial application for it. Was it easier then?

Prévost: When you say “commercial application” – the only way that we can engage with any commercial application of our work is via a promoter booking us, so in a sense it all goes back to that. There are clearly many curators, or promoters, or whatever they want to be called these days, who don’t see a significant amount of interest in what we do to make that a viable possibility. ... My suggestion is that there aren’t many curators who have actually thought through what this music actually might mean – to make it a worthwhile cultural experience and to promote it in its own terms. They always want it to have that little bit of pizzazz: you’ve got to have personality, you’ve got to have the accoutrements that go with showbiz, if you like. That’s what it comes down to. If they’d actually dig deep and see what this music might mean ... And it can be no accident that there are hundreds of young people playing this music. And there are easier ways of getting involved with music than doing this stuff. And there are maybe more opportunities to make a partial living from it if you’re lucky. So there is something about the music itself that is worthwhile.

Lee: It seems to me that this music asks questions. It’s often about a process of working things out. As a fan it’s exciting because you don’t know what’s going to happen. All of those things are not what mass entertainment is about, because that’s about certainties, projecting certainties to the back of a big room, and about being able to give people a guarantee that things will happen within certain parameters. So it’s hard to know, in a way, how bigger promoters can deal with that [music]; it’s almost got an inbuilt resistance to commodification, hasn’t it?

Davies: It’s not repeatable either. That’s a big thing about marketing something – that you can repeat it somewhere else and do it again. Obviously it’s going to be different; by its very nature, it’s going to be different.

Prévost: We live in a culture where access to this music is mostly accidental for most people.

Lee: It was accidental for me.

The unrepeatable nature of it is particularly interesting. You talk about the unrepeatable nature of the performances, and I think that’s really important now, because we live in a culture where consumers of art expect to be able to download it immediately. Every single thing is now available via YouTube or the Internet, and what isn’t available is these performances, because they will be different every night. It’s not a thing that can be re-delivered, and you have to be there to get the most out of it. I think that’s really exciting for people now – to go and see something that isn’t going to be the same every night and that isn’t something that can be cross-platformed into different media.

Prévost: I agree and I think you’re right. I think people intuit this more than they recognise it immediately. When we’re playing, this is what’s happening: people coming together without any prearranged ideas about exactly how they are going to deal with their own material and how they are going to deal with the people they are playing with. You set up a very different sort of relationships, which I think you could project onto a wider community as being a more worthwhile way of doing things with other people than the normal way of doing things, which is normally somebody doing something to somebody else rather than somebody doing something with somebody else.

Trevor Watts + Steve Beresford                                                         ©2013 NI-VU-NI-CONNU Productions

Lee: Once it’s gone, it’s gone, and you can’t necessarily file it away, you can’t store it, you can’t go back to it. You can if it’s been recorded, but even then it’s not something that can be tinkered with. Do you strive for moments that will be unrepeatable? Which are only about that time?

Gail Brand: No, because you’d end up sounding clichéd. You’d be affecting the language of improvised music, not playing it. You can hear that a lot, perhaps, in how a lot of younger musicians are approaching free improvisation. They’re affecting the language of free, but they are not really playing free, because they are trying to play free. If you are trying to play free, then it’s almost like you are trying on clothes that don’t fit very well. Something either looks good on you or it doesn’t. I think it’s the same with improvised music – you’re working it out as you go along, and if it doesn’t work, then there we are.

Lee: Yet it does seem to me – I’ve noticed it more being here for two days, because normally I go to a gig and go home – like you are all part of a community of people who know each other?

Orphy Robinson: I think there is a lot more of a sort of openness and togetherness. When I first came into the scene, and even before then, I would go to gigs and speak to people – it’s very open. Every month you would go to see something, and there are new people, there are different instruments, there’s different ways of playing things, there’s all this discussion, musical discussion. Frequencies and silences and space ... I find that really interesting, and it captivates you.

Lee: This might sound romantic as an outsider looking in on it, but does the fact that you have to find a way of communicating on stage mean that the wider community is good at supporting each other?

Beresford: I think there is a musical discussion going on, particularly in London. But I think people tend to talk more about music in different scenes. I’ve certainly heard of people having three-hour discussions about a particular note somebody played ... and that wasn’t in London, it was in another place. We don’t do that. But I think Orphy’s right, I think that what happens is that this gets negotiated as part of the music, and I think that’s a very important part of improvised music – that you do negotiate those things.

Robinson: It’s a corny thing to say, but I love the freedom, I just absolutely love the freedom. It was almost like ... I was explaining to someone, it was like in football, Holland had this thing, it was “Total Football,” where they would change positions and do everything – it’s like that, it feels like that.

Lee: Total Football!

Robinson: Yes, and then when I’m in a moany mood about straight jazz, I’ll say, “Look, it’s like they have the same conversations over and over and over again ... What’s that about?” I just want camaraderie and just this ... coming over to other countries and listening to how people approach whatever they’re doing and how they’re doing it. There is just something amazing about that.

Matthew Bourne: I don’t think any of us decided to go out and put on a show or anything like that. Speaking for myself, when I first got into jazz, I went and saw Dave Brubeck at the Barbican, and the first thing that I was troubled by or that I noticed as the concert went on, was that there was this great difference between the audience and the front row. I mean it was this huge hall and there were these four guys on this huge stage, and the whole rigmarole of the way they walked on ...

And sure, he made some announcements, and then he’d shine his shoes, and after the gig, too, you had to queue up to get your autograph ... I mean Dave Brubeck is a very famous man, that’s a given, but for me there was something … And when I started to go and see more concerts, there was this same rigmarole and I just thought, “Why is this? Why do we have these conventions and where have they come from?” When I started to get into performing and get comfortable with what I did, somewhere in the back of my mind I thought, “Whatever I do, I want to try and bring the audience closer.”

Lee: People are sceptical about free improvisation and think it’s a load of noise, but they can see a man at work when they see you.

John Edwards: I said this to someone as well ... It’s funny you said it, because just recently I was in Switzerland in some workshop talking about it, and that is kind of important to me – it’s like a job. It’s a job. You’re working and it is hard.

Lee: It looks like you’ve done work at the end of it.

Edwards: For me anyway, if I don’t work, if I don’t put a load in, if I don’t think about it and put myself through a load of unnecessary stuff ... There was one of these brilliant, brilliant students who was saying, “What do you aim for at a gig?” and I remember starting off by saying, “In some ways I don’t aim to achieve anything. I’m not trying to get beautiful music, we’re not trying to ‘succeed’. In fact, one of the things is being able to accept failure.” I get so tired of aiming for the top, and then? So once you make it, then there’s no point in doing it ...? When I feel really good about a gig, it’s not always because the music is really good, or I sounded great, or it fitted in nicely. It’s very often just like, “Yeah, I feel like we’ve really tried.” We’re working, you know. Although probably the most important thing at the end of the gig is if I feel we’ve made a connection in our own little world, if we’ve made our community out there. However many of us there are, if we’ve been really tuned in together, then I’m really happy.

Lee: There are two things about that. One is that it’s really interesting that you said it could be about failing as well – like a heroic failure to try and achieve something that didn’t happen. This seems to be such an anathema to the way most musical entertainment works. People want to feel that they’ve seen an idea, “value for money,” and with free improvisation it will be the type of person that goes, “Oh, they were just making it up!,” as if that’s a sort of trick or something.

Edwards: Or, “It just don’t count,” that was the old thing.

Lee: Is that one of the special things about free improvisation now – that each event is unique rather than something that is stored away and left? Does that seem more important now?

Edwards: Well, I should think it does now with the technologies, because everything is so geared up for digital. They’re digitalising everything, whether it’s music or other stuff. It seems more important now, more than ever. Everything is made digitally – whether it’s these cameras, or things recorded, or music, it’s all dependent on less than one-millionth of a micron of dust per millimetre of cubic space. So all of that’s going on – okay, its great stuff to use, I use computers everyday – but it is very easy to forget about the dirt. I like the dirt.

Brand: I think it’s brilliant that Trevor Watts is here, because he was part of the group of people that brought the music here – that whole ideology of coming out of a post-war National Service and coming to the UK from hearing jazz in Germany. The Germans heard American jazz and they did National Service, and then they came to London and started playing what they wanted, as more free improvised music. I think it was informed by communist principles as well.

It’s interesting that someone like Paul Rutherford was a Communist, and he played music that didn’t have an obvious leader. It was supposed to be ego-less music in the sense that it started subverting this idea that people have, that a jazz quartet is supposed to be a horn with a rhythm section, while actually the best jazz I’ve heard was when it was a collective experience. A lot of improvisers might say that they are just in it for the music, but I think there’s always a political edge to it. You’re always playing the music because you’ve got something to say that no one else is saying.

Lee: What I’ve noticed here – and I’d never thought of it before because I only ever go to one gig, but it’s really obvious to me now – is how you’re all part of an extended community, because you all play with each other in different combinations. It’s not as if you’re alone and having to worry about whether you’re doing the right thing. You do kind of get this support network ... I’m gesturing over there, which is where the bar is ... I mean there appear to be a lot of free improvisers who like drinking a lot in different towns ...

What about audiences? The female comics on the stand-up circuit say they are very aware, they feel that the audience’s heart sinks when a woman is brought on and that they’ve got to defeat expectations which are unfounded anyway.

Brand: I have never had anyone come up to me and say, “I was hugely disappointed to see a woman walk on stage, but then, lo, you blew my expectations!”

Lee: Well, female comics get that. They come up to them and go ...

Brand: Well, because apparently women aren’t funny. I think maybe they see a woman with a trombone, and as soon as you see a woman with a trombone ...

Lee: ... you think speciality act!

Brand: Yes!

Lee: There’s going to be ducks coming out next or something ...

Brand: I think the worst thing people say to you is, “Oh, you must have a big pair of lungs!,” or, “Did they make you play that at school?” – that sort of rubbish, really. You do have people saying things like, “Oh, you can play that, can’t you?,” with a particular tone of surprise in their voice. I’ve never had any musicians think any less of me than they would of a man.

Lee: When you look at photos of the free improvisation scene in the seventies, it’s a load of guys with pints, in those old glasses with all the mottled effects on them, smoking fags in places. It does look like a men’s club.

Brand: And as a response to that, really, there was Maggie Nichols and her radical feminist movement in improvised music, where for a while, the only way that women could actually play improvised music and not feel judged or exploited was to just play together. I don’t think there is that movement of improvised music in the UK anymore, because the men who are on the scene now don’t exclude women from improvised music.

Lee: So you had to have a sort of separatist movement for a bit and then everything could trickle back in?

Brand: I think so. If you spoke to Maggie and the other women around that time, then they might disagree. I believe in balance, and I’d like to see more women play improvised music. ... I’m disappointed that there aren’t women younger than me coming along and playing instruments. There might be women in the electronica movement, there might be female improvisers who are singing, but the fact that I’m forty years old and that there’s nobody playing improvised trombone who is younger than me and who is a woman is pretty sad actually. I do think that if you separate yourself, then you’re not creating language, and so I don’t like one-gender ensembles. That said, it upsets me when I see all men playing together and that a lot of people can’t see what’s wrong with that. All the time there’s always men playing together, and even people like the BBC put on these festivals or live events, and when you say, “Well, it’s all very good, but there’s no women on your bill,” they go, “Oh, we hadn’t thought of it.” They just don’t think.

Shabaka Hutchings + Tony Bevan                                                 ©2013 NI-VU-NI-CONNU Productions

Lee: Is free improvisation a way of getting to that level of play where you approach it unselfconsciously? Or are you still planning what you are doing?

Lol Coxhill: It depends on the situation. Everyone is different. If it’s “free improvisation,” then I like it to be that. It also means that I can put in anything I want to, divert shapes and things.

Lee: And when you play together, even though you are from different generations, does free improvisation mean you’ve got a shared language that you can automatically connect to?

Alex Ward: I wouldn’t necessarily say that. I think that in some ways we do, but I don’t think that’s to do with free improvisation. I think the nice thing about free improvisation is that it allows people who don’t have a shared language to collaborate, and I don’t think there is any other way of doing that. With Lol, I think there are things we have in common which are just to do with us both being horn players and certain things that ... the people who have inspired us both, and the degree to which Lol has inspired me. I think that is just a particular instance of what can happen in free improvisation. You can freely improvise with people with whom you have nothing in common aesthetically, and the results will be interesting. That’s what’s most interesting about it to me.

Lee: In the piece you did together the first night – the horn duet – it sounded like you, Lol, were starting off playing an almost sort of bebop lick and you both had to work to an area together where you could both meet. Is that right or am I sort of projecting onto that?

Coxhill: I don’t usually decide that I’m going to start off playing bebop licks. If that’s what’s in my head at the time, then it goes in that direction, and then goes off anywhere at any point. I don’t turn up to an improvisation session thinking I’m going to play Charlie Parker tunes, but if I want to make a reference to something as part of the improvisation, then that’s exactly what it is. Part of the improvisation is putting it there when it wouldn’t normally be there.

Lee: And so when you are playing together, the two of you, are you conscious of trying to sound the same, eventually, or are you trying to spark each other off with different kinds of sounds? I really noticed with the two of you that it was like a dialogue. You don’t have any sort of discussion before?

Ward/Coxhill: No.

Lee: “Pop” is a pejorative term for me. And you’ve done stuff in more conventional rock set-ups, haven’t you? On the first night of this festival, you were doing a horn duet that had recognisable jazz elements in it, and then last night, the guitar and electronics piece might have been a bit much for audiences who like the jazz part. The stuff that you are doing is hugely diverse, isn’t it?

Ward: I guess it is, but I don’t think it’s actually more diverse than what a lot of people might listen to. I mean, you go to people’s houses and look at their record collection, and generally you’ll find a bit of this and a bit of that, a bit of all kinds of things.

Lee: Yes, but you’re not allowed to do that as an artist.

Ward: Well, that’s it – I don’t see why. That seems increasingly more the case. Obviously one doesn’t want to be seen as a dilettante or someone just doing some sort of postmodernist shuffling thing. But the idea that your music should reflect all of your history, all of your interests – that doesn’t seem weird to me, that seems natural.

Lee: How does an audience affect a performance?

Coxhill: It depends on the space and the audience. I just try to be involved with what I’m dealing with and not get too involved with what else is going on outside of it, because I’m trying to create a particular thing. I’m trying to put something down and so I don’t get too involved in the sound around.

Lee: But you seem like you’ve always been more of a recognisable personality or someone that an audience can almost get hold of – more of an entertainer, as well as an improviser. Lots of people talk really fondly about you compèring various jazz festivals.

Coxhill: The trouble is that I’m being told that I’m an entertainer as well as an improviser, but most of what they think of as “entertaining” stopped about twenty years ago. If I just say something that is vaguely amusing, then it’s seen as being part of the act, but not by me.

Lee: A lot of people have talked to me about seeing Lol at Bracknell in the seventies and eighties ...

Robinson: Oh yes, it was amazing.

Lee: ... and how they thought it was like a comedy act as well because he would do so much stuff in-between.

Robinson: Yes, there was that as well. I think it was the kind of looseness of things, but he was also very disciplined in what he was doing. At that time a lot of the jazz that I was involved with was very strict and stuffy, and everything was about being taken seriously. “We’re so important. We’re playing this note on this chord.” Whereas all of a sudden, all of this was taken away, and it was what I thought music should be – just in the moment, and its conversation is with everyone, and the audience seemed involved as well.

Lee: I think I read somewhere that Derek Bailey suggested that the problem was that the word “improvisation” is in some ways a pejorative term. If your tap was leaking you might tie a piece of tea towel around it and go, “It’s an improvised solution.” It’s as if you haven’t got the right thing, so you have to do something else. I don’t know if that’s the case.

Tom Arthurs: I think there are so many things behind that. Working with students, what was very interesting – they’re nineteen, twenty years old, very classically trained, very articulate, very intelligent young people – was that they were absolutely afraid of doing anything that was a failure or taking a risk. That’s also something which, in their own practice – to get outside the norm of what they know – is also very difficult. The way they interpret things as consumers or as audience is also shaped by that, I think.

Lee: But failure and risk is part of it, isn’t it?

Phil Minton: It must be to do with an education. I didn’t have any education, which is quite handy.

Lee: How did you get from trumpet via more conventional jazz vocals to what you do now? I know that’s a big question, but ... was there a moment where you thought, “I don’t want to sing words anymore?”

Minton: No, because I still do sing words, I sing songs still. I’d always been interested in the voice because I came from a singing family and I was hearing “voice sounds” from a very early age. I seemed to be able to copy the sounds. My mother was a soprano and my dad was a bass, my uncles were tenors and my granddad was a tenor. They came from mining villages in South Wales. I had that background – the male choral singing, and my mum was a soloist soprano, semi-professional. We lived in Torquay, in a Welsh street.

Lee: In a Welsh street, in a Welsh area in Torquay?

Minton: They’d moved down in the Depression. But I was always listening to voice sounds. One of my earliest memories was being in an isolation hospital when I was three years old. I had pneumonia – the first time being away from my parents’ voices. Of course, [mimics] my dad’s voice was very mellow, he’d talk like that, and my mum was like this, and they had very lovely soft voices. I was in hospital and all I can remember is “ahhhhhhhh” – the sound of this nurse was just horrible and I was really quite upset by it all. That’s sort of a memory. Then at school there were some teachers, and I just couldn’t stand to be in the same room as them screaming at you. I was always just very, very conscious of vocal sounds.

Lee: That’s amazing, because instantly I’m tempted to think that everything I hear off you is informed by that childhood experience.

Minton: Yes.

Do you enjoy it?

Lee: Yes.

Minton: It must be entertaining then.

Lee: That’s a really good answer.

Minton: I’m always surprised that so many people do like it so much, which is great.

Lee: Increasingly I find it the most entertaining form of music, because from moment to moment I know it won’t be happening again, therefore it has a preciousness about it, something unique at a moment where everything in the world gets filed and stored away and documented. The particular thing that’s entertaining about it is knowing that there’s risk involved and that it’s not necessarily controlled.

Arthurs: I think it’s really interesting that you ask this question, because I think it can and it should be all of those things simultaneously. It should be incredibly deep, and things can also be intellectual and at the same time hilarious – why shouldn’t that be the case? We live in a society where these things become more divided and we have these expectations that something’s “entertainment” or “high art.” If I think of a bunch of musicians who I know or play with, everybody falls somewhere on the spectrum.

Lee: Is there an obligation to be an entertainer?  Right, Lol ... He is an entertainer as well as an artist ...

Beresford: Oh, absolutely!

Lee: Is that something you have to give any thought to – free improvisation as a branch of entertainment?

Beresford: Of course it is, that’s fine. I’ve always massively admired – as you know – stand-up comedians for a start. I grew up like anybody else, with light entertainment. I think that, perhaps, what you do as a stand-up comedian is to draw people into your thoughts somehow. You’re making a face at me now ... You analyse what you’re doing while you’re doing it, right?

Lee: Right, yes.

Beresford: So there’s an analysis going on in your performance, which draws people into the way ... You know, it’s a quite deep channel sometimes, and I think that’s a form of entertainment as well, if you can do that. We were talking about Six Feet Under and how that’s a pretty profound TV show and draws people into very subtle and complex waves of energy and ideas and encounters and things, as I think improvised music does. And I think that’s a form of entertainment as well. I think that sometimes, particularly as a piano player, you’re very conscious of Liberace, Richard Clayderman, Fats Domino and people who wear silly hats to play the piano, partially because a piano ... You can’t pose with a piano like you can with a guitar or a saxophone.

Watts: I beg your pardon?

Shabaka Hutchings: Free improvisation ... It’s just the sound that I like. I’m able to think about certain musical things and apply them as I see fit. I have an idea about music, just maybe listening to some records or reading books, I think, “I’d like to try this idea out,” without having to fit it around history. Obviously there is history, but I can just say, “This is the idea, I’m going to do this then, musically. See how I can adapt it to it’s context?,” as opposed to saying, “This is the idea, let’s see if I can squeeze it into this composition or into this person’s vision.”

For me, lots of things are linked up in the motives for making music, and capitalism is the kind of ideology that it supports – it’s how it’s sustained. If your general idea is, “How much stuff can I accumulate? How many things can I get?,” then it’s natural that when you’re making frozen music, you’re thinking, “How much can I take from this guy?” You listen to Joe Henderson and you think, “I can use that lick, I can take that one, I’m going to write that in my book ... this can be mine ... I’m going to take this Coltrane ...,” and then you’re playing them, and it’s like, “How much things have I got as my hoard?” You hear someone like Brecker – he’s a great attachment player, I’ve got nothing against him, but a lot of people listen to Brecker and think, “He’s really amazing, look how much stuff he’s gotten,” as opposed to, “Look how much music he’s making” or, “Look how much he’s interacting, look how much language he’s managed to amass for himself, that’s really admirable.” This will be where the psychological thing comes, if that’s where your head is at, or you think, “I want to impress people by showing them how much stuff I’ve got.”

Lee: That’s funny because you’ve just described in different terms what those six improvisers talk about when they say it came out of being a bit communist or left-leaning. It’s not an acquisitioned music, is it? It’s more about sharing and cooperation.

Tony Bevan: The idea that people just concentrate on presenting themselves in a certain way – play the licks –, that’s not going to work in this music because it will just tip it all over. Unless you’ve got an idea that you want to create music rather than present yourself as a great player, it’s not going to work.

Lee: I just think with free improvisation, if you get heavily into it and you train, you’re making quite a difficult life choice. Even though it’s very satisfying, it’s not going to be the thing with the most obvious applications.

Hutchings: I find that I only think about the implications of choices when shit hits the fan. Every other time, I’m just doing what I feel like doing. So I might kind of snap out of four years of playing free improvisation and think, “Oh my God, I’m a free improviser, how did that happen?” Some day I’m looking on YouTube and think, “Bloody hell!”

Bevan: Wait until you get older, there’ll be moments where you go, “I’ve wasted my life.”

Lee: Well, okay then, what would you have done if you weren’t doing this? It sounds like it’s the answer to a lot of questions.

Bevan: I don’t know, I really don’t know. When I first started playing the music, in the early seventies, it was new. Topography of the Lungs was new and it felt like something that hadn’t existed before, which is almost true – it’s not quite true. I was just lucky that I was at that age when this stuff came along that no one had heard of before. Now I think that free improvisation is very different to what it was then. The first gigs I used to go to ... I remember seeing Evan with Paul Lytton, and it was so strong, so hard. It wasn’t like seeing music at all, it was like being in a storm, it was this incredible power. If you listen to the early records – like the things that Derek did with Han – they’re not as “musical” as the things we have now.

Lee: Is it better or worse?

Bevan: I think it was better then in a way, but it couldn’t stay like that, because there was such a sense of, “This is us doing this now and fuck you. This is as hard as it’s gonna’ be.”

Lee: It was a logical endpoint of something.

Bevan: Yes, and it couldn’t have carried on like that. Of course, over the years ... Evan doesn’t play the way he used to. You listen to his early stuff, and it’s so raw, and now he sounds more like a saxophone player, but he didn’t sound like a saxophone player at all then ...

Lee: It’s interesting that none of you have said that there is a distinctive British free improvisation, while other people have. Some people have denied it flatly and said it’s an international language. You just worked in New York, didn’t you, for a while. Was what you’ve learned here ... did that cross-fertilise really easily into that scene?

Dominic Lash: Yes, I think so. There are definitely players in the States who think of British free improvising as being something that they’re inspired by or interested in – or not inspired by and hate. When you’re in the midst of something, giving it a description ... Definitely, being there, sometimes I feel like, “Oh yeah, I’m the weird abstract English guy,” but not through attempting to take on that role.

Lee: It seems that the only constant is that there’s these situations where you keep meeting each other in different places and are being asked to play together. So is that aspect of it important – that there’s an extended network of people?

Lash: Absolutely. I was here in Berlin last summer and walked into a club I’d never been to and I knew half the people, and half the people weren’t from Berlin.

Davies: Some musicians have been working together for something like thirty years and they’ve never been to or been invited to each others’ homes ...

Lee: I think that sounds great. I wish I didn’t know a lot of the people I work with, to be honest.

Coxhill: I want to not really know what’s coming next, so that it is improvisation.

Lee: That’s a really nice way of looking at it. In fact, what’s emerged from talking to the two of you is a refusal to be drawn on any kind of terms almost, which is probably in some way about trying to keep your options open for playing with different kinds of people. I’d rather hope that Anton used what you just said as the final line of the film: “I prefer not to know what’s coming next,” and then stop – like that!

Coxhill: I like also to sometimes know exactly what’s happening, but if I have to choose, I’d rather not know what’s happening.

Lee: Thank you very much.

Coxhill: Is that it?

Lee: Yes.

Coxhill: That was easy!

Lee: Yes, it wasn’t an exam.

© 2013 NI-VU-NI-CONNU Productions

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