Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

When I was young, I used to visit cousins who lived on an island. There was a moment on the flight in when sea punctuated with rocks and skerries gave way to land pierced with water. It seemed to happen inside a moment, but I could never tell for sure where and when one state gave way to the other. I still dream about it. Then there was a final swing round the small lighthouse – its flash-beat-beat-flash-beat-beat period was the basic metre of the world, as far as I was concerned – and the plane landed on the long, flat beach. The cousins squabbled fiercely and generously in a tongue I know better now than I did then, though now I have little conversational use for it. Then, it was the energy of what was said that came across, though every now and then a kindly aunt or older cousin would turn and explain the subject at issue or the joke that had just set the table on a roar, the first of which always seemed absurdly trivial or local for such loud contention, the latter rarely funny in translation.

The experience exactly mirrors, in time and substance, my early encounters with British improvisation. The analogy hardly needs spelling out. There was the sense of a small, fractiously affectionate community, possessed of a language far removed from the speak of any cultural establishment, a self-contained family sometimes prone to the vanity of very small differences and apt to fall out over quibbles that would have seemed irrelevant to any but a sibling or a scholiast. There was an inevitable sense of exclusion, which was just the fatalistic downside of an earnest desire to belong to this gathering of otherly souls. By the time I learned Gaelic, there was no one in the family left on the island. Now, there is just a single cousin – somewhat – removed who performs traditional songs and she is somewhat removed to Nova Scotia.

Where the two experiences coincide is in that elusive moment of transition. There’s a certain assumption (which isn’t to say it’s false) that British “free” emerged quite suddenly out of “free jazz” and immediately left behind all vestiges of its previous evolutionary state. No ambiguous coastline, no middle phase of sea-with-islands, then land-with-water; just a highly rapid transition to a new stage, sui generis and location-specific. “British free” was the Tasmania of modern music, small, distinct, marked by species and processes not encountered elsewhere, regularly swept by ideological purges if not actual genocides. Its defining character was a ruthless, vegan resistance to any hint of groove, an avoidance of any kind of structural repetition or melodic trajectory. It had, in mathematical vector terms, a direction but no sense of direction. So, at least, ran a certain critical consensus. The free community, which was small, mutually recognizable even in its rather later years and given to a certain fractionalism that combined aspects of Early Church, guild socialism, Civil War-era self-examination and a certain legacy of Stalinism. It has long been obvious that the players, and even those who chose to speak out about the music to a slightly wider circle of the interested (sometimes via recordings, which were an important if controversial vector for the free players, sometimes via interview, plus a few manifesto-like statements) were not quite as hidebound and doctrinaire as those who followed them. It was ever thus. If you want to find a man willing to die on a point of faith, look in the pews, not under a cassock. The secret history of “British free” was always one of confident eclecticism, and the kind of cultural appropriation that comes naturally to the British. There is a thesis to be written about the relationship between language and the languages of improvisation. English English has a unique ability to assimilate and naturalize linguistic forms and I suspect that has been one of the keys to the British approach to improvisation, in contrast with the very different development of jazz and improv languages elsewhere in Europe.

If there’s a moment on the flight homewards when the transition might be identified then it’s surely on Emanem’s recent reissue of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble’s 1966 Challenge, a founding document in British free music. The personnel which made that early LP, released on a label that I seem to remember specialized in steam train recordings and music hall comedians is familiar enough: Kenny Wheeler (on flugelhorn throughout), Paul Rutherford, Trevor Watts, Bruce Cale or Jeff Clyne, and John Stevens. What’s familiar is what they’re doing. It only takes a moment or two of “ED’s Message” to confirm that this group is playing jazz, albeit of an edgy and “out” sort. The timeline shows that Eric Dolphy (presumed dedicatee of that first track) was only gone a couple of years, at the end of his poignant European sojourn and that John Coltrane was still alive. Trane acolyte Evan Parker is heard on a solitary track from 1967 with a rather different SME lineup, a quartet with Chris Cambridge on bass and no brass players. There’s freely improvised material here in what would become the familiar SME approach, defined by Stevens’ interest in “peripheral listening” and collective responsiveness to the moment, but for the most part the music is written, attributed to either Watts (who’d had some pop success as writer for The Carefrees), Rutherford (who now as ever sounds grounded in the blues) or the drummer. “2.B. Ornette” is either an aspiration or a grade of pencil, possibly both, and the idea is both sketchy/blurry and perfectly precise in its post-post-bop form. The original liner note (by Cambridge) suggested that the group was “working outside the jazz establishment,” a term that’s always particularly loaded in a British context, where “Establishment” is always more properly upper-case, case-specific and as rigidly stratified as Downton Abbey. Cambridge makes a fairly direct plea for understanding. This music may not immediately appeal to promoters but “it is jazz for the same old reason – it swings.” By the turn of the next decade, in one of those sharp ideological turns that the old Stalinist left used to negotiate so well, the idea of “swing” had been declared counter-revolutionary/bourgeois/defeatist (by the fans, if not by the musicians) and performances and recordings were scried with obsessive attention for any signs of deviancy. Deviancy in this case being defined by any adherence to meter, melody or discernible harmonic logic.

That was about where I came in. The beginning and end of the summer of 1971 saw trips to London and a first exposure to the musical dialect that would seem to dominate much of my listening for the next twenty years. In between, I sat listening to kinfolk speaking and singing in a language that had no connection with English and being slipped the occasional slug of malt. As yet, I was unaware of the potential for fierce contention and ad hominem hostility in British free music, whose openness to experiment (musical and social) hasn’t always been matched by a generosity of spirit. But that was in rich supply elsewhere. My home in those days was on the shores of a Scottish loch which, as supporters and protesters were alike willing to tell us, housed a nuclear arsenal large enough to wipe out pretty much the whole of the British Isles (an odd way to describe it, since it was designed to wipe out designated targets in the Soviet Union). As Christopher Hitchens used to say, I can remember precisely where I was when John F. Kennedy tried to kill my nine-year old ass: I was standing looking at a very drunk black sailor sitting on the beach below our house, watching a Polaris submarine nudging out of the Firth of the Clyde towards a future that was never less certain than in those days of missile crisis, having obviously either gone AWOL or wakened too late to make his ship, alternating crying jags and choruses of what I only later recognized as “Honeysuckle Rose” on a battered soprano saxophone. I was sent down to give him a sandwich and cup of tea, which I set on a rock at a safe distance.

Four years later, John Stevens and his men were beginning a separation from the “special relationship” that had connected British music and American swing since the end of the first 20th century “world” conflict. By 1971, it was difficult to hear much connection between British free and American jazz. Difficult, but not impossible. It has been, perhaps, our preference to emphasize and exaggerate the differences, to forget what a rich line of swing has run through, or parallel with, the more abstract work of musicians like Stevens and AMM’s Eddie Prévost, or, to stick with the drummers (and the Tonys) for the moment, Tony Oxley, Tony Levin and Tony Marsh. British jazz-rock was about to negotiate a different accommodation with American models, proposing another separationist possibility in the music of the time. It did seem as squabbly as a Hebridean ceilidh, but only to an outsider. From the point of view of those playing it, it was, I suspect, just music, as it had always been, and just real life seen through the prism of a particular language and moment.

Brian Morton©2013

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