Paul Rutherford

an appreciation by
Steve Beresford

Paul Rutherford
Paul Rutherford, Brussels 1985                                              Gerard Rouy©2007

I tend to shy away from photographs, maybe because people give such importance to the documentation of events, even focusing more on the documentation than the event itself: harassing the camera operator, fussing about batteries, getting angles right, impeding sight lines with ranks of microphones. (Nowadays I revel in concerts that are great but unrecorded). Early on, people used to give me beautiful prints of their photos from gigs and the pre- and post-gig moments. I filed them away, most escaping damage from a leaking ceiling.

The picture I can best call to mind is, I am pretty sure, by Roberto Masotti, who is a fabulous photographer. It’s of the trombonist Paul Rutherford in Berlin, probably at Zwiebelfisch, the infamous all-night bar, always frequented by serious drinkers from the free music scene. It’s probably 1977. He is wearing a small breadbasket as a hat and, because I was there, I know that he wore this in the course of reciting Rudyard Kipling’s celebrated poem “Gunga Din.” It was an excellent performance, with bravura gestures and heroic recitation, which suggested an English William McGonagall. I was impressed by Paul’s instant and accurate recall, whilst apparently under the influence of a certain amount of alcohol. But what I loved most was Paul’s gentle take on the ironies in the poem, born out of a vicious British colonialism Paul would necessarily despise, and his beautiful, warm sense of fun.

Another memory, probably around the same time as the breadbasket incident: a recording session at the BBC theatre in Mornington Crescent. Years later in the same theatre, I would be transported by Afrika Bambaataa’s simple act of playing Chuck Brown And The Soul Searchers’ new single “We Need More Money.” But on that day in the mid-‘70s, the transportation was courtesy of the trio Iskra 1903 – Paul, Derek Bailey and Barry Guy. I’d like to think I “got it” immediately and certainly tried to do it myself at the earliest opportunity.

What was it? A total immersion in the group. A tendency to dovetail phrases with the other two instruments. Lightning reactions. Very subtle but radical wide dynamic and pitch changes. A range of fabulously exciting extended techniques. My list could go on. Perhaps it’s enough to say that the performance was extraordinary and that it redefined the idea of improvised music for me.

Rutherford always retained that way of being absorbed into the whole meaning of the music. Despite periods of lack of exposure, he built relationship with other players – notably recently in North America – and the Emanem label run by Martin Davidson (perennially described as ‘indefatigable’), which created a terrific sub-catalogue of Rutherford releases, both archival and current.

Paul died on August the 5th 2007. We had missed him at various events this year. At the London Improvisers Orchestra, which is a monthly thing that people show up to if they can, his absences were not so worrying. But other gigs, where he was specifically billed, suffered from his non-appearance and perhaps a little from our anxiety.

The funeral was packed – his Communist comrades sitting next to us still complaining about the music he spent his life playing. Philipp Wachsmann somehow evoked Paul’s style in a perfect free improvisation (what a hard gig!), and a brass quartet played Beethoven and “The Red Flag.”

Outside of this country, the sort of people who read PoD are surprised at the lack of coverage the UK press give free improvisation. Without going into a big polemic, I think I can point at the twin touchstones that the cultural management of the UK regard as essential to culture – the work must either make money (lots) and/or be prestigious. Free improvisation does neither. Its occasional mention in even the most liberal of papers usually starts and ends with the question of whether it should exist at all.

Paul certainly suffered from a lack of recognition, even more than most players. So it was heartening, in a sad sort of way, to read the full-page obituary in The Guardian by Richard Williams, together with a moving and exquisite portrait by photographer Caroline Forbes, recalling the musical greys of Roy DeCarava.

Other well-written pieces appeared in The Times and The Independent. All expressed a real affection for Paul that surprised but reassured me. His music was like his character – self-effacing, intelligent, quietly humorous, and unrhetorical.

Steve Beresford©2007

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