Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

Lol Coxhill                                                                                                                      ©Bill Smith 2012

Even before LOL became texters’ short form, the letters already carried a certain promise of dark humor. Lol Coxhill died on July 9. Those who were close to him suggested that the last couple of years hadn’t been full of laughs. Though Lol’s health had been poor, it left his playing undented. The man who had once been in some danger of becoming court jester to Britain’s jazz and improv scene, a studiedly lugubrious MC and compère at British festivals, was the kind of mournful humorist who laughed inside. A steadily self-ironizing performance practice culminated in a series of solo saxophone recitals in a builders’ skip, a gesture as complex and ambiguous as it was obvious and logical, for Coxhill’s improvisation was always part throwaway, part solid brickwork, a Heath Robinson/Rube Goldberg reconstruction of ill-considered trifles that always somehow fitted together with complete functional sense. British improv’s roots in music-hall and variety – with that tradition’s emphasis on all-round performance and seamless versatility – are still not fully understood. It largely explains the work of such luminaries as Derek Bailey, Tony Oxley and Gavin Bryars, all of whom have a strong element of what Americans would know as Vaudeville in their playing, and if it doesn’t quite work for a player of Coxhill’s background, it’s there as a distinct presence in his ability to duet with a squeaky floorboard, to alternate clownish noise with instant compositions of Webernian hardness of line, and to switch from free jazz to changes and standards in a flash.

I first came across Lol at a small Masonic hall during the Edinburgh Festival when he was playing a residency, solos and duets, with guitarist G.F. Fitz-Gerald. Lol’s physical presence suggested Dogberry, Nick Bottom or Tom Snout. He shuffled on in dungarees, somewhere between a Shakespearean “clown” or “mechanical” and an actual caretaker. He clearly had something he wanted to get off his chest. It was a newspaper review of one of his first Edinburgh performances, written by Alan Jackson – the poet, not the drummer. Jackson had described Lol’s music as “meandering and self-indulgent,” and having nothing whatever to do with jazz. “’Ere’s one I play just because I enjoy it . . . [magnificent pause] . . . It wanders about a bit, an’ all,” At which point, Lol tongued the soprano and delivered a version of “I Can’t Get Started” of blistering directness and harmonic sophistication. Somewhere across the city, Alan Jackson went down like a punctured blimp.

It’s this side of Coxhill’s work that was often obscured by his bleak humor, warm-up man status and latterly his tendency to pop up in small movie parts. You can see him in Sally Potter’s Orlando and in Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio. If that suggests a man addicted to the limelight, the reality was opposite. Those who worked with Lol in recent years, like saxophonist Raymond MacDonald and guitarist George Burt in Glasgow, remembered how unhappy he was to be announced as a star guest. Lol’s ability to play for the band, as well as to busk a living as a single, was what made him the complete musician.

His sojourn on London’s Hungerford Bridge, playing for commuter change, doesn’t quite have the romantic aura of Sonny Rollins’ or Steve Lacy’s woodshed amid the ironwork of the Williamsburg Bridge; but in a way Lol’s Thames was every bit as romantic and post-romantic as Newk’s East. Lol’s was the river of Eliot’s The Waste Land and oddly Lol was the person I spontaneously thought of as Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee barge made its way upstream. He linked together the old Elizabethan aesthetics of un-dissociated sensibility, heart-wrung song and all-round intellectual and physical competence with something more like Eliot’s jazzy, fallen modernity. Listen to Lol playing a slow, sad, solo improvisation, and there are dozens of examples all through the extensive discography from the early work gathered on Spectral Soprano (Emanem), through the pop-inflected work reissued on Cuneiform as The Story So Far ... Oh, Really? to recent things like the brilliantly titled (by Martin Davidson) Out To Launch, and the music that comes insistently to mind is Dowland, not Charlie Parker or Eric Dolphy. A decade ago, a comparison like that would condemn a columnist to the cardiganned and bearded outer reaches of Early Music, but Dowland is now considered a major forebear by the avant-garde and Coxhill (a name one expects to find on a Leveller tract or speaking up in one of the Cromwellian army debates) is an important bridging figure. Pun intended.

He was born in Portsmouth on September 19, 1932, heard Hitler’s bombs fall but was kept awake only by the dropped bombs of bebop. As a teenager he organized jam sessions and record hops, gradually moving into playing with a series of now forgotten outfits specializing in bop, cool and r‘n’b. He was an associate member of Carol Grimes’ proto-Canterbury band Delivery whose 1970 Fools Meeting is a neglected classic of British bluesprog. After that Lol signed up with Kevin Ayers and the Whole World, whose most famous member was Mike Oldfield. He began to emerge as a solo recording artist on albums for Virgin’s Caroline imprint which were shared with keyboards man Steve Miller and subsequently for Harry and Hazel Miller’s Ogun label. I once spent a couple of hours with Lol on a train to Bristol, where he was heading to play a gig for £15 plus his ticket and a sandwich, while he tried to explain to a sozzled Engl. Lit. student that the Steve Miller he knew wasn’t the Steve Miller who’d made The Joker and that, no, he hadn’t appeared in Magical Mystery Tour; that was Ivor Cutler.

It’s an interesting association, though. The ascendancy of the Beatles, far from being an irruption of American vernacular music into British culture, was very much a reassertion of nativist entertainment. Lol did, indeed, belong to the same iconoclastic under/overground as poet-performer Ivor Cutler, and shared with the Scotsman a puckish and world-weary mien that belied a devastating economy of language. On the same journey to Bristol, attempting to screen our unwanted companion with a selection of discarded newspapers, Lol evinced a striking knowledge of British press cartooning, one-line masters like Jak and Larry who could deliver a situation and pay-off in just a few ink-strokes and half a dozen words. Lol admired the art as much as he liked the humor and his soprano playing had the same almost calligraphic immediacy of impact. He played other horns and dabbled modestly with electronics, but it was as a soprano saxophonist that he will be remembered, a specialist almost as unalloyed as Steve Lacy. He played a pungent tenor, that did very slightly sound like Rollins, or more usually Chu Berry, but his favored “double” in later years was the even more portable sopranino whose vocalized tone irresistibly recalled a procession of falsetto male singers who paraded across variety stages and TV shows in the 60s. The soprano sound, latterly coaxed out of an instrument held together by rubber bands and good will, was muscular, and based on a devastating legato that is perhaps Lol’s greatest technical legacy. Few players of the instrument have ever made it sound so integral through the range.

For a time I lived quite near him and used to see him make his way down Leather Lane to one or another of the small gigs that seemed to sustain him, a pawky, Elizabethan figure, weaving his way through the market traders and their stalls. Borah Bergman, who played with Lol and Paul Hession on Acts of Love (Slam), described him to me as a “master of the comeback.” He meant in musical terms, but it was an aspect of Lol’s personality that he needed something to work against, either a costermonger’s cheerful insult, a fragment of shared melody, or an abrupt cluster of tones. Lol, though, was never more masterful at the comeback than when he played on his own, a Yorick of overtones, references and slipshod melody.

He’ll be missed and his passing really does seem like the end of something in British music, something of its Britishness. There’s only one way to end. LOL. Lots of love, Lol.

Brian Morton©2012

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