Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

One of the distinguishing characteristics between jazz and improvised music is that jazz has American-born subject matters such as romantic love, social justice and spirituality, while the subject of improvised music is the idealization of improvisation. The discourse surrounding improvised music has therefore been unencumbered with the cultural baggage at the crux of jazz polemics; however, it has often been a hair-splitting discourse that can leave one convinced that there is a world of difference between six and a half-dozen.

There is no better example of how improvisation in music has been articulated with both brilliant acuity and puritanical zeal over the past half-century than the London improvised music scene – scene being more apt than community because of the ideological fractures that have shaped its history. Unlike the roots-and-branches historical template that served jazz well into the second half of the 20th Century, British improvised music has long been a thicket of thorny, even purity test-like ideas about improvisation, the seeds of which were planted in the mid-1960s by collectives like AMM and Spontaneous Music Ensemble.

One of the ironic undercurrents of this history is that, despite their respective collectivist doctrines, these ensembles were incubators of Great Men such as guitarist Derek Bailey and drummer John Stevens, who achieved their status, in part, because they represent methodological – and, therefore, ideological – strains of British improvised music, their shadows causing successive waves of improvising musicians to either confront, circumvent or celebrate them. The cleaving difference that presented increasingly through the 1970s was Bailey’s growing idealization of the ad hoc meeting – an approach that, with few exceptions, he pursued until his death on Christmas Day in 2005 – an implicit repudiation of group music, a term first used by Stevens in the late 1960s to describe a parity among improvisers, one best achieved through set groups, a protocol he maintained until his death at 54 in 1994.

Despite their differences as to ideal means, methods, and motivations for free improvisation, Bailey and Stevens remained compatible improvisers, evidenced by the 1992 video, Gig. This is a reminder that the diverse philosophies and procedures currently propelling improvised music in the UK flow from a small cadre of musicians with entwined histories, and that the fissures between them only began to outweigh what initially brought them together only after the initial controversies surrounding their work and the proposition of free improvisation in the main gave way to their establishing a beachhead with funding institutions, presenters and critics, and the appearance in the mid ‘70s of a second wave of improvisers who, while directly inspired by Bailey and Stevens, questioned and even rebutted foundational premises of their work – and influenced Bailey’s trajectory in the process.

Bailey and Stevens had similar histories when they first met in London in early 1967. Both had been working musicians when they first began to explore the outer limits of modern jazz; Bailey playing in pit and dance bands – and making radio, TV and recording gigs – in Sheffield, and Stevens in a RAF band stationed near Cologne. Their initial experiments in free improvisation were undertaken in collective settings with musicians now lionized in their own right; Bailey with Joseph Holbrooke, a trio with drummer Tony Oxley and bassist Gavin Bryars (now far more renowned as a contemporary music composer), and Stevens with trombonist Paul Rutherford and saxophonist Trevor Watts, co-founders of SME. Their earliest recordings – SME’s pointedly Ornette-infused first album, Challenge; JH’s lone surviving tape, a ten-minute free-wheeling take on Coltrane’s “Miles’ Mode”– seem like incremental outward steps, compared to the music Bailey and Stevens would make over the next several years. (Surviving tapes from Joseph Holbrooke’s 1966 tour supporting Lee Konitz reveal the trio to be workmanlike, while the saxophonist is in full, free association-fueled flight, supporting the myth he was partly inspired by BBC programs he was listening to through an ear piece connected to a pocket radio while he played.)

By the time they first recorded together under the SME banner in March ‘67 – Watts having recently invited Bailey to join while Stevens was working in Copenhagen and Amsterdam – both had eschewed jazz in the main; but as evidenced in SME’s soundtrack for the now-lost film Withdrawal, they still retained jazz-born instincts in terms of creating and sustaining rhythmic energy, and choosing ripe moments for steering the improvisations. However, key distinctions between Bailey and Stevens were already emerging, the most glaring being that Stevens’ commitment to process-centric compositions, having brought the four-part “Seeing Sounds & Hearing Colors” to the Withdrawal session (both the soundtrack and “Seeing …” were not issued on CD until 1997). Inspired by Anton Webern’s “Five Pieces for Orchestra,” Stevens’ score was comprised of lines and shapes realized as long tones, repeated short tones, and riff-like motives, and offset by improvised interludes. Despite the interpretative latitude inherent in the graphic notation, “Seeing …” is nevertheless a top-down composition. Having already concluded free improvisation to be the ideal, Bailey takes on a disruptive role, using rhythm and texture to scuff the arranged materials, and agitating in the open spaces. In this regard, Bailey was the grain of sand in an oyster that produces a pearl; but the pearl proved to be SME’s second LP, Karyobin.

Even though Stevens occasionally led conceptual and process pieces well into the ‘70s, usually in large ensemble settings that often included amateur musicians, collective improvisation became SME’s sole focus by the summer of ‘67; by February the next year, when SME – then consisting of Stevens, Bailey, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, saxophonist Evan Parker and bassist Dave Holland – recorded the watershed Karyobin, Stevens had dubbed the approach “group music.” The predicate for group music, as Stevens told Victor Schonfield for the album’s liner notes, was “the idea of a musician being part of a larger whole rather than a separate attraction” an assertion well-supported by how the ensemble exerted their virtuosity in a low-key manner, and in service of the organic development of fragmentary materials into gracefully dovetailing exchanges. Although Schonfield does not quote Stevens when listing the demands of group music, it is safe to say that he closely paraphrased the drummer when he wrote that, more than merely conducting a dialogue with his colleagues, each musician “must try to become aware at all times of what the others are doing, so that his own playing takes on the added dimension of a group personality,” with “each player having equal responsibility for the sound at every moment ... by being purely spontaneous.”

“There were a lot of questions in the air, which the music poses rather than answers,” Parker said of Karyobin during a mid-‘90s interview with Kevin Whitehead. “What is free improvisation, what can you do, how does it work, is this a valid approach? A lot of phrase shapes finish on an upward curve, like a question rather than a statement.” The conversational tone permeating Karyobin suggests they had already arrived at a provisional, flexible answer in egalitarianism. However, given the personality-driven nature of print media and commercial recordings – and Stevens’ ability to explain the arcane proposition of free improvisation in lay-friendly terms – it was just a matter of time before the drummer became characterized as the first among equals. SME’s untitled third LP, issued on Polydor’s Marmalade imprint in ‘69, was billed as “John Stevens/Spontaneous Music Ensemble;” the cover photo is a close-up of an ecstatic Stevens, an image not unlike those that graced the album covers of iconic jazz drummer bandleaders like Art Blakey.

Contemporaneously, AMM articulated an arch, autocritical approach to group music. Founded in 1965 by three jazz refugees – saxophonist Lou Gare and guitarist Keith Rowe were members of Mike Westbrook’s band, and played in a hard bop unit with percussionist Eddie Prévost, hailed in the early ‘60s as “the Blakey of Brixton” – AMM soon became as much a seminar on aesthetics as much as a laboratory for musical experimentation. By the time they were joined in ‘66 by cellist Lawrence Sheaff and Cornelius Cardew – an assistant to Karlheinz Stockhausen in the late 1950s, Cardew spent much of the ‘60s giving UK debuts of the piano music of John Cage, Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff (Wolff briefly performed with AMM in ‘68) – AMM had weekly discussion sessions about their music. “(T)he collective consciousness of AMM gradually consolidated,” Prévost recounted in the booklet notes for the CD reissue of their ‘67 Elektra album, AMMMUSIC. AMM acknowledged groupthink was integral to their group music.

AMM’s philosophical essence is well-represented by the thirteen statements that graced the back cover of AMMMUSIC. Most have a Zen koan-like quality: “AMM started itself. It was there a few minutes before we thought of it;” “To play and to arrive at the state where you no longer need to play.” Others stake out the limits of artistic vision: “There is no certain knowledge, in relation to your development that the effort you are making at the time is the right effort.” AMM’s was a far more complex, even self-interfering, approach to group music than Stevens’, and it yielded a radically different music. Instead of promoting figurative and rhythmic interplay, AMM congealed sounds into strangely compelling layers of sounds that are alternately ethereal and abrasive. AMMMUSIC was mixed to promote equality among sounds, sometimes submerging Cardew and Gare’s fleeting use of figurative materials in transistor radio transmissions, guitar distortion and feedback, screeching strings (Cardew occasionally played violin) and clattering percussion. In addition to what Evan Parker observed as the “laminal” quality of AMM’s music, there is a foregrounding of noise that further removes the music from the sphere of free jazz.

From these respective starting points, AMM and SME evolved rhetorically as much as musically into the ‘70s. Both were concerned with developing new relationships in the production and reception of music, and with articulating their microcosmic examples at a time when revolutionary politics were permeating the discourse of European avant-garde art and music, generally. Cardew, Rowe and Rutherford (who, in 1970, named his trio with Bailey and bassist Barry Guy Iskra 1903 in tribute to the Lenin-managed revolutionary newspaper) identified as Communists. What George McKay smartly observed as Cardew and Rowe’s “shift from Taoism to Maoism” created a schism in AMM. Insults were slung in the run-up to Cardew and Rowe’s defection, leaving Prévost and Gare to what the drummer sardonically termed as their “useless bourgeois self-indulgence.” Although Prévost founded an improvisation workshop in 1999 whose alumni include several of the most gifted British improvisers to emerge in the 21st Century, AMM was the most self-consciously hermetic first-generation European improvising ensemble; with few collaborators and, for decades, fewer interactions with subsequent waves of improvisers, they are a dotted line in the flow chart of British improvised music history. Significantly, Bailey never worked with AMM.

SME also occasionally splintered, albeit more temporarily and without the doctrinal venom. Defectors included Watts, who formed Amalgam with Rutherford and Guy in ‘67 to pursue a leaderless brand of group music, a reaction against Stevens’ increasingly robust leadership of SME; yet, they credited Stevens for his emphasis on self-actualization, as well as articulating a need for community outreach long before the term was coined by arts funders – and developing an inclusive, exercise-based workshop pedagogy, one inviting to the novice and ear-opening for musicians of various stripes. “Music is a chance for self-development,” as Stevens is quoted at the end of Schonfield’s Karyobin notes. “It’s another little life, in which it’s easier to develop the art of giving, an art that makes you more joyous the more you practice it.” There’s a clearer line between Stevens and Abraham Maslov than between the drummer and Marx and Lenin.

However, egalitarianism is rarely sustainable in any creative enterprise. Even though Watts returned to SME – creating some of its most radical and satisfying music in duet Stevens under the SME banner in the mid-‘70s – SME was ostensibly Stevens’ group by the end of the ‘60s, and remained so, just as Amalgam, ironically, quickly became Watts’ group. To further whisk their histories together, Stevens played on Amalgam’s first LP – the now-classic Prayer for Peace, a ‘69 melding of free jazz and Watts’ budding interest in folkloric materials – and remained on board even when Watts steered the group towards grooves in the mid-‘70s. However, it was soon clear that neither the AMM nor SME models offered Bailey the anti-establishment egalitarianism he sought in free improvisation. As Bailey told his biographer Ben Watson decades later, the guitarist thought Stevens was “a messianic character and messiahs like – need, maybe – disciples.” Bailey’s slant on AMM in Improvisation: its nature and practice in music – the watershed 1980 book that spawned a BBC Channel 4 series – is subtler: “In some way, AMM are the ‘official’ improvisation group, something of an institution. In addition to their longevity, this is partly an acknowledgment of their overt seriousness, a stance not immediately apparent in many improvisers and groups and violently rejected by some.” Spurred by listening to an AMM track for The Wire’s Invisible Jukebox blindfold test feature in 1998, Bailey’s remarks about an AMM performance during Cardew’s tenure are telling. “[Cardew] seemed to provide a number of other things that were performance-related, unless he accidentally did it – he fell over, for a start,” he remarked. “Anyway, there was a disruptive element about what he did that seemed to me to be quite welcome, given the general placidity of the rest of what was going on.”

Bailey first pursued his then fetal ideal in ongoing groups like The Music Improvisation Company, formed in ‘68, whose agenda he describes in Improvisation, as “the alienation, in materials and sounds, from idiomatic improvisation; a continuation of the search for a style-less, uncommitted area in which to work.” Initially a quartet with Parker, percussionist Jamie Muir, and electronic instrument maker Hugh Davies – who, like Cardew, was an assistant to Stockhausen in the mid-‘60s – MIC produced a more volatile music than either AMM or SME. On both of their albums – Incus’ posthumously issued The Music Improvisation Company 1968-1971 and the 1970 ECM LP, The Music Improvisation Company (which, on two tracks, adds Christine Jeffery, for whom “singer” is an inadequate description), low-volume sounds suddenly and furiously exploded, and then evaporated in an instant; inklings of conventional instrumental techniques and discernably direction-building interactions were quickly snuffed; and a resolute resistance to form prevailed.

Revisionist Bailey boosters grant the guitarist titular leader status in this endeavor, citing his volume pedal and feedback triggered tsunamis, piercing harmonics, and abrasive textures as the prime disruptive elements in their improvisations. However, there is more “mutual subversion” at work in MIC than is credited by Bailey in Improvisation, confirmed by the numerous instances when Parker’s thickly textured soprano spews and screams, Davies’ stark noises, and Muir’s pummeling of his extended kit overwrote stock gambits. Yet, for all of the seeming equality of its members, the issue of leadership was, according to Bailey, even thornier in MIC than in other improvising ensembles, describing in Improvisation an ongoing struggle between successive strong-willed leaders and “the rebellious ranks.” Still, Bailey cites “the overall result of the apparently contradictory forces and attitudes at work in the group was the achievement of a consistent, almost ‘tight’ group feeling, regardless of its changes in identity.”

On several counts, Iskra 1903 complements MIC in Bailey’s pursuit. Neither Rutherford nor Guy shied away from their conventional virtuosity and their fluency in various idioms, Rutherford’s being primarily jazz-based, while Guy easily shuttled between centuries of classical music as well as advanced jazz. As improvisers, they incorporated what are now commonly called extended techniques – Guy is now widely celebrated for his extensive inventory of arco articulations and his use of alternative strikers and string-dampening objects – but not with the singular focus of Parker, who was then beginning to transform the soprano saxophone into a kaleidoscope of continually shifting patterns and multiple timbres powered by circular breathing. Guy and Rutherford did not exactly follow Swing Era tenor titan Lester Young’s edict that every solo should tell a little story, but they often developed material in a deliberate, traceable manner. Their potency as free improvisers is obvious, eliciting from Bailey a less oppositional approach than he took in MIC, resulting in what Martin Davidson (whose Emanem label has chronicled British improvised music for over 40 years) called “mostly laidback and sublime music,” where melody or harmonic consonance were not instantly muzzled, cohabitating with serrated-edged passages within a lengthy improvisation. Bailey’s enduring regard for Rutherford led him to review the reissue of the trombonist’s masterful 1970 solo album, The Gentle Harm of the Bourgeoisie, for The Wire in 1987: “Most of the outstanding free improvised solos I have heard were played by Paul Rutherford ... When he plays solo, the improvising is the music.”

The latter observation speaks volumes about Bailey’s idealism. If improvisation is adulterated by identity-conferring idioms, the resulting music is simply a mutation or disfiguration of those idioms, the music is not the improvising, but the entanglement of the improviser in an idiom. Shedding idioms in one’s playing was therefore a prerequisite of free improvisation, which extended beyond a given idiom’s repository of materials to its modalities of interactions – like lead and support functions – through which materials are activated. Bailey had an advantage in this regard over many of his contemporaries, particularly those like Oxley and SME’s founding troika who were fully formed jazz stylists before taking the plunge into free improvisation. Bailey’s commercial work in Sheffield had essential ad hoc aspects; dance bands regularly encountered charts for the first time on the bandstand, and radio and TV sessions tended to be one-offs in terms of material and personnel. This stood in contrast to, say, Oxley backing an American headliner during his stint as the house drummer at Ronnie Scott’s, maintaining the same grooves, trading the same fours, and taking a solo at the same spot in the proceedings night after night.

Early on, Bailey demonstrated sensitive antenna for facile, idiom-informed, muscle memory-induced continuity and momentum in the improvising of others, against which he deployed brusque sounds to provoke his cohorts to play something new. In most music communities, this would have resulted in Bailey becoming a pariah, as most improvisers seek support rather than rebuke. Only in the emergent European community of free improvisers would this contrariness be valued and attract like-minded collaborators, of which Han Bennink and Misha Mengelberg are particularly illustrative.

By the late ‘60s, Bennink and Mengelberg were purveyors of something akin to creative destruction, a term used by economists to describe how innovation devalues, if not destroys, existing technologies and labor skills. Bennink and Mengelberg’s sensibilities were informed by tandem histories of matriculation and rebellion, the touchstone of which is Last Date, their lionized 1964 recording with Eric Dolphy. By then, Bennink had become the first-call jazz drummer in Amsterdam, playing with – just to cite tenor saxophonists – Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins, while Mengelberg – the precocious scion of a prominent musical family, whose standing in Dutch society was complicated by his conductor uncle Willem’s controversial leadership of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra during the Nazi occupation – was on course to be a central figure in modern jazz in Holland. Yet, between Mengelberg’s Fluxus activities, the influence of surrealism and dada in Bennink’s now-acclaimed visual art, and their own often fractious relationship, the two foisted an intrinsically disruptive approach to improvisation upon a self-serious, legitimacy-seeking, nascent European free music scene.

Bailey and Parker’s first recorded encounter with Bennink was Peter Brötzmann’s Machine Gun in ‘68, a sonic hail of bullets, followed by the saxophonist’s equally provocative Nipples the next year. However, those recordings – and large ensemble blow-outs like trumpeter Manfred Schoof’s 1969 European Echoes – are close enough to free jazz to obscure the contemporaneous advents in London and Amsterdam represented by Bailey, Bennink and Parker. It is a subsequent series of recordings issued by their respective co-ops – Bailey, Oxley and Parker’s Incus (initially financed by journalist Michael Walters); Bennink, Mengelberg and Willem Brueker’s ICP – that reveal the Dutch improvisers’ impact on Bailey and, to a lesser extent, Parker. The towering album of this lot is Incus’ inaugural release, The Topography of The Lungs, by a Parker-led trio with Bailey and Bennink; but, this July ‘70 recording should be heard in conjunction with two ICP dates to fully appreciate Bailey’s emergent penchant for discontinuity, if not disruption: a 1969, title-less head-on collision with Bennink; a quartet date including Mengelberg and saxophonist John Tchicai waxed in ‘70, sometimes referred to as Fragments.

More so than his work with SME and Iskra 1903, these recordings support Whitehead’s observation that, for Bailey, free improvisation has no memory. Perhaps this was the case with the aforementioned groups as well, and that the differences in Bailey’s impact stems from the ensembles’ respective group music agendas, an obligation from which he easily freed himself when improvising with Bennink and Mengelberg. Bailey may even have had subversive intents on Karyobin and the Iskra 1903 sessions from ‘70 and ‘72; if so, they were obscured by his more continuity-minded colleagues, rendering his blurts, caws and grumblings as imaginative, sound-based accompaniment devices that complement, not provoke. When triangulating with Parker and Bennink, and going head to head with the drummer, Bailey overtly goads and gets as good as he gives. Bennink and Parker had transformed technical mastery into new, confrontational forms of virtuosity – the drummer regularly played with superhuman speed, replete with polyrhythms and one-handed press rolls, while the saxophonist trumped the searing textures pioneered by John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders with a groundbreaking, staggeringly precise use of multiphonics. While Bailey responds in kind, he eschews conventional technique at most every turn, and mostly relies instead on unsettling – even anti-virtuosic – outbursts of feedback and harmonics.

In doing so, Bailey signaled he would no longer comply with what was to date the implicit gentlemen’s agreement between improvisers to create group music from a benignly cooperative stance. Bailey was willing to undermine an improvisation; offstage, he could be single-mindedly, if not gleefully argumentative. The synergy of these two traits can be heard in Bailey’s interactions with Tchicai on the ICP quartet disc, recorded during a tour where Bailey and Tchicai were constantly at loggerheads. Tchicai was no stranger to extremely intense, even cacophonic music, having played on Coltrane’s Ascension; however, by 1970, the saxophonist favored honing barebones lines over the course of minutes, requiring at least a modicum of nuanced support, which he is repeatedly denied on the ICP date. Between the incessant interjections of Bailey and the others, Tchicai is left with few options outside riding the avalanches triggered either by the guitarist or Bennink. Mengelberg is comparably undermining, as well; but his judiciously placed plinks and plonks don’t have the muscle of Bailey’s electric guitar, let alone Bennink’s oversized, thunder-making kit. All this results, as Watson quotes a Walters review, in Tchicai sounding “intimidated.” Despite it all, the music is cohesive and insistently engaging, suggesting that antagonism is a viable strategy for attaining a tight group feeling.

While Bailey shared Mengelberg and Bennink’s penchant to agitate, which is reinforced on Groupcomposing, an octet recording made two months later, Bailey would infrequently work with them over the next several years – the ‘72, Incus-issued duo with Bennink being the notable exception. Still, Mengelberg and Bennink, arguably, permanently influenced Bailey’s modus operandi going forward. The primary indicator of the Dutch influence was Bailey’s mid-decade decision to cease playing in established, ongoing groups like SME, MIC and Iskra 1903. For those who know Mengelberg and Bennink primarily from the years where ICP Orchestra had very few changes in personnel, the suggestion that they contributed to Bailey’s formulation of the ad hoc group as the ideal in improvised music may seem unlikely. But, in the early ‘70s, Instant Composers Pool was literally a pool from which musicians were enlisted for specific situations.

Instant Composers Pool’s project-driven agenda roughly mirrored Bailey’s activities with Incus and the Musicians’ Co-operative, launched in May ‘70 by Incus’ principals and associates such as Guy, Rutherford and pianist Howard Riley. There is a significant overlap between Co-op events and Incus’ early releases. In addition to albums led by Bailey, Oxley and Parker, Incus issued Riley’s Synopsis and Guy’s London Jazz Composers Orchestra’s Arts Council-subsidized Ode. A sprawling, nearly 100 minutes-long work, parts of Ode were premiered at the inaugural Co-op event at Ronnie Scott’s new club, the site of its initial monthly Sunday concerts. (Scott, who turned over the Old Place to musicians for the last months of its lease in ‘67-8, again demonstrated remarkable generosity towards musicians with whom he had aesthetic differences by letting them keep all entrance fees.) Initially, the cards of Co-op events such as a weekend-long October Festival in ‘71 featured its members largely in established groups like Oxley’s ensemble, Iskra 1903, and LJCO.

Throughout the early 1970s, the comprehensive strategy of self-determination reinforced improvised music’s niche, yielding steady if low paying gigs in London, the occasional subsidized concert series or regional tour, and projects on the continent. Bailey and his contemporaries were also beginning to inspire and cultivate younger musicians who came to be known as the second generation, and who had markedly different orientations towards improvised music.

[To be concluded in Issue 54]

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