Arrived in London from Amsterdam on the 23rd of October. In the evening I met with composer Drew Morgan for dinner and to discuss plans for the upcoming rehearsal and performance of our ongoing collaboration between his compositions and my playing. This would be the third version of the project. The first took place in London at Conway Hall two years ago, then we reunited in Chicago twelve months later to perform the second rendition at Elastic with musicians that Drew knew while he was a music student at DePaul University several years ago. It was great to be back in London to work with Drew again, a chance to re-visit the piece(s) and hear how he had further adapted it, and another opportunity to play with New Music performers who had studied at the Royal Academy- the first time we had worked together I was stunned by their musical ability and open mindedness.
The rehearsal with the ensemble wouldn’t take place until the evening of the 24th so I took advantage of having a free afternoon to visit the Tate Modern, where an “installation” by Doris Salcedo had been placed in Turbine hall, which sent an enormous crack down the length of the entire floor. Visiting the main galleries I noticed for the first time a large collection of Wols etchings, which were phenomenally beautiful; the first examples of his work I had seen since I stumbled upon some photos and paintings at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne in the summer of 2007. Also surprising was sighting a painting of Philip Guston’s called, “The Return.” I e-mailed Ab Baars about the coincidental title with of one of his pieces that we had played on our tour together in October. His response was, “Philip Guston- my man!” While further checking my e-mail before heading to the rehearsal I found a message from Evan Parker asking if I could come to a memorial concert that was being held for Paul Rutherford at the Red Rose that night, and if I wanted to join the London Improvisers’ Orchestra at the end of the concert. It was one of the few times in my life where I was actually glad I had looked at my e-mail. Evan had also contacted Drew and the two of us agreed to head to the memorial as soon as we were finished with our rehearsal, with the hope of seeing as much as we could before the concert for Paul was over.
We met with the other musicians and they were really outstanding, perhaps even stronger as a group than the initial ensemble he had brought together. One of the factors directly affecting this performance, aside from the changes Drew had made to the written material, was the fact that I would be playing Bb clarinet and tenor, instead of bass clarinet. In the first two concerts the clarinets fit the circumstances and styles of Drew’s music perfectly. Since I had to bring the tenor for the rest of the work I was doing in Europe throughout the fall, having the bass clarinet for this performance wasn’t an option, and I was concerned about the success of bringing the tenor sax into a New Music context- it has immediate associations with Jazz and both Drew and I were focused on trying to avoid the less successful aspects of the Third Stream movement. By concentrating on the non-conventional sound aspects of the instrument’s capabilities it was possible to remove unintended “Jazz” connotations from music. All of Drew’s adjustments to his “suite” of material, either through adapting parts or writing entirely new compositions for this performance, were improvements- it was certainly the most successful version of the composed aspects of the project so far.
After we finished going over the music, Drew and I took the Tube to the Red Rose to join a huge crowd in attendance for Paul Rutherford’s memorial concert. I had only played with Paul a handful of times, in a quartet with Torsten Muller and Dylan van der Schyff a few years ago, and didn’t know him well. There were many, many people at the memorial who clearly did, and the experience of listening with them to the array of English musicians who had worked with Paul over the years was extremely moving. There were so many players in attendance, all of them heavyweights on the scene, and I have to admit getting a chance to hear people like Evan Parker and Kenny Wheeler play together was mind boggling. Most of the groups that played were small combos, and the music that I heard was superb (Maggie Nichols singing with Veryan Weston’s accompaniment was extraordinary, and anybody who knows me knows how little I usually enjoy vocal performers…). At the end of the night I sat in with the London Improvisers’ Orchestra, it a real honor to be asked to participate.
The next day was busy and intense: an afternoon meeting with Drew and David Ryan (who helped organize the concert for us through the British Library and the Eccles Centre for American Studies) to discuss ideas for our pre-concert discussion; sound check with the ensemble and the quartet that would perform in the set before the collaboration with Drew (Evan Parker, John Russell, Philipp Wachsmann, and myself). There was some free time before the Q&A and concert so I went for a walk and accidentally found the Steidlville London bookstore. Their collection of photography books was stunning and I went through the shop so thoroughly that I think I freaked out the owners. They were quite relieved when I actually bought something: a monograph of Ed Ruscha’s photos and a book of Saul Leiter’s images. I had never seen his pictures before and was so impressed with them that I named one of the most recent Vandermark 5 compositions after the text collecting his photos from the 1950’s, “Early Color.”
I’m not sure what was more terrifying that evening, doing the panel discussion about Jazz and improvisation in front of Evan Parker, or actually playing with him directly after that- the man is equally brilliant as a musician and an aesthetic thinker, leaving me at a true disadvantage on both counts. In any case I survived the talk, and enjoyed the process of examining ideas about the music in this way. The problem was then switching gears to play music instead of talk about it. John Russell’s guitar couldn’t be tuned properly because one of the pegs kept slipping, and Philipp Wachsmann couldn’t tune down flat enough to meet John’s pitch center or the bridge on his violin would have fallen off. Despite this they of course sounded perfect. Before we walked out to tackle our set together Evan said to me, “Liked the talk. But I wish they’d stop trying to describe the music as ‘American’ or ‘European.’ In every case it was simply the work of individuals.” I’d agree with his point of view in most ways, yet a new language or method of working needs some kind of group in order for the systems of communication to develop beyond the statements of a solitary iconoclast. Would the artistry of Evan Parker or Derek Bailey have affected the same number of people if they had worked in isolation? Didn’t the presence of Hugh Davies, Barry Guy, Alan Jackson, Paul Lytton, Jamie Muir, Tony Oxley, Howard Riley, Paul Rutherford, John Stevens, Trevor Watts, and Kenny Wheeler (among others!), in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s have a huge impact on the development of the English free improvisation scene and its aesthetic perspective? Didn’t that creative community play an important role in the direction that the music took in London? Even if certain individuals were its backbone, the music that came from London at that time seems to be a group effort; at least from the perspective of someone looking at it from Chicago, nearly four decades later. Maybe this is what Evan meant- that the music is more based on the efforts of individuals in their particular environment, time period, and community. Certainly the basic “American vs. European” creative stance that’s always been described or questioned is far too simplistic, and ignores the essential efforts of specific artists.
After the quartet performance and a short break to set up the Drew’s ensemble (which featured Eliza Marshal [flute], Nicholas Ellis [clarinets], Cameron Todd [trumpet], Sarah Nicolls [piano], David Worswick [violin], Emma Owens [viola], and Rosalind Acton [cello]), everyone hit stage for the second half of the night’s concert. I felt that, by far, this was the strongest performance of Drew’s material so far, and my contributions to the music seemed to work more effectively than in previous renditions of the piece. Even though we’ve only dealt with the music occasionally, each time we return to the collaboration it seems to grow. Drew is more sure of what to compose and how to organize the material into a long-form collection of ideas, and I am finding better ways to integrate my improvising with the range of New Music principles he’s bringing to the project. The complete evening- the Q&A discussion, the free improvisation quartet performance, and Drew’s piece- felt like a real artistic success, a meeting of many ideas about where the music is now and some of the ways in which it may develop.
Everyone headed to a nearby pub afterwards to talk and celebrate. Before the evening was over Drew and I decided that the next step for our collaboration would be to try and put together a touring version of the ensemble and to design a series of concerts that would present an improvising group with me, then a smaller version of the compositionally based band that would incorporate the improvisers. My immediate thought was to ask the members of CINC (with Philipp Wachsmann and Paul Lytton) to participate. Philipp seemed to really enjoy my set with Drew’s music, and his New Music background would make him ideal choice for a project like this. And Paul, well he’s one of my favorite musicians in the world. The trio we’ve got needs to start performing again, our North American tour was in 2006 (!). Maybe the project with Drew would be an interesting way to combine all of this music. We are now in the starting process of putting together a way to take this plan on the road in Europe during 2009. Seems like a long way off until it’s suddenly there, right in front of you again.
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