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 an ongoing collaboration between his compositions and my improvising. 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 about year ago to perform the second version at Elastic with musicians that Drew knew while he was a student at DePaul University. I was quite excited to be back in London to work with Drew again, it was a chance to re-visit the piece(s) and hear how he had re-worked it, and an opportunity to work 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 day to visit the Tate Modern where an “installation” by Doris Salcedo had been placed in the floor of Turbine hall, sending an enormous crack down the length of the entire floor. Visiting the main galleries I noticed a large collection of Wols etchings, which were phenomenally beautiful and striking; the first examples of his work I had seen since I stumbled upon some photos and paintings at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. Also surprising was stumbling upon a painting of Philip Guston’s, called “The Return.” I e-mailed Ab Baars about the coincidence with the title of one of his pieces that we had played on our tour together in October, and his response was, “Philip Guston- my man!” Further checking my e-mail before heading to rehearsal I found a message from Evan Parker asking me 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 so we agreed to head to the memorial as soon as we were finished with the rehearsal with the hope of seeing as much as we could before the concert for Paul was over.
Drew and I met with the other musicians who were really outstanding, perhaps even stronger as a group than the initial ensemble Drew brought together. Aside from the changes he had made to the written material, one of the other factors that would directly affect this performance was the fact that I would be playing Bb clarinet and tenor. In the first two concerts I used only the clarinets, which 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. Now I was concerned about the success of bringing the tenor sax into a New Music context, its immediate associations with Jazz, and both my and Drew’s concerns with avoiding the less successful aspects of the Third Stream movement. By focusing on many of the non-conventional sound aspects of the instruments capabilities it was possible to remove any unwanted “Jazz” connotations from music. All of Drew’s alterations to his “suite” of material, either by amending parts or writing entirely new compositions for this performance, were good decisions- it was by far 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 the huge crowd in attendance for Paul Rutherford. 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 musicians, 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 was superb (Maggie Nichols singing with Veryan Weston’s accompaniment was extraordinary, and anybody who knows me knows how little I usually enjoy vocals…). At the end of the night I sat in with the London Improvisers’ Orchestra, a real honor to be asked and to be there.
The next day was busy and intense: a 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; soundcheck 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 time to kill before the Q&A and concert so I went for a walk and 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 relieved when I actually bought something, however: 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 that I called one of the most recent Vandermark 5 compositions by the same name as the publication, “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. The guy 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 actually enjoy the process of examining ideas about the music this way. The problem is then switching gears to play. John’s guitar couldn’t be tuned properly because one of the pegs kept slipping, and Philipp couldn’t tune down flat enough to meet John’s pitch center or the bridge would have fallen off his violin. Of course they 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.” In many ways I’d agree with his point of view. 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 having 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 1070’s have a huge impact on the development of the English free improvisation scene and its aesthetic perspective? Didn’t that creative community play a hand in the direction that the music took in London? Even if certain individuals were it’s backbone, the music that came from around London at that time seems to be a group effort from the perspective of someone looking at it from Chicago, nearly four decades later. Maybe this is what Evan meant however, not such a basic American vs. European stance that’s always described or asked about, but more based in the efforts of individuals in their particular environment, time period, and community.
After the quartet performance there was a short break to set up the ensemble with Drew, which featured Eliza Marshal (flute), Nicholas Ellis (clarinets), Cameron Todd (trumpet), Sarah Nicolls (piano), David Worswick (violin), Emma Owens (viola), and Rosalind Acton (cello). I felt that, by far, this was the strongest performance of Drew’s material yet and the improvising that I contributed alongside his writing seemed to work more effectively than in previous concerts. Even though we’ve only dealt with the music together about once a year each time we return to the collaboration it seems to grow. Drew seems more sure of what to compose and how to organize the material into a long-form collection of ideas, and I am finding ways to integrate with the range of New Music principles he’s bringing to the project. The complete concert- the discussion, the free improvisation quartet, and Drew’s piece- felt like a real artistic success, a meeting of many ideas about where the music is now and some ways 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 would be to try to put together a touring version of the ensemble and to design a series of concerts that would present and improvising group with me, then a smaller version of the compositionally based ensemble 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 the set with Drew’s music, and with his New Music background would be an 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 get out again since our North American tour in 2006 (!), maybe this would be an interesting way to combine all of this music… Drew and I are now in the process of putting together a plan to take this project on the road in Europe at some point in 2009. Seems like a long way off until it’s suddenly there, right in front of you again.
-Ken Vandermark, Chicago, 1/31/08
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