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.
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