Fred Frith was back at Cafe Oto for his third annual residency, playing just a week after his old colleague in 70s avant-garde rock group Henry Cow, Tim Hodgkinson, had appeared alongside synth player Thomas Lehn.
Frith was paired on consecutive nights with a local free jazz tag team in bassist John Edwards and drummer Mark Sanders, and with turntablist and fellow New Yorker Christian Marclay in what was, incredibly, their first collaboration since the 80s, when they were both prime movers in New York’s creatively vital ‘downtown’ jazz scene.
6 July 2012: Fred Frith, John Edwards, and Mark Sanders
The first set of Friday night kicked off as aggressively as a notional acoustic free jazz variant of Frith’s occasional power trio Massacre might. But that mood was soon tempered to favour more considered approaches, and for much of the evening the trio’s interactions were at their most subtly-hued and creatively understated.
Frith variously cradled his guitar in his lap and bowed it, played it with shoe brushes, and used an e-bow to produce sustained high pitch harmonics. The range of sounds, colours and effects he produced was astonishing, but always in the service of some musical subtlety. As saxophonist Cath Roberts put it in a tweet: “First night of the residency sounding like dolphins, giant mice, whales…”, and although it didn’t strike me in quite the same way, I knew exactly what she meant.
Frith was well matched withSanders, always the subtlest of free drummers, and Edwards, whose expressive range is inimitable. In one passage that served to galvanise proceedings, the bassist played a light but thrumming motorik rhythm while Frith strummed a bass line on his guitar, Sanders playfully embellishing their steady time with layered percussion.
The second set was initially less focused, though the trio rewarded their audience’s close attention with sublimely original sound sourcing in a series of gorgeous discrete sound events. Frith experimented with objects from his table of available preparations. At one point he threaded an ordinary string through his guitar strings and produced barely audible drag effects before mutely bowing it. A slightly more conventional de-tuning approach produced rich eastern-inflected harmonics, which Edwards, in his element moving deftly through a variety of playing styles, matched with dry barbs plucked with his bow stem.
The trio changed tack dramatically for their encore. Frith and Edwards locked into an elastic, propulsive groove as Sanders, on mallets, played a cyclically polyrhythmic rubato. The cadenced tension of his piece gave the set a sense of harmonic completion, and primed the entire audience for a deserved eruption of applause at the close.
7 July 2012: Fred Frith and Christian Marclay
The second night of Frith’s residency bought him tougher with Christian Marclay.
An artist who uses turntables with vinyl as preparations, Marclay is more likely to scrape a stylus laterally across a record’s grooves in repeating patterns as to ‘scratch’ in the conventional sense, although he does allow occasional snatches of recognisable ‘samples’ to break through the abrasive cicatricial blizzard he produces.
Frith got the first set underway playing his guitar, like a snare drum, with the flats of a pair of paint brushes, Marclay underscoring the percussive effect with a driving, rhythmic loop while allowing an occasional flicker of Wurlitzer whorl to bleed through.
Frith, playing his array of fx boxes and pedals barefoot, allowed a subtle middle east inflection to colour his harmonics, as his soloing mirrored the sonic slippage and elisions of Marclay’s turntablism.
Frith slipped over to the Oto piano to play allusively classical counterpoint some playful cartoon cut-ups and antique pop sampling from Marclay, only for Marclay to respond with some playful mirroring, dropping the needle onto some classical guitar grooves.
When Marclay’s turntablism became more abstract, Frith countered with deliciously melodic filigree guitar. His response to a burst of repetitive beats that segued into tribal percussives was, by contrast, a series of choppy, flamenco-inflected figures.
As the night’s first set neared its end and Marclay’s playing became denatured and abstract, Frith moved back to the piano, at first plucking delicately on its harp and then essaying a mournful, fractured melody.
The second set contained a similarly dazzling variety of colour and texture: Frith plundered his arsenal of preparations in a spirit of sheer sonic adventure, de-tuning long sustains in a mirroring of Marclay’s manual varispeed manipulations; Marclay then responded to clean, classical-sounding guitar playing (“like sunlight glinting on an azure sea”, I noted), with tight, grainy loops of operatic vinyl.
When Frith’s abstractons grew abrasive, Marclay turned to playing his decks with slabs of vinyl, scraping an album across a tone arm and stabbing it percussively into the turntable casing. Back at the piano, Frith responded jauntily to looped bongo rhythms, briefly evoking the 50s American fad for kitsch exotica.
Toward the end of the set Frith returned to the piano, and stayed there for the encore. The sensitive melody he played to close the main set became a nostalgic reverie when offset by a grainy, looped vinyl run-out groove, and he accompanied more obfusc vinyl noise, punctuated by foghorn blats and intercut with string samples, with woozy barroom nostalgia, lightening his touch to silence as Marclay stripped his sound down to the stillness of vibrating electricity.