While improv aficionados are still mourning the death in 2012 of the much-loved Lol Coxhill, the release of this vital set adds significantly to his recorded legacy.
Wishing You Were Here (FreeForm Association) is a 5CD set of previously unreleased live performances by the Recedents, a trio active from 1982 till 2010, and thus named, so Coxhill once said, because all three members were bald.
The set is also well timed to catch a swell of renewed interest in the Recedents’ lap steel guitarist, Mike Cooper, following his recent collaborations with guitarist/songwriter Steve Gunn and The Neck’s pianist Chris Abrahams; also reissues of Cooper’s landmark early 70s albums Trout Steel and Places I Know/The Machine Gun Co. The trio is completed by percussionist Roger Turner, who remains a constant presence on the improv scene.
In documenting the Recedent’s tours of Belgium, Italy, Germany, France and England in the years 1985-2008, Wishing You Were Here significantly expands on the trio’s recorded legacy, which hitherto comprised only the studio albums Barbecue Strut (Nato, 1987) and Zombie Bloodbath On The Isle Of Dogs (Nato, 1991).
With the exception of the first disc, which contains two sets, recorded ten years apart, of playful, detailed and relatively brief performances, each of the remaining discs features one continuous performance, generally more focused and closely considered, albeit in all ways characteristic of the trio’s unique blend of humour and refined anarchy.
The four short pieces recorded in Belgium in 1985, and the two recorded in Italy in 1995, despite the ten-year interim, sound much of a piece, and they are markedly different to what follows. The improv imperative bubbles up playfully via the group’s extensive selection of instruments and ad-hoc sound-making gizmos, and the Recedents music of this period sounds like a precursor of today’s Furt (“simultaneously playful in an almost childlike sense and mind-fuckingly cerebral,” as I put it in a review of Furt’s Sense (psi, 2010)).
The group’s primary instrumentation is invariably soprano sax (or sopranino, on disc one), electric lap steel and “small drumkit”, but, at this early stage, electronics are an equally important aspect of the Recedents’ sound, and nothing is done to suppress the synthetic tonalities of, say, Coxhill’s Casio SK1 keyboard or Cooper’s Korg drum machine.
“Stepping Inside Your Aeroplane” on disc two, recorded in Frankfurt just five years later, is quite different: a single 56 minute performance, which for long stretches flirts with inaudibility, yet still displays plenty of agitative, sui generis sound-crafting. The group’s instrumentation is here stripped back, perhaps for practical reasons. Turner, as he often does, plays only “house drum kit and percussion”, and although Cooper still deploys a drum machine and bass synth, the collective palette is generally more acoustic and ascetic.
No matter how austere their sound might get, however, the Recedents always seem light of heart, and as this performance draws to an end, Coxhill begins to converse with himself, and to cough (probably a put-on):
“The thing to cure a bad cough, is to pretend you’re a Theremin. Well what sort of noise does a Theremin make? Well sort of… oohowooho. That doesn’t sound very happy. Yes, well, I’ll try again, I’m not very good at it…. I can’t hear it, there’s too much bloody noise going on.”
That “bloody noise” is mostly Turner, making a rumpus with chains, cymbals, etc.. Coxhill ultimately switches back to soprano saxophone for a coda to this endgame, fleetingly mellifluous in a passage that comes about as close to ‘conventional’ free jazz as this trio ever got, until Cooper plays the set out with an ad-hoc drone, probably utilising a small electric fan.
“Instances with You” is a 49:30 performance recorded at Les Instants Chavirés, Paris, in May 2002, that harks back to the restlessly probing spirit of the earlier concerts. The trio play with ever more limited resources, this time sans electronics, and this makes for a concomitantly sere avoustic, though Cooper’s lap steel with applications sometimes mirrors electronic glitch effects. Turner’s on house percussion again, and Coxhill plays only alto and Cracklebox. The latter is described on Wikipedia as “a small box with six metal contacts on top, which when pressed…generate all manner of unusual sounds and tones. The human body becomes a part of the circuit and determines the range of sounds possible.” Cooper seems less reluctant than previously to produce recognisable lap steel sounds, but the ever-agitative Turner makes the biggest impression here as the Recedent least content to pan for improv gold amid raw sonics.
The set’s fourth disc,”Shut Up Your Silence” (43:53) was recorded at the Red Rose in NE London in November 2003. It has Cooper on amplified acoustic National Resophonic guitar and a “homemade string instrument” plus Kaos Pad, sampler and field recordings, while Coxhill makes do with alto, and seems keen, at first, to make as little noise with it as possible (he actually apologises, early on, for one overly-audible squeak). At around 10:45 Cooper briefly essays melodic finger picking, though he lays out to foreground a chirruping melody in Coxhill’s saxophony. Turner then overlays a freestyle percussion tattoo, inviting Cooper to in-fill and Coxhill to turn more acerbic. The performance proceeds thus, focused moment-to-moment, progressing tidally, as pressure constantly mounts in suppressed agitation, sometimes spiked by jarring interventions, but invariably drawing back into the grain of near-silence.
The final disc presents a 46:48 performance titled “Wishing”, from a 2008 concert in Bristol. Coxhill, less than usually restrained, puts in a commanding performance, and by the end of an atypically energised and relatively noisy set, with both Cooper and Turner essaying an uncommonly direct approaches (at 41:00, Cooper’s guitar assumes the excoriating characteristics of post-rock noise), they’ve both reined in, exposing the naked euphony of Coxhill’s soprano sax.
The final item in the package is a booklet, nicely illustrated with flyers, photography and other visual ephemera, and annotated with illuminating recollections, freeform thoughts and a brief chronology. Cooper’s contribution emphasises the trio’s “refusal to take musical sides in the European improvised music scene,” and rightly so. The Recedents were onto something special, tapping into a deep well they could, and did, profitably return to again and again.
Lol Coxhill: soprano saxophone, Casio SK1 keyboard, voice, pre-recorded tapes, Crackle Box. Mike Cooper: electric lap steel guitar, amplified acoustic National Resophonic guitar, homemade string instrument, guitar pick-up, electric fan, small metal objects, Kaos Pad, sampler, Casio SK-1, Roland bass synth, Korg drum machine, cassette tape, field recordings, radio, Crackle Box. Roger Turner: house or small drumsets, snare drum & Meazzi pedal tom, EMS Synthi-A, radio.
Buy Wishing You Were Here from ReR Megacorp.