Live in Antwerp was recorded at the WIM free music festival in 2007, a year before Spring Heel Jack’s last studio album Songs and Themes came out on Thirsty Ear. Their penultimate live concert, it sees one-time drum-&-bass duo turned improv auteurs John Coxon and Ashley Wales (playing, respectively, electric guitar and electronics) making up a quintet with Pat Thomas (piano and electronics), Alex Ward (clarinet) and Paul Lytton (drums).
This is a looser and more spontaneous-sounding affair than their previous (excellent) Spring Heel Jack live album, Live (Thirsty Ear, 2003), which fielded a crack team of American jazz giants (Matthew Shipp, William Parker), European improv masters (Evan Parker, Han Bennink), and one British indie auteur (Spiritualized frontman J. Spaceman). The ‘Antwerp’ group, in contrast, is an all London-centric improv affair. It typifies the ad hoc group MO that Coxon and wales have favoured since the turn of the millennium, operating initially under the Spring Heel Jack banner, but increasingly featuring Coxon and Wales as named instrumentalists, rather than as a production duo.
“SHJ Live in Antwerp” is a single 50 minute performance. The beginning is muted; string scrapes from both piano and guitars and twittering reeds amid a mist of electronics thickened by echoing piano-percussion resonances. Compared to the Live group, which went through its changes but set its compass by early 70s electro-acoustic jazz fusion (cf. Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi group), the sound the Antwerp crew makes is altogether (and notwithstanding its electronics and plugged-in guitar) more stringently acoustic.
A clarinet solo around ten minutes in is beset by an unplaceable wispy mithering of scrapes and scratchings, mirrored shortly in a welter of light peripheral kit clicks with which Lytton patterns Thomas’ spare, suspended piano chords. Rather than a pre-planned progression of successive sub-group showcases (as heard on Live), Live in Antwerp seems more organic. Ward comes back in with a more vigorous solo, and Thomas responds with fluency and increasing urgency. Meanwhile Lytton’s percussion becomes a tumbleweed thicket of small-sound kinetics.
Just when the listener wonders where Coxon is in all this he plays a gentle phrase on guitar that hooks into the clarinet, re-introducing melody. It’s a small, intuitively beautiful moment. Seconds later, Lytton’s mini-maelstrom has taken over, whipped up by electronics. All change. A subsequent fleeting moment juxtaposes noise with proximate acousmatic electronica.
Half an hour in, and the quintet has whipped up another storm, with Ward’s paint-stripper clarinet at its eye. A sudden modulation to calm is breathtaking. As the group settle, Coxon sends small electrical pulses into a soundfield of rustlings and chitterings – a backdrop of silence, a space of non-idiomatic sound, becoming ever quieter.
It’s Ward, again, who probes first. He’s answered by Lytton, with brushes, and Coxon, with tentative bent notes. There’s no rush to climax, rather a collective play on tensions already generated. Wales’ samples and electronics, so easy to mis-identify, and therefore to overlook, come into play as connective tissue, bridging textures.
Whether the overt irruptions of synth sound near the end of the set are down to Wales or Thomas, it’s hard to say, but they provoke a cathartic release of energy and a final efflorescence of raw improv noise. It’s at once chaotic and mindful; gloriously unscorable; another one-off Spring Heel jackpot.
Ashley Wales electronics/samples; John Coxon electric guitar; Pat Thomas piano and electronics; Alex Ward clarinet; Paul Lytton drums.
Buy Live in Antwerp direct from Treader.