This 4 CD box set contains four separate albums compiled from recordings made in seven English cities during the Mopomoso Tour of 2013. Each album is by a different artist or group of artists, and contains pieces cherry-picked from all seven performances. Standards are high across the board, and that’s carried over into the presentation. Here’s a snapshot of London’s free music scene in a clamshell box. It’s not exhaustive, but it is a great showcase for the capital’s longest-running improvised music series.
Since guitarist John Russell is Mopomoso’s prime mover and saxophonist Evan Parker is such a pivotal figure in the music, their trio with John Edwards (double bass) rightly topped the bill on tour; Pat Thomas played solo piano each night; Alison Blunt, Benedict Taylor and David Leahy came together as a string trio for the first time; and Alex Ward (clarinet) and Kay Grant (voice) resumed a dialogue they’ve been conducting, on and off, for several years (cf. their earlier compilation album Fast Talk (Emanem)).
Mopomoso (it’s an acronym: MOdernism, POst MOdernism, SO what?) has been championing freely improvised music—”and where applicable its relationship to other forms of contemporary music” (my italics)—since 1991. Treading a middle path between Reductionism and Free Jazz, improv Mopomoso-style is inclusive and conversational, open to likeminded international travellers and newcomers alike, but there are a few things it tends not to be, such as pronouncedly rhythmic or given to prolix exultancy.
Consider the instrumentation. In other contexts, Pat Thomas plays electronics and electric keys (Black Top), Evan Parker explores electroacoustic music and live processing (Tance Map), Alex Ward plays excoriating electric guitar (N.E.W., Deadly Orgone Radiation) and Kay Grant sometimes uses electronics to process her voice. Even John Russell sometimes plugs in, as he did for his 60th birthday duet with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore (as heard on John Russell With…). Here there are no electric or electronic instruments; it’s all au naturel. There aren’t even any drums, and that’s par for the course at Mopomoso gigs too, albeit both electronics and percussion do crop up from time to time (Twinkle³ and Ståle Liavik Solberg, for instance, both made recent appearances).
One thing this set does well to avoid is straight-up documentation. Rather than defer to the notion of improv on record as merely documentary, Making Rooms has been carefully curated. There are no long-form, set-length pieces. Only the Parker/Russell/Edwards trio routinely play that way, but even their three selections—the album titled Chasing The Peripanjandra—are relatively concise, each being around 23 minutes long.
By focusing on intertexture rather than energy, and the dynamics of growth and development rather than the combative friction of opposing forces, the Parker/Russell/Edwards trio avoid any risk of pomposity or self-importance (risks the title acknowledges with a wink). Russell’s guitar sounds brittle and naked against the bodily emphases of Edwards contrabass and Parker’s volubility, and the clear separation between textures allows the listener to slip inside the music. They don’t always play this way, but they’ve grasped a rare opportunity to distill a concentrated essence from an intense period of music making, and the result is a fine, deeply engaging album.
Pat Thomas’ Naqsh perhaps benefits the most from having such a wealth of material to draw from. It’s a far-ranging set that does full justice to his dynamic range as a pianist, but hangs together remarkably well thanks to impeccable sequencing. The long (12:35) title piece that opens the album plays like a concentrated symphony, but later pieces are played with more expressivity, from soft sounding and thoughtful temporising to explosive, high-speed discharges. Thomas is sometimes puckish, sometimes moody or volatile, seldom serene; the various ways he shades or shifts between moods can be unfathomable, never less than compelling, and often electrifying.
The trio of Alison Blunt, Benedict Taylor and David Leahy—respectively, violin, viola and double bass—enjoy more democracy than members of formal quartets, and exploit that democracy with verve, revelling in mercurial disputation in eight Knottings. The opening “Sheet Bend” is uniform and analytical, but the performances then get steadily knottier. Some, such as the 17 minute “Slip Knot”, range in extremes of tension from violent irruption to silence-skating. The double bass’s gravitas emphasises the richness in the viola, while the violin typically skims and skitters lightly, albeit Blunt isn’t shy of grinding, striking or releasing bowstrokes with sudden ferocity. Again, the track selection and sequencing is unerring.
Kay Grant and Alex Ward chose one piece from each performance to include on Seven Cities. Grant doesn’t push her vocals into the realm of make-believe language, but stays mostly with vocal sounds that anyone might imagine they could make – closer to the scat tradition, with few of the ticks and spasms that animate Phil Minton’s work, though Grant isn’t shy of such effects when they’re apposite. She’s imitative of ward’s clarinet, so far as they shadow one another to develop a shared vocabulary, and she must compliment the clarinet’s pitches, matching her breath control to its capacity for fast transitions between burring, streaming or flocking patterns of sound. I’m typically wary of improv vocals, but there’s such lucidity in these songs that I’m won over, and the rapport she shares with Ward is always alluring.
So Making Rooms sets a high standard for future releases on Weekertoft, a new label for improvised music co-founded by John Russell. Maybe it is, as one of the artists fretted, probably only half joking on Twitter, an “insanely uncommercial” release, but it’s one that anyone with any interest in freely improvised music will find inexhaustible. And since the ongoing Mopomoso concert series routinely truffles up great music, let’s hope it sets a precedent.
Evan Parker saxophones; John Russell guitar; John Edwards bass.
Pat Thomas solo piano.
Alison Blunt violin; Benedict Taylor viola; David Leahy bass.
Kay Grant voice; Alex Ward clarinet.
John Russell – With… + John Russell, Phil Durrant, John Butcher – Conceits.
Black Top with Evan Parker – #Two.
Alex Ward Quintet – Glass Shelves And Floor.
John Edwards and Okkyung Lee – White Cable, Black Wires + Pat Thomas – Al-Khwarizmi Variations.
Buy Making Rooms from Weekertoft on Bandcamp.