Raw Tonk is the label, and raw tonking is a pretty good description of the type of music on this pair of closely related releases.
The earliest, The Small Departs, The Great Approaches, was recorded by the sax/bass/drums trio of Colin Webster, Otto Willberg and Andrew Cheetham at Islington Mill, Salford, on 12 July 2015. Six months later, with guitarist David Birchall added to form a quartet, they reconvened in a studio in Stockport to record Plastic Knuckle.
As the recording locations suggest all the musicians, except for Webster, who makes his home in London, are Manchester based.
Webster does individual lino-print artworks for both releases, the first of which has been given a title taken from the I’Ching; I don’t think anyone’s said why; it’s straight-up European free jazz in post-Brötzmann style, and although it’s played with rare sensitivity at times you won’t need divination skills to get into it.
The Small Departs, The Great Approaches has two parts, mirroring the live set I assume it was. They are prosaically titled “Part I” (16:34) and “Part II” (24:48).
The trio finds its footing with the blustery, fine but unremarkable Euro freejazz of the first nine minutes of “Part 1”. Then they settle into a focused and surprisingly subtle and textural performance dominated by Willberg’s sinuous bass bowing, first matched to deep-drawn baritone sax breaths, and then to deft and colouristic splashes of peripheral kit percussion. That gives them a platform for a quartet summation that truffles up some strikingly fresh correspindences.
“Part 2” begins slowly with Webster circulating flurries of slow breath against a steady backing. After six minutes Willberg bows up a threnody and Cheetham unspools a loose rhythm, but they soon slip back into the former mode only to find that equibilbium dispelled. Notes of strain and anguish creep in, so they reduce things to an essence of silence and minimal noisemaking. Webster draws them up again, but Cheetham’s percussion accompaniment is more agitated this time. Willberg’s plucked contrabass pegs everything together, as it does throughout the sour and more or less frenetic endgame that follows, winning space for a deserved and dynamically expressive solo before Webster pulls a surprise tune out of the hat.
The addition of guitar on the quartet set opens things up.
Title track “Plastic Knuckle” (16:45) moves quickly from small acoustic dabs and riffles into quite abrasive and confrontational, Birchall’s corrosive guitar slashing against Webster’s acerbic alto sax figures. Then there’s a jazzier passage wherein the sax sweetens, before turning blustery again when that sweetness curdles and the quartet coils itself into a brief burst of intensity. A lull sees them picking over the aftermath awhile, aggregating microsound scratch and scrabbling, pulling towarda a new coherence that they never quite achieve, despite Webster’s harshly blown lyricism imposing a theme as they reach for a climax. It’s Willberg’s resinous, slithery bowed bass that takes things out.
It’s raw and vital in each moment, but rather formless overall – unlike what follows.
“Ghost Dance” (14:56) begins with lengthy Birchall solo, the guitarist sounding chimes over wavering sustains. Webster comes in low, an enveloping fug of Baritone saxophony amid which Cheetham’s periperal percussion sounds chime like breeze-blown ships’ rigging. Guitar and percussion then square up, a slow scrapyard gamelan that Cheetham develops rhythmically. Meanwhile Webster’s growly circular breathing intensifies, collective intensities ratchet, and there’s a controlled peak and diminuendo. It’s a powerful, nuanced and well-shaped performance.
“Low Level Curlew” is something else again, a short (05:27), snappy and playful bundle of spiky energy in neo-NYC downtown freejazz mode. Willberg sets off greased licks, Webster plays caustically, and Cheetham’s kit percussion freewheells. Willberg’s bass pulse proves vital.
Where the trio set impresses with its unity, the quartet proves both less coherent and more prismatic; and that allows for “Ghost Dance”, which would be an outstanding cut from any session.
Colin Webster – alto and baritone saxophones; Otto Willberg – double bass; Andrew Cheetham – drums + David Birchall – guitar on Plastic Knuckle.
Buy Plastic Knuckle and The Small Departs, The Great Approaches from Raw Tonk on Bandcamp. Available as digital or CD in recycled cardboard card-pak.