Taking the Dog for a Walk

Conversations with British Improvisers

After Sunny’s time now, his authoritative portrait of the American Free jazz drumming legend Sunny Murray, Luxembourg filmmaker Antoine Prum turns his attention to the British Free Improvised Music scene in this new feature-length music documentary. Branching out from a three-day festival in Berlin conceived and organised for the purpose of the film, Taking the Dog for a Walk maps the scene of British Improvisers, past and present, retracing the road that led from its emergence and emancipation in the 1960s to the recent (albeit small) surge in popularity as talented new players and dynamic venues are coming to the fore.
In his search for the ‘Britishness’ of British Free Improvised Music, Prum is assisted by bass sax player Tony Bevan and stand-up comedian Stewart Lee, who talk to musicians from different generations and backgrounds to uncover the specifics of a genre that refutes the very notion of genre. Alternating with extended live music sequences, the conversations gravitate around the idiosyncrasies of improvisation, from playing in front of the proverbial ‘four men and a dog’ to pursuing a career in a milieu where success is not measured by mainstream criteria.

A music documentary by Antoine Prum
LUX/UK 2014, 128 min., Stereo

With Steve Beresford, Adam Bohman, Sarah Gail Brand, John Butcher, Lol Coxhill, Angharad Davies, Rhodri Davies, Max Eastley, John Edwards, Caroline Kraabel, Phil Minton, Thurston Moore, Maggie Nicols, Steve Noble, Eddie Prévost, John Russell, Mark Sanders, Alan Tomlinson, Roger Turner, Alex Ward, Trevor Watts, Veryan Weston a.o.

Stewart Lee conversations
Tony Bevan artistic advisor

Carlo Thiel director of photography
Nikos Welter 2nd camera
Gilles Laurent sound engineer
Antoine Prum, Theo Thiesmeier, Marc Recchia edit
Maikôl Seminatore sound edit


LUX/UK 2014, 144 min
Dolby 5.1/Stereo
French subtitles
John Butcher 20:33
Max Eastley 29:11
John Edwards 29:10
Thurston Moore 34:55
Maggie Nicols & Phil Minton 26:06
Roger Turner 33:04
Veryan Weston 03:01
Richard Williams 22:54

Steve Noble, drums
John Edwards, double bass
Alex Ward, electric guitar
Recorded at Cafe OTO
on 17 January 2012


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Taking the Dog for a Walk: Conversations with English Improvisers

Jason Bivins, Point of Departure, Issue 51 - June 2015

You can probably count on one hand the number of films about improvised music that don’t focus on particular individuals. From Imagine the Sound to Jazz is My Religion, few are the filmmakers who get the collaborative, longue durée shapes that scenes and communities take, with the indelible changes these entail for music-making.

Luxembourg’s Antoine Prum makes that very shift, following up his spotlight on Sunny Murray with this marvelously entertaining documentary about British improvised music, from its beginnings in the mid-1960s London scene (coalescing around John Stevens and the Little Theatre Club) to the present, in all its varieties. Shaped by the historical knowledge of artistic advisor Tony Bevan (who also plays and speaks) and ace interviews by the British comedian Stewart Lee (whose spot on Celebrity Mastermind, where he chose Derek Bailey as his category, is a highlight), the two-hour film alternates between conversations and performances, history and anthropology, all focused on delineating the impressive range of aesthetic sensibilities taking shape across generations, all held together in a community that not only tolerates such different sensibilities but invites clash and contradiction in the name of possibility.

It opens with a fabulously exemplary scene, in which drummer Marc Sanders interacts with a Bingo caller until trombonist Alan Tomlinson enters with some raucous hog-calling. It’s a nice way to capture the immediacy, the prankishness, the everyday concerns of this scene. The film lingers over the recollections of Richard Williams, Victor Schonfield, and others talking about the radical collective, egalitarian ethos emerging around Stevens, Watts, and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, which proved so attractive to young improvisers like Maggie Nicols (whose recollections are marvelous here) and Veryan Weston. You get a clear sense of how fast-moving the “movement towards diversity” was in these early days, through SME and Evan Parker, Derek Bailey and AMM. The shared focus, and the greatest subsequent influence, was on purity, authenticity, and developing your own language, testing its limits in extreme situations and familiar ones, one-off chance meetings or units of long standing.

Much of this is known to fans of the music, though this is as good an account as any (and is so very much worth it for the documentation and the posterity). But what really connects about this film are the detailed, compelling accounts of development and differences in aesthetics from different improvisers. So many key figures on this scene – from Roger Turner and Phil Minton to Johns Edwards and Butcher – get considerable time to convey their sensibilities in detail that you come away with a very much clearer understanding of what makes this particular constellation of musicians so distinctive. (And there is an entire second DVD consisting of the entire interviews with key figures, a fabulous archive that is a very nice touch from the producers.) Turner describes how the second generation was “promiscuous in their interchanging of musical partners,” and notes how the quiet “insect music” was in many ways a response to cramped apartment living in the city (this is a fascinating pre-echo of Tokyo’s Onkyo scene). Steve Beresford talks about the entertainment factor, the roots of “extended technique” in R&B bands and Spike Jones soundtracks.

In each case, the interviewees are shown in performance as well, and more than just a perfunctory few seconds (there’s also a terrific CD included here, a vivid trio of guitarist/clarinetist Alex Ward, drummer Steve Noble, and Edwards, also excerpted here and there in the film). For example, after discussing how he began to develop his technique by imitating family members and environments in Wales, Phil Minton performs with Beresford, Eddie Prévost, and horns. Bassist Edwards recalls his baptism moment, seeing a Barre Phillips “solo” consisting mostly of Phillips chatting with the audience. This kind of intimacy, always possible at the small gigs improvisers play (alas), certainly makes possible a kind of reflection on audience and motivation. Edwards recalls a student asking “What do you aim to get from a gig?” His response, on camera, problematized the very question: “One of the important things is being able to accept failure ... The whole point is about doing it.” This kind of self-abnegation, combined with vivid good humor, also gives the film its title: the old joke holds that improv audiences typically consist of three people and a dog, and so if you wonder what can be done for such an audience, well at least you can take the dog for a walk.

And yes, there is a dog shown outside a studio, standing before younger musicians like pianist Matthew Bourne, bassist Dominic Lash, harpist Rhodri Davies, and saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, who now have to confront this music as its own kind of lineage, scene, or even tradition of Britishness. The closer you get to the present, with its complex weave of different generations and influences, the wider both the questioning and the music get. The late Lol Coxhill and Alex Ward play a juicy, overtone-rich  soprano-clarinet duo, after which they debate whether improvised music is a shared music (and Ward describes the shift from a focus on purely non-idiomatic playing to an improvised music comfortable in assimilating absolutely everything). This much is consistent with the spirit of what Prévost calls the music’s “permission to disobey,” seeking to find your own music on your own terms.

The scene has regularly investigated organization and even institutionalization, as with the London Musicians’ Collective (housed briefly in a former railway workers’ canteen in Camden Town), remembered vividly by Max Eastley and others, or the salons regularly sponsored by Incus’ Karen Brookman Bailey (who speaks eloquently about the relation between orthodoxy and recorded documents). But for the most part, as Noble conveys, musicians simply ride along from gig to gig, following their own idiosyncratic course across the conceptual geography of multifarious London. There is action painting, poetry, performances on boats. There is Thurston Moore talking about the shocking resonance of Bailey across idioms. There is Adam Bohmann building and playing his own mad scientist’s instruments. These musicians think deeply about their art. Trombonist Sarah Gail Brand finds value in what she identifies as the fragility, vulnerability, shyness, and humor of the British scene, saying that you can’t affect the language of free playing, because if you do this you’re inevitably not actually playing it – “you’re working it out as you go along, and if it doesn’t work, there we are.” Saxophonist Caroline Kraabel talks eloquently about the “foolhardy ambition” to integrate all aspects of your life. Guitarist John Russell talks about how visceral the music seemed to him, not just cerebrally interesting. And Butcher describes the challenge of creating your own music but also cultivating on-the-spot flexibility: “it’s the only time when I feel like I’m physically in time, as part of the time.”

There are more highlights of interviews and performances and vintage footage than can reasonably be noted in an already-long review. Suffice it to say, this is an essential document that should be investigated by anyone with even the slightest interest in this music. But I would be remiss if I didn’t note how regularly moving it is, at least to this writer. It consistently sings the praises of a defiant scene committed to individual aesthetics in a world that turns away from strange beauty. While the din goes on, musicians dream up and work on and play back to each other their own sounds of possibility in the room above a pub, a bingo parlor, or a rustic country stream. Give thanks.

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Taking The Dog For A Walk

Philip Clark, The Wire 75, September 2014

For one night only, the Rio Cinema in Dalston formed the third point in an East London free improv triangle between Cafe Oto and 14 Downs Road, HQ of Incus Records and erstwhile Derek Bailey residence. As a venue for the premiere of Taking The Dog For A Walk, Antoine Prum's documentary film about British free improvisation, there was nowhere better. With the final credits rolling, three clear options presented themselves: head to Cafe Oto for a performance of Morton Feldman's For Bunita Marcus, or to the Vortex to hear Matthew Shipp's Trio, or stay for the post-screening party. From young tigers like Tom Arthurs and Alex Ward to (relatively) old lions like Eddie Prevost and Steve Beresford, all free improvising life was here.

But the absence of one towering figure loomed large. Evan Parker declined to take part in the film, which meant, paradoxically, he was as much a ghostly presence as Derek Bailey- who died in 2005. Prum makes it clear on his Ni-Vu-Ni-Connu website that he never intended his film to be exhaustive, and instead, and not inappropriately, Taking The Dog For A Walk (subtitled Conversations With British Improvisers) cuts a slice through the present and invites us to listen in. There is historical context aplenty. But you are never left in doubt that this film is documenting an evolving and perpetually engaged music- especially as Prum went to the considerable effort and expense of shipping out to Berlin 16 major British improvisors for a showcase festival in 2012 that left him a unique pool of performances (including the last official appearance of Lol Coxhill on film) and interviews, conducted by Stewart Lee, upon which to draw.

Evan Parker's nonappearance removed the temptation of lingering for too long over his feud with Derek Bailey, a flashpoint that has become the de facto starting point of many free improv histories. In photographs and archival footage, Parker is very present throughout- and guitarist John Russell says hearing a Parker solo represented a personal road to Damascus - but the latter half of the film moves the story on by asking how the music, its nature and practice, has developed since Bailey's death. Drummer Paul Hession deals sensitively with the notion that Bailey's own methods had themselves become an orthodoxy (an argument Bailey himself readily discussed) and his death obliged many musicians to re-examine where the music had come from and where it might go next.

Musicians of his generation, Eddie Prevost explains, who loved the free jazz of Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy, needed to wise up: they were white and from London, and while the disobedient provocation of black jazz had captured their hearts and minds, their task was to find a musical identity to call their own. The generation of British musicians older than Prevost, Parker and Bailey- the likes of Ronnie Scott, Tubby Hayes and alto saxophonist Peter King- were still engaged in pitched battles between lovers of classic New Orleans jazz and new fangled bebop. But suddenly, during the mid-1960s, the defining moment arrived: a collective realisation that an improvised music could exist where jazz might be one motivating element alongside Webern or John Cage. Or there may be no jazz at all.

From the outside a major misunderstanding endures: that free improvisation is a style or genre, a grab-bag of stylistic hooks that, once learnt, bestows all the tools anyone needs to be an improvisor. But free improvisation is of course about taking an attitude towards material -it's not the material itself. Interviewed outside Cafe Oto, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore discusses how such founding principles play into today 's scene. Interviewed in Berlin, trombonist Gail Brand cannily reminds us that "trying to play free means you're not free", and Moore cites clarinetist, guitarist and composer Alex Ward as a musician who typifies the obsessions of a new generation, using his free improvisor's brain to filter outside musical interests: noise, rock, song forms. The reference points 40 years ago were jazz and Webern; now the field has broadened.

Bailey came from working class Sheffield, Prevost from bomb-damaged Bermondsey.

The musicians who pieced this music together- which as yet had no name- grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War and had little formal musical training. And without wanting to get overly Gracie Fields about it, that postwar attitude of make do and mend bled into an attitude about music- free improvisation's institutional informality and pliant urgency; play now because there might be no tomorrow.

There are subliminal hints of those working class roots in the opening scene, as drummer Mark Sanders improvises along to the rhythmic barks of a bingo caller in Leeds. But when Lol Coxhill -sporting the zootiest zoot suit you've ever seen- and Steve Beresford turn up on Brighton Pier with their group The Promenaders to play a free improv tea dance, the sound of Geraldo slamming into Albert Ayler leaves East Sussex OAPs confused. lssues of class and the economic imperative are upon us once again. The final section of Prum's film is a Julien Temple-like valentine to London, a breathless gallop through the city using time-lapse photography to follow Alex Ward footslogging it between gigs: the mad dash from Cafe Oto to Boat-ting to The Klinker. London is now, London is it. But the post-Olympic corporate wet dream metropolis of Boris Johnson and his spivvy moneymen views those demanding to keep hold of something real in contempt. Since the mid-60s free improv has thrived on the margins. There were rooms above pubs; even the Little Theatre Club managed to sustain itself for two separate periods in Covent Garden. Box clever and you could live cheaply in London. But those margins are being squeezed tighter. Prum has captured the scene at a crucial crossroads. How long before Dalston becomes sanitised like Soho? How will free improv adapt as these old supportive certainties dissolve?

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Taking The Dog For A Walk: Conversations with British Improvisers


Taking the Dog for a Walk is the definitive portrait of British free improvisation. Yet, from the first sequence of drummer Mark Sanders improvising alongside a bingo caller, the sardonic humor implicit in the genre isn’t neglected either—note the vintage clip of Lol Coxhill and other improvisers in zoot suit disguise playing at a beach resort. Even the title references the hoary jape that four men and a dog was the typical audience.

Encompassing discussions with more than 20 players and informed observers of the scene, interspaced with key performances at London clubs, the film proves that BritImprov is a constantly evolving sound, which now spans three generations. Reminiscences about drummer John Stevens and guitarist Derek Bailey’s mid ‘60s experiments at the Little Theatre club are given their due. But observers counter that the scene didn’t begin and end there. Although veterans like percussionist Eddie Prévost describe how the music initially evolved as a white, British response to the free jazz of Black Americans, drummer Roger Turner posits that the infamous description of BritImprov as hushed “insect music” came about because many of the pioneers lived in bed-sits with neighbors all around. Free music’s acceptance that every performance can’t be perfect is also mentioned with pride by many. Drummer Steve Noble also quarrels with those who call the sounds “self-indulgent”. Self-indulgence, he says, is rehearsing and putting on the same show every time. The most profound difference with the third generation of free improvisers is the interpolation of rock, reggae, electronic, noise and notated sounds.

Except for the frequently cited Bailey (1930-2005), the film’s archetypical figure may be Alex

Ward. Someone equally proficient twining hushed abstract clarinet lines with soprano saxophonist Coxhill as playing scorching noise guitar with Edwards and Noble, he demonstrates in speech and performance that U.K. free improv has an exciting future.

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