Martin Shray on Just Not Cricket!

Free Jazz Blog, July 2013

Saturday, May 25th in 2013 was a hard day for British football fans (for the Americans out there: when I talk about football it’s what you call “soccer”): Two German teams – Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund – reached the Champions League final (which can be compared to the Super Bowl), both of them peppered with young players, but also with some older experienced hands. The first exclusively German final was ironically held in London’s Wembley Stadium which must have been a blow for the British fans considering the never-ending rivalry between British and German clubs, national teams and supporters, all the more because the British had to face an invasion of thousands of Germans. But invasions don’t have to be like that: For those Germans who like free improvised music the fact that the crème de la crème of British improvisers invaded Berlin to bring some of the finest music across the Channel was one of the concert highlights in 2011.

Now those who were not as lucky as the chosen ones who could be there can now listen to a well chosen selection of the performances that took place between 6th to 8th October  at the HFC (the former Hungarian House). What is even more, the music is presented in an exquisite box set that brings back memories of the legendary FMP releases (Cecil Taylor Live in Berlin 1988, FMP in Retrospect, Workshop Freie Music 1969 – 1978, Jazz aus der DDR) and the Total Music Meetings (TTMs). The connection here is Helma Schleif, who took over FMP from Jost Gebers when he decided to retire in 1999/2000. Unfortunately, the transition from Gebers to her did not go smoothly (actually it was an acrimonious argument and from my outside position I dare not say which one was right). In spite of dramatic financial cuts as to subsidies for the festival Schleif managed to organize eight more TTMs until 2008 but eventually she had to give up because the Berlin Senate stopped the support completely (considering that a left-wing council was responsible, it is a disgrace).

This festival Schleif curated with British saxophonist Tony Bevan and Luxembourgian film maker Antoine Prum (who made a very nice documentary about Sunny Murray and has started working on a film about the British free jazz scene). All in all they organized 22 concerts trying to bring three generations together – the first one around Trevor Watts, Lol Coxhill, Phil Minton and Eddie Prévost, the second one around musicians like Bevan himself or John Edwards and the new one with people like Dominic Lash or Gail Brand (you can see the complete list below).

You get an idea what the festival was about when you listen to the two quintets on the second LP. Both groups have a rock solid old school rhythm section consisting of Edwards/Prévost respectively Edwards/Sanders, the first group being a true old generation band (with Coxhill, Watts and Minton) while the second one presents the young guns (Tom Arthurs, Shabaka Hutchings and Alex Ward). And even if the classic group is absolutely great (I haven’t heard Minton in such excellent form for a long time) it is the young meeting the old which is the more fascinating one – you can literally feel the joy they had interacting, their constant state of surprise, like a young couple discovering their bodies, the feelings carrying them away. Imagine you are in the middle of a chase with ricocheting bullets (sax, trumpet) all around you, which are then torn to pieces by a relentless guitar. It is a sensual experience.

But basically the trios created the most interesting results, e.g. the one with Steve Beresford, Gail Brand and John Edwards in which the two veteran performers prepare a wide sound space for Brand whose lush trombone lines meander on tiptoes around piano sprinkles and bass pizzicatos.  Another highlight is the trio of Tom Arthurs, Steve Beresford and Matthew Bourne in which the young Bourne puts the interior of his piano through the mill with a water bottle, never touching the keys of his instrument but therefore spilling a lot of water while Beresford added electronic shredder. Tom Arthurs seems to enjoy the dialogue, he only contributes some sparse gargling which is just the icing on the cake. Finally, the heavyweight trio of two contrabasses and a bass saxophone (Bevan/Lash/Edwards) creeps in your bones like a monster in the dream of an innocent child. After two minutes they stop simultaneously to create a marvelous moment of silence only to come back even spookier. A track which definitely works as a horror film soundtrack.

There is a delicate note in the fact that the festival was not the centerpiece of the Berlin senate’s cultural funding but “only” a side project of a documentary. Prum filmed the whole festival and he used Luxembourgian public film funding to realize the project. He wants to ask the question if there is a specific British element in free improvisation and what the different generations might have in common. The festival created situations in which something new was possible, even failure was part of the concept. The LPs are already great – we are now looking forward to the documentary.