Philip Clark on Taking the Dog for a Walk

The Wire, Issue 367, 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?