Jazz: Spellbound at the frontier

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE SET-UP on the stage is part Mission Control, part Heath Robinson. High-tech work stations full of futuristic gizmos loom over what look like random collections of junk salvaged from a skip, and the Dexion shelving for the percussionist Paul Lytton's DIY rack of things to beat, shake, rattle and roll, has an egg whisk sticking out of the side. There's no kitchen sink - just everything but. In one of Barry Guy's extraordinarily kinetic double-bass solos, a cooking pan lid is slid between the strings for textural effect. And in free improvisation - a form of music in which Lytton, Guy, the violinist Philipp Wachsmann and the saxophonist Evan Parker are world leaders - texture is almost all.

Since the movement began in the Sixties, inspired by both free jazz and the experiments of the contemporary classical avant garde, free improvisers have been burrowing about in the innards of their instruments, or employing them in unusual ways, in order to bring forth fresh sounds. The use of various types of electronic gadgetry to further distress and extend the sonic range has also been going since the beginning of the movement. But now they really have the technology to do it properly. This, the last date of a short UK tour by this ensemble, was the proof of the pudding.

While the four conventional instruments play, either solo or together, their contributions are simultaneously reconfigured by the real-time tweaking of three electronic sound processors (the Mission Control men: Walter Prati, Marco Vecchi and Lawrence Casserley, with Wachsmann switching between the two roles). The sound is mixed for an all-round speaker system and the results are amazingly impressive, with the electronic effects both echoing the original instruments and interpolating their own babble of squelches and squeaks.

It's also a strangely retro-futurist sound-world: part musique concrete, part Radiophonic Workshop effects for Dr Who. It could even be described as part state-of-the-art post-ambient grunge.

The programme for the separate pieces, which were all at least partially "composed", was also arranged with great care so that not all the Ensemble's eggs were put into the one basket, and each number introduced another member of the group until, by the end, they were all involved.

Although everything was interesting, the highlights were Guy's first bass solo (the pan lid one), which was almost indescribably rich and diverting, and the relatively late entry of Parker himself. Parker's soprano saxophone technique, which, through circular breathing, manages to create constantly shifting patterns that at times recall muezzins at prayer, or the exotic wheedling of North African pan-pipes, was, with the addition of the electronic effects, almost literally spell-binding.

At the end, after an hour and a half, you had had enough, but the evening provided a complete vindication of this often abused music's power and contemporary relevance.