Jazz: The future's where it's at

Ambitroniques and Scapes Exeter Phoenix Theatre
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The Independent Culture
Question: Is the application of new technology to music a good thing? Answer: Er, up to a point. For most of its history modern jazz has remained a fairly Luddite genre, happily content to decry changes in the way sounds are produced and processed electronically, at least when it comes to live performance.

It's not that the musicians aren't interested in new developments. Whenever someone comes up with a nifty invention like the wind synthesiser, every horn player tries to get one on demo. Like a kid with a new toy, they gleefully take the monster out of the box and give it a go, but it always sounds terrible.

But if you had to trust any jazz musicians with the latest gizmo to hit the market, the brothers Arguelles would be top of the list. Julian, who plays saxophones, and Steve, who plays drums, are two of the most intelligent and imaginative players currently at work in this country. Four years ago, they collaborated on an album, Scapes, in which the resources of the recording studio were used as an additional instrument. It was like a soundtrack for a movie that had yet to be made. It was one of the best British jazz records ever.

On Thursday in Exeter, the brothers re-invented the experiments of the album for a live performance, as an opener for Steve's new project with the French keyboard player Benoit Delbecq, Ambitroniques. The hi-tech elements were relatively restrained. Julian would breathe some air onto the reed of his saxophone, sample it, and then replay the sound as the backdrop for further improvisation. In response, Steve set up accompanying rhythms, all the time moving restlessly around his kit. Over several numbers, the brothers' delicate interplay was so empathetic that the resulting sound wasn't just good; it seemed like a dream of what new, technologically aware jazz should be doing.

The Ambitroniques were equally interesting, but far less successful. Steve's drum kit was linked to a digital sampler, a drum machine, and a sort of professional version of one of those irritating graphic equalisers that allow stereo-bores to demonstrate the breadth of their frequency range. Meanwhile, Delbecq sat at a workstation twiddling with two keyboards and a patch-bay of knobs. The music got lost somewhere in between, for they were both so busy pressing their buttons and turning their knobs that they didn't have time to even look at each other. As a result, the random element in the music, which was improvised as they went along, came out tops. Every time an interesting noise appeared, you hoped that the players would milk it for all it was worth. That they didn't suggests that they thought another, equally interesting, one would be along in a minute. But just like waiting for a bus, the timetable proved frustratingly irregular.

Ambitroniques and Scapes: Leeds Irish Centre (0113 245 5570), Wednesday.

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