MUSIC; Are you listening Lady Thatcher?

The Rare Music Club Exeter, then tours
Three years after its debut in a rough-and-ready Bristol Indian restaurant, the pianist Keith Tippett's remarkable musical intervention continues, mixing free improvisation with contemporary classical and finger- in-the-ear folk, in an informal atmosphere where the audience can drink as well as listen. Now with a regular home at Gloucestershire County Cricket Club, the club has gone on the road with this intermittent national tour. This date almost duplicated the bill for the inaugural show, Tippett's own co-op trio, Mujician, being joined by the Balanescu Quartet, and the newcomer Pauline Cato, a Northumbrian piper, representing the folk constituency held originally by fellow piper Steafan Hannigan.

Mujician opened the evening with a masterful performance of unreconstructed free jazz, meditative and fiery by turns, which showed that in such a hit-and-miss genre, there is probably no one with a higher scoring average. The group excels at maintaining an intensity of sound over a huge dynamic range and inevitably recalls the late quartet performances of John Coltrane, with the keening wail - part threnody, part physical assault - of Paul Dunmall's soprano sax grounded by Tippett's insistent, repetitive figures and the drummer Tony Levin's ceaseless invention, Penderecki mixed with press rolls.

The Northumbrian pipes differ from their Scottish cousins mainly, as someone once said, by being a musical instrument. They are also squeezed not blown, and Pauline Cato looked as if she were cradling a swan in her lap, plumping the feathered breast with her elbow while coaxing sweet notes from its neck. If the notes occasionally sounded too like Rolf Harris's stylophone for comfort, a final selection of waltzes was beautifully played, suggesting unimagined correspondences between Tex-Mex and Geordie cultures.

The Balanescus topped the bill with a selection of original Alex Balanescu compositions inspired by the historic changes in Eastern Europe. Playing with contact microphones on their instruments, and at one point augmented by a DAT tape, with the leader intoning dates and slogans over the top, the sound was at first as thin and boxy as a ghettoblaster. But as the group relaxed and eased the weight of their bowing, which had previously made everything sound as harsh as their album of Kraftwerk tunes, they eventually triumphed, a final suite being dispatched with great elegance and feeling, Balanescu summoning up the melancholy ghost of a table-waiting gypsy violinist with great elan.

Tippett also made a most effective compre, far outstripping Ronnie Scott for wit. When he first had the idea for the Rare Music Club, he said, he wrote to Margaret Thatcher telling her of his plans to mix normally segregated forms of music and hoping for a little help with funding. Her reply, he said, was simply, "You can't", although he wondered if this was a spelling error. It must be the way he tells them.

n The Rare Music Club plays the Grace Room, Bristol Thurs 4 May; Custard Factory, Birmingham, Fri 5 May, and South Hill Park Arts Centre, Bracknell, Sat 20 May

Phil Johnson