Uneasy-listening music

There are signs that free jazz is becoming fashionable; Spring Heel Jack is the latest group to embrace the genre
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The Independent Culture

Just as satanism inevitably attracts goths and heavy-metallers, free jazz casts its own, equally powerful, spell over experimental rock artists. From Captain Beefheart to Rip, Rig & Panic, and from New York "noise" bands such as Sonic Youth to Bjork, and even the brief pop career of Vic Reeves, the confrontational appeal of fractured piano arpeggios or blistering saxophone or guitar squalls has proved hard to resist. While this might at first seem surprising, it's actually very easy to understand. Pop and rock have always stolen from jazz anyway, and for any would-be avant-gardist, the example of a form that has remained in advance of public taste ever since its beginnings in the early Sixties, is undeniably impressive. If you're looking to frustrate the expectations of their audience, free jazz is definitely the right place to come. Here, audiences are for softies; you're far better off with a schism.

Spontaneous composition or free improvisation (which is generally what the term "free jazz" means, although it has a variety of forms) also has a kind of talismanic attraction for self-taught musicians; as philistines used to say when faced by the less than well-tempered tunings of saxophonist Ornette Coleman: anyone could do that! A willingness to cross the thin line dividing music from noise has been influential too. The buzzsaw guitar sounds of post-punk and "industrial" groups in the Eighties were first pioneered by the British guitarist Derek Bailey 20 years earlier. Now, a synthesis of the two styles is evident in the work of Arto Lindsay and Marc Ribot, both of whom fall between the jazz and rock cracks.

While it would be stretching a point to say that free jazz is at last becoming fashionable, there are signs. At the Knitting Factory clubs in downtown New York or on Hollywood Boulevard in LA, you can see what look suspiciously like skate-punks tapping their trainers to the abstract sounds coming from the stage or the TV screen's internet link-up. From a British free-jazz perspective, this is seriously unnerving; more than 10 people in the audience, and not a cardigan or a car-coat in sight?

The latest act to embrace the militant musical tendency is Spring Heel Jack, the two-man DJ team once regarded as drum'n'bass specialists. Their new album Masses, part of "The Blue Series Continuum" on Thirsty Ear Records, is a collaboration with a group of New York avant-garde jazz musicians including Tim Berne, Matthew Shipp, Daniel Carter, William Parker, Mat Maneri, and also the UK's Evan Parker. On a series of 10 sonic backgrounds laid down in London by SHJ's John Coxon and Ashley Wales, Berne and co added their freely improvised contributions in a studio in Manhattan before the tapes were taken back to London again to be distressed further, then edited and mixed. The result is not going to be anyone's choice for easy listening – apart, perhaps, from the beautiful opening track, "Chorale" – but there's some wonderful moments, and in free jazz it's often these little epiphanies that you learn to treasure. Given all that thrashing about, you have to.

When I talked to Spring Heel Jack's John Coxon during a break in his production duties for the new Spiritualized album at London's Olympic Studios, he explained the background to the project. "Ashley and I have been making music together since 1992 and we've released six or seven albums and done various collaborations. Ashley has always been a big fan of European improvisers like Evan Parker, and I'm less of a fan but interested," he says. "We were getting a bit stuck with making electronically based music for clubs, drum'n'bass, etc, and when we were in New York to DJ, we both thought about doing a collaboration with all the people that Matthew Shipp [the "curator" of the Thirsty Ear "Blue Series Continuum"] had been organising. We spoke to him, then off we went and came up with our backing tracks."

While one tends to assume that these backgrounds must have been produced electronically, it turns out that mostly they weren't, and that the line separating the contributions of Coxon and Wales and those of their New York collaborators – who recorded everything in one eight-hour session – is therefore rather blurred. "The backing tracks are electronically manipulated, but generally they were produced acoustically," says Coxon. The sounds you hear on the album include Wales playing trumpet and trombone, and Coxon dragging metal beads over the strings of an acoustic guitar, filtered through various distortion units. "We've always been interested in those electro-acoustic things," he says. "You think of John Cage with his variable-speed turntables, using machines to create sounds, but it's more electric than electronic. It's like DJing, where you can end up with something that you don't expect."

"Everything is electric once it's plugged in," says Ashley Wales, speaking on the phone from Cornwall. "There wasn't a lot of mucking around, but it was a shock when we came back to London and played the tapes back. We thought: 'Blimey!' There was a sort of tactile sound, like you could see it coming out of the speakers."

How all this relates to contemporary jazz is ambiguous, and perhaps best left for future PhD theses. "I've got a real problem with the notion that jazz stops somewhere, like in the recent TV series," says John Coxon. "There's nothing worse than the conservatism of the avant-garde, which is like trades union leaders. You've got to have free spirits there. Charlie Parker was influenced by Bartok, and Miles Davis hung out with Sly Stone, so you can't bag yourself up in a conservative medium. The great thing about Shipp and his cohorts is that they don't do that at all, and they're as respectful to us as we are to them." Ironically, the future of free jazz could well lie with Spring Heel Jack and their fans, brassed off with drum'n'bass and looking for something more challenging.

'The Blue Series Continuum – Masses' by Spring Heel Jack is out now on Thirsty Ear Records