Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Look Mama, No Chords!

Polar Bear @ The Museum of Garden History
Outhouse @ The Oxford, Kentish Town

The Museum of Garden History in Lambeth Palace is an odd place to watch one of Britain’s most maverick and unusual jazz acts. With tables and chairs set out to allow for a rather sedate environment, and the addition of some healthy-looking food, it seems almost too civilised. Luckily, Seb Rochford’s increasingly brilliant group break out of the comfort zone with breathtaking musicality.

That only comes after an exceedingly lengthy, occasionally soporific support set from the appallingly named Sax, Lies and Audiotape (yes, we know sax sounds a bit like sex – ha bloody ha). A sax/electronics duo featuring the enervated and vigorous Tommaso Starace, the duo occasionally hit on a mysterious and engaging sound, particularly when odd samples (babies crying for example) floated in and out of the ether. Most of the time it sounded oddly directionless though, and a solo set from Starace might well have channelled more excitement. I had the sensation that Starace was frequently restrained by the meandering sounds in the background, which often failed to add texture or feeling. For such a long set, there simply wasn’t enough variety or changes in dynamic either.

Polar Bear have an intriguing set up – Rochford on drums, Pete Wareham and Mark Lockheart as a dual sax frontline, the redoubtable Tom Herbert on bass and Leafcutter John providing electronic interjections. They make this work through a musical alchemy that is visible as well as audible – I’ve rarely seen a bassist and drummer watch each other quite as intently as Rochford and Herbert. It’s no surprise that when they hit their driving rhythmic features they sound so completely locked in. The contrast between Pete Wareham’s gritty blowing (although more expressive than his unsubtle blasting for Acoustic Ladyland) and Mark Lockheart’s more considered explorations also makes for engaging listening. The two also mesh together effortlessly to complete Polar Bear’s patchwork of sound, yet all the musicians leave plenty of space for thought and feeling.

Rochford, particularly, is a considerate and sensitive musician. He plays at a restrained volume throughout, even when at his most vigorous, and there’s a musical creativity on display that realises the full instrumental potential of the drum kit. Rochford orchestrates both his accompanying rhythms and his extemporised statements with real care and dexterity, and his playing benefits from being more creative and expressive than technically virtuosic. He seems more interested in the range of sound he can draw from his kit than simply proving his technical muscle.

As a manipulator of sound, Leafcutter John has now assumed a pivotal role in the group, echoing some of the soloists’ musical figures and also filling spaces with his own ideas. Some people feel this isn’t musical – but the transformation of sampled sounds is now a vital and vibrant part of the contemporary musical landscape. Like his kindred spirit Matthew Herbert, Leafcutter John is playful, confident and innovative.

There are moments when the group veer into abstraction – but the chemistry always remains, and the contrast between intense swathes of sound, and more delicate interventions is sustained throughout. It’s a remarkable set – the new material demonstrating Rochford’s development as a composer, the whole performance showing his group’s deep connections and creativity.

Along with Fraud probably the main project of London’s vibrant, dedicated Loop Collective, Outhouse are a powerhouse group of improvising musicians directed by saxophonist Robin Fincker. They began their short tour last night at The Oxford pub in Kentish Town, home of a regular night promoted by Loop that I’ve been attending for some time. I’m increasingly convinced that this group of musicians are slowly bringing about a sea change in the rather constricted London jazz scene. By playing in each other’s ensembles and being active in their own promotion, they are not only cutting out the non-role played by lazy promoters with little idea how to organise complementary line-ups, but are beginning to build their own audiences. The likes of Jazzwise magazine and Jazz on 3 have been on the case for some time – it’s surely now time for everyone else to follow. The likes of Fraud, Jim Hart’s Gemini, Alcyona, Naadia Sheriff and Dog Soup represent some of the most exciting British music of recent years.

Like Polar Bear, there is no harmonic accompaniment, with just Jonny Brierley’s acoustic bass and Dave Smith’s ferocious drumming completing a muscular rhythm section. Also like Polar Bear, they veer between deceptively simple themes more concerned with rhythmic displacement than conventional melody and long passages of free improvisation. The music grew out of freely improvised jam sessions the group began back in 2006. It could be argued that they sometimes try and pack too many ideas into one piece – Fincker has to explain that the opening ‘Pig’ was indeed ‘just one tune’ and ‘just called Pig’. It was gleefully manipulative of time and phrasing, but sometimes seemed to veer too maniacally between ideas and sounds.

Dave Smith’s drumming is particularly frantic, perhaps gamely attempting to fill all the spaces that might usually be occupied by chordal accompaniment as well as providing the rhythmic core. Occasionally he is simply too loud, and he then risks obscuring the fluency of Brierley’s bass playing. He’s intensely creative though, and has an ease of movement around the kit that belies his unconventional, rigid posture. At one point, he uses a detached drum skin to play the rest of the kit – it’s a bizarre, almost surreal moment in a gig packed with surprises. Smith is also a master of asymmetrical time – his grooves in 7 or 11 sound unfathomably comfortable and fluent. He has developed a drumming language that is invigorating and confident.

Robin Fincker and Mark Hanslip connect brilliantly, particularly in the free sections, and there’s an intensity and energy in their playing that never sags. Occasionally, the deployment of some lyricism or grace might provide added armoury, but the rhythmic contrasts are so radical and unpredictable that there’s more than enough to sink the teeth into here. Most importantly, Outhouse’s music has an obvious joy that elevates it well above the realm of the purely academic. They have a bright future.

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