Fyfe Dangerfield/Tom Rogerson – The Vortex, London 7th October 2008
It’s quite rare to see a shared improvised piano gig, particularly one which ends with three pianists playing together, gleefully sending up the entire process. In that sense, this Vortex gig could be described as self-aware and unpretentious, even if some of the playing could easily have given the opposite impression.
Tom Rogerson is one of this country’s most complete musicians, and it’s criminal that his profile has not yet risen further. Until recently, he has divided his time working with songwriters Jeremy Warmsley and Emmy the Great, neither of whom have really provided an adequate space for his expressive, assured piano playing. I’ve already waxed lyrical here about his group Three Trapped Tigers, who marry the propulsive, angular groove of Battles with the intangible mystery of Supersilent or Food. They are a superb, viscerally exciting group – both technically assured and physically thrilling.
Rogerson’s improvised work occupies a different space entirely though. He rarely, if ever, repeats himself, tonight’s performances demonstrating his debt to classical training as much to a tradition of free improvisation. There’s nothing self-conscious or decidedly avant-garde about his two performances – instead, he aims simply and squarely for playing meaningful music with real feeling. His stance is doubled up and awkward, but the intensity is sincere and palpable. He frequently looks in danger of knocking himself out against the piano as he rocks back and forth, lost in his own substantive reverie.
This sort of insular, self-absorbed world is easily in danger of leaving audiences baffled or bored, but Rogerson finds his own way of communicating. Midway through his second improvisation, there’s a passage of such languid beauty and harmonic simplicity that it could have come from a pop ballad, although the delicacy and nuance with which it is performed elevates it to something haunting and profound. Similarly, when he loses himself in moments of Jarrett-esque minimalism, the violence with which he plays seems honest and convincing rather than a forced piece of showmanship.
It’s hard to feel so confident about Fyfe Dangerfield, more known for his leadership role in Guillemots than he is for solo piano work. His first set seems a little shallow – mostly consisting of long, murky and uninvolving passages holding down the sustain pedal with a dogged and unhelpful resolve. He’s constantly searching for interesting and unconventional sounds from the instrument, but his banging and punching of the keys feels like a gimmick used in place of identifiable musical phrasing. It’s definitely more artifice than art.
If Dangerfield’s first set is a little boring, the second is intolerable. It’s admittedly unclear whether or not it’s supposed to be taken seriously, but it comes across as a piss take of barrelhouse boogie. Clearly, there’s no obligation to perform this music anymore, but irreverence towards it needs to be based on very firm foundations. It also needs to have a clear purpose. Dangerfield’s rhythmic language is tentative and repetitive and his occasional barked interjections (a little like Tom Waits perhaps) seem ill-judged, even if they are intentionally comic. Physically, he seems tetchy, moving his seat snappily when playing at the far extremes of the keyboard. It seems as if he makes too many conscious decisions whilst improvising (demarcating the geography of the keyboard too starkly, moving too rapidly between aggression and reflection, using gimmicky sounds by muting the strings), and all these choices end up doing is restricting his expression.
This gig certainly suggests that Rogerson is a creative and articulate talent making music at the most challenging level that also speaks directly and clearly to its audience. Whilst his work is defiantly unpredictable, the consistent thread is a clear and mostly successful desire to capture feeling and mood through improvisation and composition. Three Trapped Tigers are operating in a musical landscape that can often seem clinical and cold – and they have injected that terrain with a refreshing burst of physicality and sensation. Rogerson’s solo work sounds not just liberated, but also emotionally engaging. So why are more people not yet writing about him?