THE SECRET LIFE OF ORGANS (WITH THE NECKS AND JAMES MCVINNIE)
Meeting House, University of Sussex, Falmer, Fri 8th April
This tour, put on by the good folks at No-Nation, was specially arranged around venues with playable church organs. (All those pipes not easily fitting in the back of a transit van.) Though as things turn out the Meeting House makes for a good concert venue in its own right.
James McVinnie's set was dominated by a new piece emanating from Tom Jenkinson. As previously raved about here when performing under his stage monicker Squarepusher. Jenkinson himself showed up but, without his trademark fencing mask, I didn't recognise him until pointed out. (When he didn't return for the second part, I sat in his seat.)
However this new work, helpfully titled 'New Work', seemed more demonstrative than compositional, more concerned with figuring out the parameters of what an organ can do than doing anything with them. It exhibited a vast tonal range, but was only fitfully involving. More happily however, this was bookended by two classic Philip Glass pieces, including the legendary 'Mad Rush'. Which always sounds like it could go on until the end of time, and hopefully one day it will.
Wikipedia's favoured terms for Aussie improvisers the Necks are “experimental jazz” or “trance jazz”. If I was to counter with “anti-jazz”, that might seem facetious. But truth is they're from jazz backgrounds and play jazz instruments – but have swapped the in-yer-face freneticism for serenity. Rather than play as many chords as they can in a minute, they take a handful and eke them out into an hour. That being a standard time for one of their improvisations to last. If, say, John Coltrane's squarking sax (sorry but that's the way it sounds to me) is the soundtrack to teeming New York streets, the Necks evoke wide open spaces. (Despite the band stemming from Sydney, that's an image often employed on their album covers or website's home page.)
Momentum gives them a structure of sorts. Their long improvised pieces proceed like a river, starting out as trickles of sound which become more and more sustained. Even when they pick up pace they won't corner but take elegant curves along the way, always branching out into new territory but not never invasively. In the best possible sense of the world, they meander. (Why do we attach a negative concept to that when we even have such a beautiful word for it?) You'll get so much movement along the course of a piece, but without anyone actually driving it.
This was actually the second time I'd seen them swap their standard pianofor organ, and despite it working well previously it still gave me the same worries. Their disdain for preparation is such that they won't even decide who starts a piece. Which can give the opening part of their sets an almost Quaker meeting feel, as they calmly stand still waiting to be spirited into playing something. Giving the keyboardist a mighty organ risks augmenting him and disrupting the trio's vital equilibrium.
And indeed it did start with the organ; Chris Abrahams playing the sort of basic phrases musicians fill in with for sound-checks, while the others slowly started to work around him. For a long section the organ remained the dominant instrument, Lloyd Swanton picking individual strings and Tony Buck dragging a drumstick across a skin.
But despite my purist instincts, it doesn't really matter if things start from a slightly different place. At times Abrahams would stick to Bach-like chords (or at least what a know-nothing like me imagines Bach-like chords to be). But at others he'd play loops or musical fragments, giving space to the other players. The longer they play, the more involving it becomes. The more small-scale the changes, the more focused on them you become. This was the fourth time I've managed to see the Necks, and they've never been less than enthralling.
The notion they've now been doing what they do for nearly thirty years seems so befitting you'd almost have to make it up – long duration pieces performed over a grand timescale. Chris Abramans once said “people wonder how you can keep going for so long, But there is an ecstatic state you can reach. If things start happening that are really interesting, its suddenly no effort to play”. ('The Wire' 293, July '08) There's something time-defying about their calmly unhurried instant compositions, so at odds with the quick-click instrant gratification world we live in, while at the same time not at all challenging but immersive and hugely pleasurable. It put me in mind of the old Sandy Denny line, “I have no fear of time”.
Nothing to do with organs or this tour at all, but a full performance of classic Necks...
MARTINS TAYLOR + SIMPSON
The Ropetackle, Shoreham, Tues 12th April
As the record shows, we in Lucid Frenzy Towers were very much taken by Martin Simpson's previous co-headliner with Dom Flemons the year before last. So back we went to see him in another double act at the Ropetackle, this time with Martin Simpson. A name previously unknown to us, but then neither had been Flemons'.
Taylor back-announces one track with the explanation “and if you didn't recognise it, I'm a jazz musician”, and refers to Stefan Grapelli as his old boss. Not, needless to say, good signs. It's the stuff of musician's music, which has about as much use as plumber's plumbing.
However... They joke at one point about an American interviewer being unable to tell them apart, despite Simpson having a pronounced Northern accent and Taylor a Southern. And at times their playing could combine like their accents, Taylor's smoothness complementing Simpson's comparative roughness. (Comparative, please note. Simpson isn't Tom Waits.) They provide a compelling version of the old spiritual 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot', Simpson twanging while Taylor plucks. We call that sort of thing “a lucid frenzy” around here.
Yet alas such peaks were not maintained. As the night yinged and yanged back and forth between the two styles it fell out of and back into interest, never quite gaining any momentum. Perhaps next time Flemons will be back in town, or Simpson will just take it solo.
Normally with the vid-clip bit I have to say “not from Brighton”. This time, in a major break with tradition, it's not from Shoreham...
Coming soon! More gig-going adventures...