As I write this it is International Jazz Day, a UNESCO sponsored day honouring the diversity and depth of the world improvising scene. It was, therefore, serendipitous that Carl Dewhurst and Simon Barker brought ‘Showa 44’ to town – especially in the days immediately preceding the big celebration. This gig offered actual proof that the restless exploration of free-spirited improvisers, lives on undiminished. I have sometimes heard die-hard Jazz fans questioning free improvisation, believing that the music reached an unassailable peak in their favourite era. To quote Dexter Gordon. “Jazz is a living music. It is unafraid …. It doesn’t stand still, that’s how it survives“. While a particular coterie prefers their comfort zone, the music moves on without them. Younger ears hear the call and new audiences form. Life is a continuum and great art draws upon the energies about it for momentum. Improvised music is not a display in a history museum.It is through listening to innovative live music that our ears sharpen. When sitting in front of a band like this the mysteries of sound become visceral. This was an extraordinary gig, at times loud and confronting, mesmerising, ambient and always cram-packed with subtlety. Fragments of melodic invention and patterns formed. Then subtly, without our realising it, they were gone, tantalising, promise-filled but illusory. We seldom noticed these micro changes as they were affected so skillfully – form and space changing minute by minute, new and yet strangely familiar – briefly reappearing as quicksilver loops before reinventing themselves.With the constraints of form and melody loosened new possibilities emerge. In inexperienced hands, the difficulties can overwhelm. In the hands of artists like these the freedom gives them superpowers. Time is displaced, tonality split into a prism of sound, patterns turned inside out. The first set was a single duo piece, ‘Improvisation one’ – unfolding over an hour and a quarter; Dewhurst and Barker, barely visible in the low light. This was about sculpting sound and seeing the musicians in shadow added a veneer of mystique. Dewhurst began quietly, his solid body guitar lying face up on his lap. The sound came in waves as he stroked and pushed at the strings, moving a slide – ever so slightly at first, causing microtonal shifts or new harmonics to form, modulating, striking the strings with a mallet or the palm of his hand. The illusion created, was of a single drone repeating. In reality, the sound was orchestral. As you listened, really listened, microtones, semitones and the occasional interval appeared over the drone. Barker providing multiple dimensions and astonishing colour, responding, reacting, crafting new directions.In this context, the drummer took on many roles, a foil to the guitarist, creating silken whispers, insistent flurries of beats and at times building to a heart-stopping crescendo. I found this music riveting and the audience obviously shared my view. In the quiet passages, you could hear a pin drop. If that’s not an indication of the musical maturity of modern Jazz audiences, nothing is. One of the prime functions of art is to confront, to challenge complacency. This music did that while gently leading us deeper inside sound itself. No one at the CJC regretted being on this journey. This is territory loosely mapped by the UK guitarist Derek Bailey, the Norwegian guitarist Aivind Aaset and the American guitarist Mary Halvorson. They may take a similar path, but this felt original, perhaps it is an Australian sound (with a Kiwi twist in Manins). The long multifaceted trance-like drones suggest that. The second set was shorter, ‘Improvisation two’ had Roger Manins aboard. I should be immune to Manins surprises but he frequently catches me off guard. His breadth and depth appear limitless. ‘Improvisation Two’ began with a broader melodic palette. Dewhurst and Barker set the piece up and when Manins came in there was a stunning ECM feel created. Barker tap-tapping the high-hat and ride. Achingly beautiful phases hung in the air – then, surprisingly they eluded us, unravelling as Manins dug deeper – dissecting them note by note. These interactions give us a clue as to how this music works, each musician playing a phrase or pattern and then re-shaping it, passing the baton endlessly.
This requires deep listening and turn on a dime responses; as the overarching but perpetually shifting theme guides them. By the time Manins had played for five minutes, the mood and pace had mysteriously changed. By fourteen minutes we were in free territory – at twenty minutes the Tom fell over. Barker swept it up and changed to brushes in an eye blink. The falling drum was seamlessly blended, a fresh percussive option. I have seldom seen such captivating responsive drumming. Making an accident a virtue.
I have watched the twenty-two-minute segment of ‘Improvisation two’ ten times in a row and it is just as jaw-dropping each time. It is not the purpose of this Blog to rate and compare, but if it were, I would need extra stars to do this gig justice.
Footnote: After posting this I spoke with Carl Dewhurst. I explained that I had an overwhelming sense of the Australian desert – hearing the textures and wide open spaces in the improvisations. In the end, I was overly cautious, not wanting to offend indigenous sensibilities, deleting a reference to the Didgeridoo and Clapsticks. After speaking to Carl I am adding the references back in here. He informs me that this project actually began in the vastness of the northern deserts, playing alongside indigenous Australians. I heard right.