(Mass Producers)

It happens quite often to me - also, every time I unexpectedly happen to find a CD that appears to feature what it's usually referred to as "improvisation" (a category where we can file an album such as Playtime, of which more below in just a minute) in my mailbox - to reflect on my attitude about "improvised music", considered as a "genre".

Lately, the conclusion at which I arrive is always the same, i.e.: starting about ten years ago, my enthusiasm when it comes to improvisation has cooled off considerably. Which doesn't mean, of course, that I can't feel quite hot when it comes to a particular individual item. But that, as I clearly see now, while in the past I used to give a few "extra points" to any item in that aforementioned category, this is not the case anymore. It remains to be seen whether this pertains to the particular "method" of music making, or to its "practice", i.e., the final result, which are to be judged aesthetically.

What I'd really like to know is if, and how much, my attitude is today a typical one. Which is net easy to determine, since this kind of albums have always sold just a little. (The number of released titled could, maybe, tell us something, though I'm not sure exactly what, since in the age of the Net total amounts are quite difficult to determine.) What I know to be "typical" are the circumstances when I started appreciating improvisation, in its "autonomous-European" approach, the actual process by artists like Anthony Braxton or Roscoe Mitchell having always appeared quite different to me, both in their nature and goals (though I'm perfectly aware that the agreement on this is all but complete).

What at a time (let's say, starting from about 1975) was a growing disaffection, especially in Europe, with what was perceived as a "rock routine" made a significant part of the rock audience become open to diverse experiences, some of those people gradually developing an interest for the then-new (meaning: being commercially accessible via vinyl releases) "improvised music". So one learned to tell the various "dialects" (German, Dutch, British), approaches ("soft" or "hard"), while one learned to tolerate mediocre vinyl materials, and later to enjoy the "new digital silence" (meaning: CDs) and the "new digital semi-silence" (meaning: silicon-sourced glitches.

Though it could appear as banal (also maybe quite paradoxical, given the topic), familiarity can become a problem: having bought thirty albums by Evan Parker, one is excused to think that getting album thirty-one doesn't appear as a high priority. For those who are fans of the conceptual-philosophical kind we could say that it's one thing to prize and illuminate the individual moment at a time when the large canvas and the big plan are the norm, quite another when all time - even in TV reality shows, not to mention workers' careers - presents itself under pointillistic guises.

I strongly believe that money problems explain at least part of the improvising word re-discovering long-forgotten ties with Academia (Morton Feldman?), not forgetting the theatre, while jazz has many serious problems of its own. Which obviously tells us nothing about the actual (aesthetic) worth of any work.

Playtime features a trio of well-known musicians. On piano, Veryan Weston has been for more than three decades an important part of the U.K. sound, starting with his collaborations with people like Lol Coxill and Phil Minton. The same could be said for renown drummer Mark Sanders, whom I remember having listened to for the first time as a mature instrumentalist on the album Head, by the Jon Lloyd Quartet (what happened to them?), about twenty years ago. Though I know she's quite appreciated, I'm afraid I'm not as familiar with the musicians who appears to me as being the first among equals here: alto sax player, and singer, Caroline Kraabel. The CD sounds good, especially the drums, the CD having been mixed by well-known double bass player Jon Edwards.

The music played by the trio on this CD appears to be for the most part improvised, even if the brief liner notes that came with the CD (the CD itself being devoid of any indication about this matter) say that "This Playtime CD features improvisations and also songs the words and vocal melodies of which already existed (if only in my head) before we improvised them as a trio. A couple of the songs on the CD were heard by Mark and Veryan for the first time as we recorded them here".

I'd say that it sounded a bit strange to me when I heard the group suddenly stop after the word "interruption" - maybe a "cut"? (it's the track called Lot's Wife). Even stranger to me, the fact of hearing the voice doubling the saxophone, in unison mode, or counterpoint.

Weston is quite versatile, the same being true for Sanders, whose drum work greatly benefits from the recorded sound, both at the cymbals and drums, played with sticks or brushes. For the most part, Kraabel plays alto in a quite "hushed" tone that's not too far from "cool", the alto sounding at times like a soprano. Her vocals, at times not too far from "art song" and "chanson", are agile, but they often sound quite "theatre-related" (Dagmar Krause? Kate Westbrook?). Instrumental tracks travel toward consonance, with many quite easy-to-spot jazz echoes.

The opening track, the brief Vacant Lots 1965-66, is a perfect microcosm of the whole work: a tonal centre, a five-note motif played on the alto (it will be quoted by the piano, about 30" later) which almost sounds like Anthony Braxton in his "in the tradition" mode, drums played first with ticks, then brushes, a sung coda, halfway between folk and theatre.

The songs are not bad: Lot's Wife has a very nice backing. Entre Īlots sounds quite a lot like a "French Folk chanson", it has a fine close by piano and drums. Also good, also "French", Un Lot De Deux. Troth Plight has a fine piano arpeggio and excellent brushes, a "folk/art" mood, it closes with the alto almost sounding like a flute.

The instrumental tracks are longer, but they don't lack direction: Playtime sounds at times like a slowed-down, "cooled" version of Free, but hushed and quite tonal, the alto sounding at times like Lacy's soprano; there's a "cool" theme at about 7'20", a vocals-saxophone unison at its close. A Lot Uncommon has a "fractured" start and a surprising "almost-Brazilian-sounding" splice. Allotments And Pleasure Gardens is quite austere, in a contemporary-classical direction; excellent brushes work, fine drums at the end. Glottal is tense (relatively speaking), the first part led by vocals and sax, the second by piano. Again, excellent brushes, while vocals sing "arpeggios" together with the saxophone.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2010 | Feb. 9, 2010