Monday, February 28, 2011

feet of clay

john tchicai with john edwards and tony marsh
cafe oto, london e8
monday 27th september 2010

the scene: as i said recently, it had been almost three years since my last return to london (mrs c. and i lived there from 1995 until 2003). and, despite the continual talk of recession between then and now, it's obvious that parts of the capital are still being bombarded with money. little by little, london is becoming more of a "science-fiction" city - certainly it looks it compared to swansea (where i live currently), which is still struggling to drag itself out of the 1980s, never mind into the 21st century. much as i hate being made to feel like a tourist in a city where i used to live, that is now pretty much the reality for me. public transport in london these days is best accessed with the "oyster card", which is read electronically and is designed to save both time and money - but also (apparently) to trick the unfamiliar into paying more for their journeys than they needed to, if one is not told how to use it properly. (i was lucky in this regard: when i arrived at paddington, i encountered that extreme rarity, a helpful london transport employee, who explained to me how to avoid getting ripped off.)

quite a lot of the stations have undergone extensive cosmetic and structural work since my last visit - some of them i wouldn't have recognised from my days as a resident. a lot of the trains are new and (gasp!) clean; the london underground used to be notorious for how dirty its trains were. down by the tracks, there are now advertisements which function like video screens; somehow, these seem to fit into the background so easily that i'd been standing right in front of one for a few minutes before i realised what i was seeing. yes, all very futuristic - and you don't see anything like that out in the sticks. (one friend that i caught up with during my visit said that when these "moving ads" were first introduced, it was like something out of blade runner: a lot of the stations themselves were being totally gutted, wires hanging out all over the place, debris everywhere, nothing working properly apart from the new video screens. that, at least, sounds about right and kind of familiar..!)

- the relevance of all this is that plenty of the capital looks just the same as i remember it. naturally,  the money has not reached everywhere. as atanase and i took our bus north from the city (london's financial district), we passed several huge, and hugely expensive, new buildings which have sprung up just in the last year or so, looking almost obscene in times of general belt-tightening; but it didn't take long for things to change. within a mile or two of the city, the scenery began to look exactly as it had ten or fifteen years ago. as the bus continued on towards dalston, the lack of money most people are experiencing became more accurately reflected in our surroundings. a few miles further on, by the time it crosses the north circular, the A10 has become the great cambridge road; this far south, it's just plain old kingsland high road and looks every bit as run-down and depressing as it used to in my day. i remember it as being the sort of place one would not want to stand still for more than a few seconds, and that's the way it looks now: no new buildings, no tarted-up shops, just the same filthy old store-fronts and forbidding housing estates. it's pretty close to the city, but the money hasn't stretched this far and probably never will. so it came as a bit of a shock to arrive at our destination, tucked away just off the main road, and find it a very trendy-looking bistro serving japanese cuisine and organic beer. what the hell is the cafe oto doing here of all places?(*1) yet it seems to be flourishing, and in the few short years it's been open, its's hosted hundreds of creative musicians already. it's a decent space to play in too, roomy yet intimate - not the easiest combination of qualities to achieve.

the music: aha, yeah, the music... about that shit... my lack of interesting detail retained from the actual set(s) has nothing much to do with the time which has elapsed between then and right now, writing after one of my (kinda patented - if you know what i'm saying) unseemly delays, one of my continuing (as yet) down-phases for creative expression. no, even at the time i struggled to grasp hold of mr tchicai's transmissions as they were unfurled into the willing audience's "welcome space": most of my observation at the time ended up being hijacked somewhat by the interaction between edwards (whom i had never seen before) and marsh (whom i'd never even heard of, though by the time our third hand for the evening - see below - had finished explicating marsh's background and connections to me, it felt as if i "should" have heard of him (*2)).

... tchicai - we were discussing on the bus the guy's "free jazz cv" etc. atanase forgot about new york eye and ear control for a minute there, but we pretty much agreed that a) that's not exactly one of the first few ayler sessions you'd place at the top of the (any) list, good line-up though it is, and b) neither of us has ever had much enthusiasm for ascension as it happens. it fell again to the third set of ears at our table tonight, the presence formerly known as king kennytone (tPFKaKK) to remind me later that tchicai was always the voice of moderation on these occasions anyway, had never been a balls-out player in the first place - though he was never averse to participating, clearly...

... in any case [another phrase you'll have to sit through many times in these ramblings...] YES as i was SAYING - marsh and edwards, very fertile partnership there, impressed by both over the course, by edwards especially who popped by between sets to exchange catch-ups with one of my companions - very energetic and creative player, great engine to have in the arsenal so to speak... mr tchicai - impressed me anyway, in the end, more by his manner of inhabiting his body with poise and grace and continuing to communicate with a horn (tenor sax these days of course, though tPFKaKK said later to me that he might as well still play alto, his vocab still comes across as alto-based and i would concur with this, in so far as i am even qualified to express an opinion on that given my difficulties focussing on mr t's playing at times and resultant large gaps in my ear memory of the gig *3) in much the same way, with the same grace, the same poise and with quiet, serene dignity. in my "living legend" polarity he is at the gayle end of things rather than down in the muck and entrails with mr sonny simmons. occasionally during the evening he produced a timbral distortion or three, usually a short string of firecrackers and sounded immediately compelling, but never seemed or looked or sounded likely to follow these up... and didn't. the trouble with that for me is that those distortions are what my listening soul needs and craves, the family of languages which i speak with most familiarity after all these incarnations - and you know, there was plenty to distract me in the engine room where edwards and marsh, as previously stated, worked really well together.

john edwards has played around the british scene (whatever that is) - or southern english (?) scene for years now, and as i rediscovered last year, played with the band GOD way back in the "dawn of the nineties" - atanase has seen him before on several occasions and ...aKK is well familiar with him too, but my first live impressions were, ah, very impressive... comment dire impressionnantes ;-)  the guy is all over his axe and never looks like slipping into a groove or going off the boil even. constant intereaction with the drummer and fast pickup, both ways. scattershot approach to kit from marsh, standard euro free improv calling-card used on this occasion, presumably, more as a "flag of convenience" since mr marsh has played in numerous different types of modern ensemble and would not, one guesses, have played fusion in this way... but plenty of energy is co-created and for sure, if i have trouble (and i do, i do) pinning down the tchicai transmission as it unfurls and dances in the audience-created "after-air", this is not to say that he ever sounds out of place or ill at ease, far from it, his manner of being here is exactly as stated above. poise... grace... lots of practice at being at ease with oneself and one's surroundings... and in this way i can see to what extent the experience was inspiring, can continue to be inspiring.

otherwise all i remember from that first set at this distance is that when edwards got the bow out, i wasn't  greatly convinced by his arco technique. (this impression was sharply overturned during the second set!)

there was an intermission which did not last long, the organic beer was sampled... was delicious actually (... and although four quid a pint seemed like a total burn i am also well aware that a nite-venue elsewhere in london, or in that swansea for that matter, would doubtless see me extorted to the same tune for a smallish bottle of something nasty... after having to shout at the bar staff, playing human dodgems, etc etc)

second set was latterly spoiled a bit (for me, alone among the three of us as it turned out) by a familliar problem since i left london, i.e. the tourist's dread of being stranded at last-tube time: the last number went on and on and on and then wound down and started up again, in such a way as to leave one in no doubt that there would be even still yet further rounds of what was basically a pretty groovy closing number, for all its protracted length, and i would have been happier if we could have started earlier (no support act, plenty of time sitting around waiting etc) and fucken finished earlier so i didn't have to give my neurotic arse a minor aneurysm. (dalston not on the tube, don't forget... overland rail or nightbus - as it was: we couldn't have got there any later, but we arrived at walking pace just in time for the right train and were back at a's way earlier than anticipated. which was nice) - up until this point i was more fully involved in the second set, and also had plenty of leisure to observe how wrong hasty impressions can (all-too) frequently be, during a number penned by one of mr t's scandinavian friends, a finnish guy whose name alas has gone now (hadn't heard of him) - but i believe the piece was called "undertow", or the equivalent thereof in finnish, and it was to a great extent dominated by edwards rock-solid arco playing with some very close control required as regards dynamic shifts, etc. (in the first set, sounding off-note and awkward to my mind with the bow, mr e was possibly just doing that thing, fucking shit up to see what bursts into being as a result - sometimes maybe nothing, but sometimes something, so hey...)

i do remember that there was at least one outright "sax solo" in an evening of freely-flexible, partly-prestructured free jazz that i did really enjoy - it hasn't stayed with me though. at one point mr t stepped up to the mic without his sax in his mouth and at least two thirds of our table held its breath in "little dread", but - well, the whole delivering-the-message-through-words part of things is inherently problematic for me 99% of the time (for reasons... mmm, *4), and wasn't especially enjoyable here, but the brief knowledge that john tchicai wanted to share with us had resonance with me at once, reminded me precisely, in fact, of something so profoundly linked to my current (and recent) patterns of living that i shan't quote the wording now so as not to get into any of it, not now - but even at the time i took note, took it in bodily and openly and in (slightly embarrassed) silence.

thassit really - no more specifics forthcoming, not now - but that's enough, for me to get to my point. if there is one:

is it fair - to oneself or to anyone else - to demand that a real-life encounter with a "living legend" (and tchicai's free jazz cv is basically still impeccable, no matter what) be life-changing, huge? is that in fact what i was expecting? no... atanase and i had discussed this beforehand - and ...aKK had seen mr t's "battle of the red rose (ahem)" encounter with mr parker, had never thought of tchicai as a fierce energy player, and indeed he probably never has been, though he can deploy the vocab base as and when - so no, i was not expecting a life-conversion. but i did struggle consciously upstream, as has been my wont these last few years, to see what new information can be mined out of the experience, and i kept feeling that i just wasn't getting it. i don't think anyone else took it as being massive or fabulous or amazing either, though i'd be surprised if anyone left without feeling at least somewhat cheered and uplifted, the ambience of the event being so warmly positive... what was there to get or "get"? still not sure about this, but maybe the non-pushy reminder that even living legends remain just human is itself enough to have mulled over slowly, these five months...

* see comments


centrifuge said...

1. ok, i'm being a bit disingenuous here... as anyone can testify who's seen series three of the mighty boosh ("we've got our own organic supermarket now and - " but let's not forget that howard is then cut off mid-stream by a stream of entirely different hue, one of primo cockney piss right in the face, a scene which has the wife and me in stitches every time, unfailingly :-D

BUT yes, like neighbouring hackney (which is that little bit further east), or hoxton not so very far away, dalston has been quite a trendy hangout for a few years now - in theory the cafe oto is EXACTLY where one would currently guess it to be, but still - coming up the main road on the bus it was very easy to forget all of that and that is what i did - my naive traveller impression was a pretty authentic one under the circ's [hey, i am pretty much always a tourist in london anyway - in eight years, we never lived *in town*, always out in the sticks (and always north of the river) - never got to know the one-way systems either through the city or the west end, as a driver]

2. i just don't so "should". i don't speak should. don't use it myself, on myself or on others and filter it out when it's used on me (when sometimes attempts to "should upon" me - very much encouraged in our herd societies, don't let them learn to co-operate or we might yet be in trouble)

that's all

centrifuge said...

3. most of the time tchicai seems content to play sweet(ish) and sticks generally to the upper register of the horn. he doesn't seem particularly interested in playing the tenor as a tenor (and certainly not in the great tradition/s of free jazz tenor sax) - which is fine, and in any case has important precedents (lester young, stan getz, warne marsh etc)

i did get that sort of thing straight in my head while i was watching and listening.

4. late father a poet, among other things. not widely published but well regarded. haven't sorted out his collected works yet... anyway... this is not the place for discussing such things...