Fourth Page / Five Turnings Duo, The Lion Ballroom, Leominster, Herefordshire, 05/08/2012.
Tuesday, August 07, 2012
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
Ian Mann on Fourth Page's unique approach to improvised music including a look at their newly released third album "Ticks and Moans".
Fourth Page / Five Turnings Duo, The Lion Ballroom, Leominster, Herefordshire, 05/08/2012.
The improvising quartet Fourth Page are currently on a short Jazz Services supported tour and it came as a very pleasant surprise to discover that they were due to play in my home town. Built in 1840 for the long defunct Lion Hotel the Ball Room was restored and reopened in 1997 and with its impressive early Victorian architecture and superb acoustics it is an excellent venue for chamber music plus varieties of acoustic jazz and folk. However attracting support for these types of live music from the local populace has proved increasingly difficult since the onset of the recession. The venue’s classical music strand has held up reasonably well, but even here audiences sizes have been reduced. The pitifully small turnouts for some jazz and folk events have sometimes just been plain embarrassing and I’m afraid that tonight’s performance was no exception despite Fourth Page having been selected as one of the “picks of the week” in the Guardian’s Guide the day before. Of course the Olympics didn’t help with potential attendees giving up the prospect of a couple of hours of live music for the privilege of seeing Usain Bolt run a hundred metres in less than ten seconds. I just went round the pub and watched one of the constant re-runs after the gig. I can only apologise for the general apathy of my fellow townspeople, I’ve lived here all my life and can’t imagine living anywhere else - but I do despair of Leominster sometimes. On a more positive note the group spoke of successful, well attended events in London, Whitstable and particularly Brighton.
If Fourth Page were disappointed by the turn out (and they must have been) it didn’t show as they produced an absorbing set of entirely improvised music in their unique house style, a distinctive blend of influences that can be heard on their most recent album “Ticks and Moans”. The group blend elements of jazz, folk, classical and ambient music in a uniquely contemporary manner that has made them favourites of Fiona Talkington on Radio 3’s Late Junction programme. They have also been championed by that defiantly independent bastion of experimental music Wire magazine.
Charlie Beresford (acoustic guitar & voice), Carolyn Hume (piano), Peter Marsh (double bass) and Paul May (percussion) describe their music as “spontaneously composed songs” and indeed it’s the voice and words of Beresford that help to set the group’s music apart from much contemporary improv. It could be argued that their approach has it’s roots in the jazz and poetry movement of the sixties and seventies. Much of their output is reflective, sombre even, and they are more concerned with mood building and developing a narrative arc rather than in displays of bluff and bluster or overt demonstrations of skill, virtuosity or extended technique. Much of Fourth Page’s music sounds deceptively simple, they favour the small gesture rather than the grand statement and value nuance and texture above bravura and aggression. Everything is spare and sparse, May uses a minimalist drum kit, just one snare and hanging cymbal which he augments with a number of smaller hand held cymbals and other devices plus an extensive array of sticks, brushes and mallets. The range of sounds he conjures from what at first seems to be a rather limited set up is frequently astonishing. The contributions of Hume and Marsh are lean and functional. Hume’s piano is the harmonic glue that binds the ensemble together and Marsh is the anchor, a highly competent but undemonstrative bass player, not for him the physicality of a John Edwards or Simon H Fell. Beresford’s acoustic guitar picking and chording adds an almost classical element to the music but as mentioned previously it’s his singing that marks the group out as unique. Often his vocalising is almost subliminal and uses exhalations and vocal tics as well as words. I won’t try to second guess his lyrics but those words that are discernible always seem to express an atmosphere of melancholy and regret. He’s been compared to John Martyn, David Sylvian and Robert Wyatt and there’s certainly something of Martyn’s slurred brilliance and Wyatt’s fragile plaintiveness in his vocalising. When I first heard it on album I found Beresford’s singing distracting but witnessing it live makes the listener appreciate just how central it is to the group’s music. It often seems simple but I would imagine that it is actually a very difficult skill to master. My mate Rod, one of a handful of locals with a penchant for experimental music (his favourites include Frank Zappa and Soft Machine) commented on the similarity of Beresford’s singing style to that of Wyatt- and like Wyatt Fourth Page’s music sounds uniquely British, with perhaps just an oblique nod to the traditions of European art music.
Fourth Page performed six comparatively short pieces, each lasting around somewhere between five and ten minutes, the length of an extended pop song. It’s a similar format to that to be found on the group’s latest recording for the London based independent For/wind Records. “Ticks and Moans” was recorded live in front of an audience at St. Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch, London and consists of five similar pieces to those heard this evening. Although every Fourth Page performance is different there is nevertheless a distinctive group sound that can be discerned both on this CD (their third following 2009’s “Blind Horizons” for Leo Records and 2011’s “Along The Weak Rope” for For/wind) and in tonight’s performance. Every note is made to count, there’s a spaciousness about Fourth Page’s music that embraces something of the ECM aesthetic but which ultimately sounds very different to it. Every phrase carries a wealth of information as the group attempt to distil the music to its essence. Occasionally this can sound a little too austere and maybe a mite pretentious but at Leominster May wasn’t adverse to dropping the odd percussive “bomb”, a welcome touch of humour that kept both band and audience on their toes. The group members sometimes made use of extended techniques but this was certainly not the be all and end all of the music, in every case this was merely to broaden the sound palette and add to the often fragile atmosphere. The quality of sound is very important to Fourth Page’s music and despite the sparse attendance they expressed themselves delighted at the quality of the Lion Ballroom’s acoustics.
The evening began with the intimate improvised sounds of the Five Turnings Duo featuring Beresford and multi instrumentalist Mark Emerson. Perhaps one of the reasons for the selection of Leominster as a date on this tour is the fact that both Emerson and Beresford have homes just across the border in Mid Wales. Beresford’s sister was in the sparse audience, indeed several of those watching to be affiliated to the band - I’d guess that the number of paying customers may have been as few as four or five. However, I digress.
Emerson gravitates between the classical, folk and improvised worlds. He has appeared at the Lion Ballroom as a classical pianist, worked extensively with folk diva June Tabor and finds an outlet for his more experimental side in this duo with Beresford. Like Fourth Page the duo have a propensity for playing in churches and once undertook a tour of sacred spaces around Mid Wales including the tiny church a Cascob, a location that may sound familiar to readers of locally based author Phil Rickman.
Beresford and Emerson played four improvised pieces, three with Emerson on viola, the other seeing him switching to the accordion. The music was as spacious as that of the larger group with Emerson’s gloriously light bowing underpinned by Beresford’s gentle guitar chording. A master technician Emerson sometimes created overtones that were particularly apposite to the Lion’s acoustic. There were however more animated moments as Emerson played a surprisingly muscular pizzicato and Beresford deployed the fretboard of his guitar as an auxiliary percussion instrument.
When Emerson switched to accordion he sometimes approximated the sound of a church organ as Beresford’s cleanly picked acoustic guitar danced lightly above the bellows driven drones.
The duo’s final item saw Emerson retuning to the viola to produce eerily bowed flutterings above Beresford’s chord patterns, the piece later taking more overtly melodic turn as the duo consciously adopted a more light hearted approach. This delightful item almost sounded written and had something of the quality of folk song. This duo performance was a success in its own right and a delightful introduction both to the evening to the methodology later deployed by the quartet.
Many reviews have spoken of the difficulty of classifying Fourth Page’s music. Certainly their narrative approach to improvisation and their use of vocals and lyrics marks them out as very different. “Ticks and Moans” sounds utterly dissimilar to most of the other improv records reviewed by Tim Owen and myself on this site. Improvised music has established it’s own language but Fourth Page seem to have discovered a whole new vocabulary that draws on many sources and that sets them apart from the improv establishment.
This was clearly demonstrated at Leominster with further evidence to be found on the five pieces to be heard on “Ticks And Moans”. The music on the album is loose and fluid with each piece featuring the breathy sound of Beresford’s semi spoken vocals. Marsh and May sometimes establish a pulse or groove but even at it’s most rhythmic the music has a floating, ethereal quality. The title track, which covers most of the group’s bases is particularly lovely, full of a fragile, lightly bruised beauty. For me the album definitely makes more sense after having seen the group live, an experience I’d recommend to adventurous listeners only, there’s no conventional jazz swing to Fourth Page’s music and the subject matter isn’t exactly jolly. However if approached in the right way their music is emotionally involving and quietly rewarding.
The full track listing for the new album is;
Beyond the line 6.25
Calm against the bleak 5.14
Ticks and Moans 9.27
Summon me back 9.05
The group’s remaining tour dates are at the Hexagon Theatre at the Midlands Arts centre in Birmingham on 9th August 2012 and Z-Arts in Manchester on the 10th. The Hexagon at the MAC is an intimate space where performers appear in the round and it is particularly well suited to the intimacy of improvised music as I witnessed at a series of food themed improvised performances featuring leading improvising musicians from London and Birmingham as part of the 2011 Harmonic Festival.
More details at http://www.4thpagemusic.blogspot.co.uk
P.S. Hats off to Peter Marsh, talking after the Leominster gig we discovered a mutual admiration for the music of Peter Hammill and Van Der Graaf Generator.
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