Two Falls & A Submission
Friday, May 18, 2012
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
Ian Mann on the music of the extraordinary improvising saxophonist Alan Wilkinson.
Hession/ Wilkinson/ Fell
“Two Falls & A Submission”
(Bo’ Weavil Records weavil44cd)
My co-writer Tim Owen has long been a fan of free jazz saxophonist Alan Wilkinson, an immensely powerful and resourceful player who came to prominence through his work with guitarist Derek Bailey and has since become something of a British improv institution. Tim has written elsewhere on this site of Wilkinson’s collaboration with Talibam!, the irreverent, madcap New York duo consisting of synthesiser player Matt Mottel and drummer Kevin Shea, the latter also a member of the group Mostly Other People Do The Killing.
Reading Tim’s words persuaded me to check out Wilkinson for myself when he visited the Queens Head in nearby by Monmouth with Akode, his Norwegian group featuring the young musicians Kim Johannesen (guitar), Ola Høyer (double bass) and drummer Dag Erik Knedal Andersen. The gig came about as the result of the enthusiasm of Music In Monmouth’s Lyndon Owen, himself a highly accomplished saxophonist. Lyndon’s love of free jazz saw him bring Alex Ward’s superb new group Predicate to the Queens only a couple of weeks previously but this visit from Wilkinson was even better subscribed with fans travelling from as far afield as Cardiff and Bristol to see Akode perform, proof of improv’s appeal to a hardy cult of adventurous listeners.
Gigs at The Queens are free of charge with a collection which is very laudable but sometimes results in performances being marred by extraneous chatter. Arriving late I missed most of Akode’s first set and initially found it hard to get a handle on the music due to the background hubbub. The intensity of the music resulted in some defections at half time and for the second set the audience was comprised almost entirely of serious listeners.
Now I found myself drawn totally into the quartet’s sound world and found this second set totally compelling. As Lyndon Owen later put it the group had taken us on a journey, albeit a sometimes scary one. Wilkinson proved to be a force of nature on both alto and baritone saxophones; playing without bug mikes or any other sort of amplification he produced an enormous, vocally inflected sound that cut through effortlessly above Johannesen’s guitar sonics, the rumble of Hoyer’s bass and the colourful, energetic, polyrhythmic drumming of Andersen. I was hugely impressed with both Hoyer, who also added arco bass to his armoury, and Andersen, the latter producing an impressive range of sounds from a minimalist kit borrowed from Newport based drummer Iolo Whelan. Johannesen’s role was largely textural, he took one solo towards the end of the first set but none in the second and seemed to be dominated by the sheer force of the remarkable Wilkinson. At one point the saxophonist was torturing his baritone to the point that one of the keys became damaged and he abandoned it for the alto, cue jokes from the audience about “soldering on”.
After the gig I spoke to length with Wilkinson who proved to be an intelligent and articulate conversationalist and a genuinely nice guy. He kindly gave me a copy of “Two Falls & A Submission” the 2010 album by the long running trio of Hession/Wilkinson/Fell his group with drummer Paul Hession and double bassist Simon H. Fell, both seasoned campaigners on the British free jazz scene. The album has particular significance as it was actually recorded live at the trio’s performance at the Queens Head on 31st March 2010, an event I contrived to miss, but having heard this album I wish I’d been there.
The trio of Hession/Wilkinson/Fell has been around since the early 90’s and was one of the first groups to be given the “punk jazz” epithet. Their tumultuous music came from the tradition of Albert Ayler and Peter Brotzmann and earned the trio a cult following that persists to this day. Although I’ve not witnessed the trio live I’ve now seen all three members individually, Hession at a sparsely attended concert organised by Lyndon Owen at nearby Grosmont church in April 2011 with the Anglo Norwegian trio Thin Red Line and Fell as part of a rotating cast of improvisers at the 2011 Harmonic Festival in Birmingham. However only the Akode performance prepared me for the intensity of this live album.
The title “Two Falls & A Submission” comes from drummer Paul Hession’s childhood fascination with professional wrestling and his drily humorous liner notes make nostalgic reference to Mick McManus, Jackie Pallo, Kendo Nagasaki and commentator Kent Walton, all defining figures of the sport. However Hession’s favourites were The Royal Brothers, Vic Faulkner and Bert Royal, a celebrated tag wrestling team. Hession also talks about the analogies used to describe improvised music, among them “having a conversation”, “making love” and yes, wrestling. Hession seems to find the latter particularly apt and makes reference to his group’s “playful, grappling style”. “We can throw each other around and pin each other to the canvas, musically speaking” he goes on, claiming that this is the only group with which he can do this; “others usually stop short of the Full Nelson” he concludes. It’s an interesting parallel and one that can clearly be heard in the group’s music. Incidentally my co-writer Tim also seems to have picked up on this analogy, routinely describing the pairing of bassist John Edwards and drummer Mark Sanders as a “rhythmic tag team”.
“Two Falls & A Submission” consists of three lengthy fully improvised pieces. Wilkinson acknowledged the lo fi nature of the recording (by Sean McGowan-thankfully not Shane- and subsequently mixed and mastered by Fell) but the sound is perfectly acceptable and in no way diminishes from the stature and the intensity of the performances.
“First Fall” last for over half an hour but like all these performances seems to be imbued with a sort of inner logic, the kind that only comes from years of playing together. Initially Wilkinson’s volcanic alto sax squalls above the polyrhytmic flow of Hession’s drums. Hession is consistently busy here, rolling around his kit with an unstoppable flow. It’s very different from his Thin Red Line appearance when he performed in almost minimalistic fashion on a tiny kit. Wilkinson’s all action approach defies his colleagues to be anything less than busy, his vocalised shrieks almost demand an urgency and his two band mates don’t disappoint. The rumble of Fell’s bass is an omniscient presence as his two colleagues go head to head. At certain points Wilkinson removes the sax from his mouth and sings/chants in almost primal fashion, it’s one of his signature moves. Sometimes the music cools down from boiling point to embrace more impressionistic moments, freely structured scuttlings with the musicians probing the outer reaches of their instruments. Gradually the intensity builds again with Wilkinson wringing almost animalistic sounds from his baritone as Hession clatters around him. This is followed by a bout of almost shamanistic vocalising from Wilkinson before he finally falls silent to allow a brief dialogue between bass and drums before re-emerging on alto. At first he’s almost lyrical but the music becomes darker and more exploratory with Wilkinson making use of multiphonics before gradually ramping up the intensity again, his sax whinnying belligerently as the trio throw themselves into a sustained high energy coda. Taken as a whole the piece represents a journey, with peaks and troughs but with the trio never losing their intensity and focus. It’s not an easy trip but if listened to in the right frame of mind it’s one that is utterly absorbing- and you have to admire their physical resourcefulness if nothing else.
“The Submission” begins with dirty sounding solo baritone complete with Roland Kirk style vocalisations, a tour de force crashed by the thunder of Hession’s drums. Then it’s all out sonic assault as the trio grab the audience by the throat only to fall away into a sinister, unnerving central passage featuring Wilkinson’s ghostly, wordless vocal, Fell’s eerily bowed bass and Hession’s low register mallet rumbles. When Wilkinson picks up the sax again the sounds he produces are almost unworldly, sounding strangled and full of brooding menace. Eventually something relatively more conventional emerges with a lengthy Wilkinson solo above the incessant polyrhythmic rumble of Hession’s drumming as the fifteen minute plus extravaganza plays itself out to the obvious delight of the Monmouth crowd.
“Second Fall” is shorter but begins in similar fashion with solo Wilkinson, his other worldly sounds later underpinned by sepulchral arco bass. Hession’s drumming is fluid and impressionistic and there’s some more vocalising from Wilkinson before a sax melody tentatively emerges and Wilkinson solos relatively conventionally above Hession’s insistent polyrhythmic flow and Fell’s powerfully plucked anchoring bass. It’s not quite as full on as its predecessors but the trio still build up a fair head of steam with Wilkinson and Hession again going to head. There’s a tendency throughout this recording to view these two as the grapplers with Fell acting as a kind of referee.
I’ll admit that I don’t always find improv the easiest of genres to get on with, I like the idea of it but don’t always find it easy to listen to, particularly on record. However it is thrilling to watch the process live, the thinking in the moment, the visual impact of extended instrumental techniques, the things that can’t always be appreciated on radio broadcasts or on album. Wilkinson initially requested that I cover “Practice”, an album of solo saxophone improvisations but I suggested that as a relative novice to the genre I might get along rather better with this. Good move. It’s satisfying to find an improv record I can really identify with, partly the result of having witnessed the members of the trio live (particularly the extraordinary Wilkinson, I’ve never heard another saxophone player quite like him) and partly the resonance that comes from the recording being located at the Queens Head.
Another analogy often used to describe the improv process is “painting pictures in sound” and there’s a certain irony in the fact that Wilkinson trained as a painter completing a Fine Arts degree at Leeds University before turning to music. Art’s loss was surely music’s gain.
Recommended, but not for the faint-hearted.
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