by Ian Mann
July 07, 2020
Manchester based drummer Johnny Hunter has responded to the challenge of creating collectively improvised music in isolation with the release of his quartet's digital album "Studies In Lockdown".
JOHNNY HUNTER - “STUDIES IN LOCKDOWN”
INTRODUCTION by IAN MANN
The ‘Lockdown’ caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has been a particularly challenging time for performing musicians with all live performances either postponed or cancelled.
The economic difficulties that this has posed for hundreds, or more probably thousands, of self employed artists has been well documented and I don’t intend to explore those murky waters here.
However the lockdown has also presented musical challenges, particularly for improvisers working at the ‘freer’ end of the jazz spectrum where “in the moment” interaction between the performers is an integral component of the music.
With typical resourcefulness jazz musicians have risen to the challenge of the lockdown environment with a slew of livestream events, presented on a variety of technological and social media platforms, with the participants performing from the safety of their own homes. The majority of these have been solo performances, or duos if the performers are partners and co-habiting. Occasionally a group of young musicians may be house mates and there have been a few, very welcome, examples of full band performances.
In other cases musicians have collaborated by playing separate written parts in their own homes and then deploying technology and the art of editing to create a unified group performance.
The challenge for improvisers like Manchester based drummer Johnny Hunter has been one of how to create spontaneously improvised music in isolation, with no formally written parts and with the technological challenges of ‘latency’ representing a major issue – as anyone who has ever participated in a Zoom call will appreciate.
It has been practically impossible to reproduce the intimacy, interaction and in-the-moment creativity of of freely improvised music in an on line setting.
Nevertheless Hunter has addressed these challenges with the members of his regular quartet, saxophonist Mark Hanslip, trumpeter Graham South and bassist Seth Bennett, releasing the results of these experiments as the digital album “Studies In Lockdown”, released on the Manchester based Efpi label and available via Bandcamp.
Inspired by similar groups led by saxophonists Ornette Coleman, Joe Henderson, John Zorn and Chris Speed the Hunter Quartet has previously released the albums “Appropriations” (2013) and “While We Still Can” (2015), both for Efpi Records.
Ben Cottrell of Efpi, best known as the leader and main composer of Beats & Big Pieces Big Band contacted me to let me know the details of Hunter’s new “Studies In Lockdown” release. As a long term supporter of the Efpi label in general and Hunter’s music in particular I was more than happy to help ‘spread the word’.
Hunter’s recent release for Northern Contemporary, the excellent sextet album “Pale Blue Dot”, is reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann here;
He has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages, often as a member of the various bands led by, or associated with, saxophonist, composer and improviser Cath Roberts, these including Sloth Racket, Favourite Animals, Word of Moth and the new Anglo-Swiss sextet MoonMot.
The drummer has also worked extensively with his brother, guitarist Anton Hunter, appearing with Anton’s trio and with Anton’s large ensemble Article XI. The brothers also team up with saxophonist and bassoonist Mick Beck in the improvising trio Beck Hunters. They are also part of the jazz/ska/dub sextet Skamel.
Johnny Hunter is also part of the improvising trio Fragments, alongside pianist Adam Fairhall and bassist Seth Bennett. The trio’s eponymous début album was released by Northern Contemporary in March 2019. Review here;
Other artists with whom Hunter has collaborated include vocalist Nishla Smith, bassist Gavin Barras, saxophonists Nat Birchall, Pete Lyons and Martin Archer, vibraphonist Corey Mwamba and pianists Misha Gray, John Donegan and Laura Cole. Hunter has recorded with Cole’s Metamorphic Group, appearing on the recent album “The Two Fridas” (2018). He has also drummed for the large ensemble the Manchester Jazz Collective.
He has collaborated and recorded with Liverpudlian musicians in the bands Blind Monk Trio and Marley Chingus and has recorded albums with both.
BEN COTTRELL WRITES:
Johnny Hunter Quartet release “Studies In Lockdown” (FP035)
The Manchester based record label Efpi has recently released “Studies In Lockdown”, a digital EP from drummer and composer Johnny Hunter and his quartet - Mark Hanslip (saxophone), Graham South (trumpet) and Seth Bennett (bass). As the name suggests, the EP consists of three studies exploring ways that improvisers can still play spontaneously ‘together’ while recording remotely and separately. The music is available to stream on Bandcamp, where the EP is available on a pay-what-you-can basis.
I also put a 67 minute video piece together for the recent Manchester Jazz Festival programme where I chat with Johnny in more detail about the ideas in the studies which you can find on Efpi’s YouTube channel .
The discussion concludes with an alternative rendition of the studies recorded by a one-off quartet of Dee Byrne (saxophone), Graham South (trumpet), Huw V Williams (bass) and Johnny in real time (ish) using the Audiomovers plug-in, resulting in a slightly different ‘performance’ than the version recorded separately (beginning at 51.30 in the video).
FROM JOHNNY HUNTER’S BANDCAMP PAGE:
The following paragraphs are sourced from Johnny Hunter’s Bandcamp page;
Improvisation and dialogue between musicians are central to drummer/composer Johnny Hunter’s work – concepts which obviously present some logistical challenges during this period of lockdown and isolation. Unable to play together in the usual manner, Johnny set about exploring how his quartet could adapt to this new situation; not to attempt to approximate a ‘normal’ live performance but to find ways to record remotely and separately whilst keeping collective improvisation and spontaneity at the core of the music. The result of this experimentation is an innovative new EP simply entitled “Studies In Lockdown”, a collection of three pieces that acknowledge the problems and limitations of distanced, non-realtime collaboration and re-frame them not as difficulties or obstacles but as creative opportunities and inspirations. The EP is available now exclusively through Bandcamp on a pay what you can basis.
“I was keen to use this situation as a reason to find new approaches to writing and playing, and not just try to find ways to approximate our usual music. Recording separately and layering up each musician’s parts to a click or guide track is very common and works well for other forms of music; however, in jazz and improvised music, I feel that this approach sacrifices the group interaction and combined groove. Layering up each musician’s contribution was the only available option in the current circumstances though, so I devised these three studies to explore different methods for groups of musicians to create music remotely whilst retaining the chance and spontaneity that (for me) is so key to improvised music” Johnny Hunter, May 2020
Study 1 uses short melodies and rhythmic fragments to initiate and influence the improvising, and timestamps to indicate how to pace the music and when to move on. The two horns recorded their parts separately without being able to hear the other, but maintain a unity between each part and create interesting textures and
‘interactions’ through these guided improv techniques.
Study 2 deals with the concept of latency, the often problematic delay that we have all experienced while trying to speak to one another over the internet.
Finally, Study 3 explores what would happen if the musicians were to record their parts in isolation, without hearing each other at all – an echo of the current situation in which ‘real-world’ interactions are severely restricted.
Released May 22, 2020
Mark Hanslip : tenor saxophone
Graham South : trumpet
Seth Bennett : bass
Johnny Hunter : drums
All tracks composed by Johnny Hunter
Recorded by the musicians in their homes, May 2020
Mixed and mastered by Hervé Perez
PRAISE FOR JOHNNY HUNTER:
“Admirably reflects the independent creativity of the new Manchester scene” The Guardian
“Connects authentically with jazz tradition, whilst developing its own voice through original composition – a fabulous advertisement for British jazz” London Jazz News
“Hard-grooving jazz that’s filtered through the investigation of more unfamiliar dance metres” Jazzwise
JOHNNY HUNTER’S WEBSITE:
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