by Ian Mann
March 27, 2020
There’s a real spark about the playing and a true sense of adventure as the musicians blend acoustic and electronic elements in thrillingly genre bending fashion.
“Alive In The Empire”
(Dave De Rose Records – DDR014)
Dave De Rose – drums, John Edwards – double bass, George Crowley – saxophone & FX, Dan Nicholls – synths, samples & FX
Agile Experiments is the generic name for a monthly series of experimental music nights curated by the Anglo-Italian drummer and multi-instrumentalist Dave De Rose that take place at The Empire Bar in Hackney, London.
De Rose first instigated the events in 2015, originally at the Agile Rabbit Pizzeria in Brixton Village, inviting musicians to join him in a series of one hour improvised performances with no interval and no musical ‘rules’. The idea was to take improvised music to a location where people would be unfamiliar with it, encouraging them to engage with these acts of spontaneous creation.
The sessions began to gain something of a cult following and a loose collective of musicians, and even dancers, began to gather around De Rose. In 2016 a DIY studio space was rented in Camberwell with various musicians forming themselves into different combos to record eight one hour sessions. In 2018 thirteen pieces from these sessions were released on two vinyl only releases, “Agile Experiments Vol. 1 & 2”.
In 2019 more selections from the 2016 sessions plus newer material culled from various live performances around London was released on two further LPs, “London – The Ultimate Guide of Avant-Garde-Step-Sides A & B”.
In 2019 De Rose travelled to Athens to perform a similar series of events with Greek improvising musicians, resulting in an album simply titled “Athens”.
This fifth release in the “Agile Experiments” series teams De Rose with the vastly experienced improvising bassist John Edwards, together with two musicians of the drummer’s own generation, saxophonist George Crowley and keyboard player Dan Nicholls. Their performance at The Empire Bar on 21st November 2019 formed part of that year’s EFG London Jazz Festival. Recorded by Oliver Keen the album was then produced, mixed and mastered by De Rose during December. It represents the first Agile Experiments LP to be drawn from a single group performance.
The album is available on vinyl only and can be purchased at http://www.davederosemusic.bandcamp.com
It constitutes the fourteenth release on De Rose’s own label and all of his output, including the entire “Agile Experiments” series can be found here.
I’m grateful to publicist Lee Paterson for providing journalists such as myself with a CD copy for review purposes but, as alluded to previously, readers should note that commercially the album is ONLY available on vinyl.
“Alive In The Empire” doesn’t sound like a typical ‘free improv’ record. It doesn’t consist of a long, single improvisation but instead comprises seven individual tracks under the generic title “Alive” - Parts I to VII”. Some of the movements have almost song like structures and many of the pieces boast driving rhythms, perhaps not so surprising considering that the hard hitting De Rose is behind the drums, teamed with the muscular Edwards on the bass, a robust and highly physical player capable of generating an immense rhythmic power. Add to these the electronic effects triggered by Nicholls and Crowley and you have a highly distinctive quartet capable of finding fresh things to say within the improv idiom.
“Part I” commences with De Rose at the drums and Edwards at the bass, establishing a fluid but powerful rhythm around which Crowley’s stalks and meanders. De Rose and Crowley work regularly together, having been part of the Wolf Off improvising trio alongside Rory Simmons (trumpet, electronics). Crowley is also a regular member of the Agile Experiments collective. So too is Nicholls, whose role here is at first essentially textural, but who begins to assert himself more as the piece progresses, generating dirty, glitchy sounds from his synths and other electronic devices. Edwards plays both with and without the bow and is always a powerful presence. Crowley delivers some of the foghorn like sax blasting he brought to Wolf Off while De Rose produces an intriguing and impressive range of percussive sounds from his kit.
“Part II” erupts in a kind of sonic fire-storm of pummelling rhythms and bellicose sax blasting with Crowley essentially in the role of soloist, spurred on by the roiling rhythm section. Nicholls’ synths eventually find a way to slither and sidle their way into and around all this, prior to the inevitable breakdown as De Rose eventually drops out to leave an electronic soundscape patrolled by Crowley’s sax and Edwards’ bowed bass.
The more concise “Part 111” begins like a jam and features the almost cheesy sounds of Nicholls’ keyboards, clattering Latin-esque rhythms from De Rose and echoed, dubby tenor sax from Crowley. It’s an intriguing mix of elements that subsequently fragments into something more obviously freely structured and improvised.
“Part IV” begins freely before establishing a rumbling groove featuring both bass and synth and the constant bustle of De Rose’s drumming. Nicholls lays down additional synth textures as Crowley’s sax worries and teases. De Rose’s drums come to the fore in the second half of a piece that again includes elements of dub, and even funk, amid the improv.
The near ten minute “Part V” is arguably the focal point of the album and the piece that comes closest to the usual narrative arc of most improv. The opening section includes some dark, ominous bowing from Edwards as he engages in an extended musical conversation with both De Rose and Crowley. The drummer embellishes his contribution with a wide range of percussive sounds and Edwards switches to powerfully plucked bass as the music begins to take on a hypnotic quality, the mesmeric rhythms are augmented by swirling synth textures and the echoing blasts of Crowley’s sax. At times the overall effect is not dissimilar to an even more ‘out there’ Hawkwind, but one honed in the techniques of free jazz. It all makes for strangely compulsive listening.
“Part VI” features percolating polyrhythms from Rose, his drumming forming the backbone of the piece. Nicholls produces electronic counter rhythms of his own and the sound of Crowley’s sax is heavily treated, his echoed honks and blasts swimming in and out of focus. Again the effect is dubby, trippy and strangely hypnotic. Edwards’ role is less easily to define, but he’s surely locked in with De Rose, and I fancy that I detected some of his distinctive arco work at some junctures of the performance.
The album concludes with “Part VII”, an almost entirely electronic soundscape that sounds dark, dubby, glitchy, eerie and genuinely dystopian. There are acoustic instruments in there somewhere, but their sounds have been drastically manipulated.
Although this music was recorded live any applause or other audience noise has been edited out entirely. One suspects that De Rose may have done a degree of editing and post production work and it’s possible that some of these pieces originally formed part of a longer improvisation, such is the nature of some of the fade-ins and fade-outs. Not that this observation is meant as any kind of implied criticism – each ‘part’ stands up perfectly well on its own merits.
What does come across, even without the applause, is the power and vibrancy of the music and the very obvious enjoyment that its creators took in making it. There’s a real spark about the playing and a true sense of adventure as the musicians blend acoustic and electronic elements in thrillingly genre bending fashion. There are few longueurs here, such is the energy and passion expressed in the playing. “Our aim is to bring attention back to bringing attention” De Rose has stated and this album certainly grabs the listener by the lapels.
It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but I certainly found this particular “Agile Experiment” to be thoroughly compelling thanks to its energy, adventurousness and the sheer range of styles and different sounds on offer. There’s an almost ‘punk like’ spirit and intensity about it that is sometimes lacking in freely improvised music, which can sometimes across as being too serious or ‘po faced’. Also by virtue of breaking the music down into (relatively) digestible chunks this is an improv recording that will bear repeated listening, doubtless with something new to discover on each return visit.
The official launch gig for the album, which was due to take place on April 1st 2020 at The Empire Hackney featuring a trio of De Rose, Nicholls and bassist Tom Herbert has been cancelled due to the Covid-19 crisis.
It will be replaced on 1st April at 4pm by the first chance to catch footage of the last Agile Experiments/Empire Bar concert from March 2020, of Dan Nicholls, Ruth Goller (electric bass, FX) & Dave De Rose. Click-on https://www.youtube.com/davederosemusic
Meanwhile collectors items of four test presses of album are available via bandcamp https://davederosemusic.bandcamp.com
The next Agile Experiments events at The Empire are obviously in doubt due to the current circumstances but are scheduled to be as follows;
? 13 May- Colin Somervell -double bass, George Crowley - saxophone & FX, Dave De Rose - drums
? 3 June-Dave Smith -drums, Marius Mathiszik guitar, loops & FX, Dave De Rose - bass & FX
8pm doors // 9pm music // Free entrance