by Ian Mann
October 11, 2018
Ian Mann enjoys the boundary crossing music of this quartet featuring Ahmed Mukhtar (oud), Camilla Cancantata (piano, trombone, voice), Sonia Hammond (cello) & Charlie Beresford (guitar, voice).
Borderless, Leominster Community Centre, Leominster, Herefordshire, 09/10/2018.
It’s not very often that I get the opportunity to walk to a gig, enjoy the music and then call in for a few pints in my local on the way home. But that’s just what I was able to do when the Borderless quartet visited my home town to present a programme of music described in the pre-show publicity as “boundary crossing”.
Borderless consists of the Iraqi born oud player Ahmed Mukhtar plus three musicians based in the Welsh Marches, cellist Sonia Hammond, guitarist and vocalist Charlie Beresford and pianist, trombonist and vocalist Camilla Cancantata.
I was attracted to the event by the presence of Beresford and Hammond who work regularly together as an improvising duo, releasing the richly atmospheric album “The Science of Snow” in 2015. They followed this with 2016’s “The Lightning Bell” for which the line up was expanded to a trio with the addition of pianist Carolyn Hume. “The Lightning Bell” also featured a guest vocal by Judie Tzuke, another musician who has taken up residence in the Marches. Beresford and Hammond then returned to the duo format for 2017’s “Each Edge of the Field”. All of these recordings have been reviewed elsewhere on The Jazzmann.
Beresford and Hume are also part of the improvising quartet Fourth Page which also features bassist Peter Marsh and percussionist Paul May. The group has released three albums, the most recent being “Ticks and Moans” from 2012, although a new Fourth Page album is mooted for early 2019.
The members of Fourth Page have also collaborated with percussionist Patrick Dawes and others under the name Crystal Moth. Beresford has also recorded as a solo artist, releasing the deeply personal album “Dark Transport” back in 2009. He has also worked with the multi-instrumentalist Mark Emmerson (piano, accordion, viola) under the name Five Turnings Duo.
The classically trained Hammond studied at Birmingham School of Music and at the Royal Academy of Music in London. She is still involved with classical ensembles such as the Brecknock Sinfonia (for whom she is principal cellist) and the Castalia String Quartet. In 2014 she released a live solo recording of compositions by J.S. Bach. However Hammond has also worked extensively in other genres of music during an eclectic freelance career and has collaborated with solo artists such as Barb Jungr and Chloe Goodchild and with the bands Babysnakes and Ennui. She and Beresford are both members of the Radnor Improvisers collective.
Camilla Cancantata, who has previously recorded under the name Camilla Saunders, is also a member of the Radnor Improvisers and works regularly with Beresford. She is a musician who is dedicated to the art of improvisation but is also a composer of more formal works, many of these commissioned pieces. She also works in the fields of theatre and music education.
Born in Baghdad Ahmed Mukhtar studied the oud and Arabic percussion in Baghdad, Damascus and London and currently lives in what Cancantata described as “Darkest Dagenham”. He currently teaches the oud, percussion and Arabic music theory at various institutions around London, including SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies) and has authored several study books on these subjects. He has also worked in television, film and theatre as well as recording five full length albums.
I have to admit to approaching this concert with a degree of trepidation. Audience numbers in Leominster for jazz related music have often been pitiful in the past, I remember only a handful of people turning out to see Fourth Page at the Lion Ballroom back in 2012 – admittedly the then ongoing London Olympics may have presented something of a distraction. Tonight just over thirty audience members turned up and the cabaret style seating ensured that the room seemed pleasingly full, providing a good atmosphere for the performers. The usual raked seating had been packed away as the quartet had conducted an improvisation workshop prior to the concert performance which had seen around ten local people participating.
Introducing the performance Cancantata explained that despite the close links between some of the musicians this was the first time that the Borderless aggregation had actually played together as a quartet. The programme featured a mixture of set pieces for the individual musicians punctuated by passages of of what Cancantata described as “cross improvisation”. “It will be interesting to see where we meet and where we diverge” she mused.
It was Hammond that set the ball rolling with an unaccompanied passage of cello that saw her improvising around the music of J.S. Bach prior to her being joined by Beresford’s acoustic guitar for a duet that evoked memories of their highly atmospheric album recordings.
I’ve acquired a fondness for the sound of the oud thanks to the recordings of the Tunisian oud master Anouar Brahem and a recent live performance at Black Mountain Jazz in Abergavenny by the Greek born guitarist and oud player Stefanos Tsourelis. Brahem and Tsourelis both bring the oud into a jazz environment, teaming it with bass and drums and writing original music, but Mukhtar’s playing was more rooted in the traditional folk music of his native Iraq. He was the next musician to enter the fray with a passage of solo oud, possibly the first time the lute like instrument has ever been played in Leominster.
Mukhtar then linked up with Cancantata, who was playing a Casio Privia electric keyboard, the property of the Community Centre. Apparently it had been the intention for her to play the Centre’s acoustic upright but this was so badly out of tune that an alternative had to be sought, which was a pity. In this first passage of collective improvisation Hammond added plucked cello bass lines before the piece resolved itself with Mukhtar picking out a folk melody on the oud.
Beresford has described Fourth Page’s music as consisting of “spontaneously composed songs” and his set piece here was exactly that. Commencing solo he deployed extended techniques on his acoustic guitar by placing objects under the strings ( I think one these was a teaspoon) to alter the sound of the instrument, a method that one time Jazzmann contributor Tim Owen described as being akin to prepared piano. One suspects that Beresford may have been influenced by experimental guitarists such as Keith Rowe and Derek Bailey in this regard. In any event it was hugely effective, especially when combined with Beresford’s semi spoken vocals, these subsequently joined by Hammond’s grainy, melancholic cello timbres and Cancantata’s backing vocals, whispered at first but also including Julie Tippetts / Maggie Nichols style ululations. Unfortunately while all this was going on there were also some unwanted audience whisperings which made it difficult to make any real sense of Beresford’s improvised lyrics, but it was all highly effective nevertheless.
The first half concluded with a group rendition of the traditional Iraqi folk song “Bant Al Shalabaya”, the arresting melody providing the framework for solos from Cancantata, Mukhtar and Hammond.
The second set placed a greater emphasis on the music of Iraq with Mukhtar doing more of the talking and starting things off with an unaccompanied oud performance of two traditional Iraqi folk songs written in the 10th and 12th centuries and now given the collective title “Old”.
The other members of Borderless then joined Mukhtar to improvise around a set of traditional songs from Baghdad, commencing with a duet between Mukhtar and Cancantata with Hammond later adding rich cello overtones as Beresford’s guitar answered Mukhtar’s oud melodies.
Cancantata’s set piece was a very brief passage of Keith Tippett / Myra Melford style solo piano as she swarmed all over the keyboard. “A Casio classic!” joked Beresford.
Next came the second passage of group improvisation, one which saw Cancantata switching to trombone, “hello, the plumbing’s arrived” quipped Beresford. Hammond and Beresford steered the piece, beginning in duo mode with Beresford using a bow on his guitar strings, the resultant sound a little like that of a metallic violin. Cancantata’s deep trombone sonorities complemented the sounds of cello and guitar to create music that was strangely beautiful and utterly compelling and which was eventually resolved by the entry of Mukhtar’s oud playing another traditional melody, this augmented by Cancantata’s wordless vocals. For me this was one of the most effective performances of the evening.
The concert concluded with the traditional Iraqi tune “Maly Shaghal Souq”, around which the quartet added a myriad of variations. Mukhtar picked out the melody on the oud, the lively and infectious tune acting as the jumping off point for solos from all four musicians. Cancantata’s trombone growl and Hammond’s percussive cello accompanied Mukhtar’s opening statement, this leading to solos from both Cancantata and Hammond, these punctuated by a feature for Mukhtar on the oud. Hammond’s solo included some stunning high register bowing, Beresford replying in kind by again deploying a bow during the course of his guitar solo.
Of course the most famous exponent of bowed guitar is Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin fame, but even Page looks like a mere dabbler compared to the extraordinary Norwegian guitarist Stian Westerhus. Page and Westerhus both deploy electric guitars so it was interesting to see Beresford apply the bow to the acoustic. It’s a technique that Beresford is currently making increasingly extensive use of and the results were fascinating, absorbing, highly musical and strangely beautiful.
On the whole the music of Borderless was well received by an appreciative and largely attentive audience. Music as adventurous as this doesn’t get performed in Leominster vary often and I was pleasantly surprised by how well the quartet were received. Mukhtar’s traditional folk melodies were readily accessible and helped to balance the more ‘avant garde’ elements brought to the table by the three British musicians.
The “boundary crossing” tag certainly lived up to its name. This was music that was impossible to classify as the four musicians dipped into the worlds of folk and ‘world’ music, jazz, poetry and free improvisation and classical and chamber music, blending the various components with great skill and fluidity. It was a shame that a ‘proper’ piano couldn’t be used as this would have helped to take the quartet’s multi-faceted explorations to another level.As it was it was the pieces featuring Cancantata on trombone that were arguably the most effective.
All in all the Borderless experiment was a considerable success and it is to be hoped that tonight’s performance, plus the one the following night at Gwernyfed High School in Three Cocks near Brecon were not just one off events. An album from this fascinating foursome would make for interesting listening.
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