Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


by Ian Mann

July 04, 2023


Absorbing, invigorating, but sometimes challenging listening. The music is free improvisation at its most uncompromising. Webster is a force for good on the free jazz and improv scene.

Colin Webster Large Ensemble

“First Meeting”

(Raw Tonk Records RT066)

Colin Webster – alto sax, Rachel Musson – tenor sax, Cath Roberts – baritone sax, Charlotte Keeffe – trumpet, flugelhorn. Graham Dunning – electronics, Dirk Serries – guitar, John Edwards – bass, Andrew Lisle – drums

Saxophonist Colin Webster first came to my attention in 2011 with the release of “Koi Bombs”, a trio album recorded with drummer Mark Holub and keyboard player Toby McLaren, then both members of Led Bib. This excellent recording is reviewed here;

Webster and Holub subsequently recorded the duo set “The Claw” (2012) which represented the first release on Webster’s still ongoing Raw Tonk record label. Review here;

More than a decade later Raw Tonk has released an impressive catalogue of improvised recordings, many of them featuring Webster himself. He has also enjoyed close links with the Lume organisation, the musician’s collective and record label co-founded by saxophonists Cath Roberts and Dee Byrne.

Webster, Roberts and saxophonist Tom Ward also organise BRÅK, a series of improvised music events held at waterintobeer, a beer / homebrew shop and bar in Brockley,  South East London.  These typically feature a series of three improvised duo performances featuring different musicians.

Other recordings featuring Webster to have featured on The Jazzmann include  “Bleed” (2016) a trio release for the Adaadat  label featuring Webster on baritone sax, Sam Underwood on tuba and Graham Dunning on turntable and effects. Review here;

There’s also “Noon:22nd Century” a cassette only release from 2017 credited to the improvising duo Far Rainbow  (sound artist Bobby Barry and drummer Emily Barnett) plus guests Webster (tenor sax), Roberts (baritone sax) and Tullis Rennie (trombone).
Review here;

It’s perhaps a touch ironic that I haven’t actually reviewed many of Webster’s numerous Raw Tonk releases, although I hope that might change now that Colin and I have established regular contact. Details of the full Raw Tonk catalogue, which includes many recordings featuring Webster improvising with a wide variety of musical collaborators, can be found at the label’s Bandcamp page.

The latest of these is “First Meeting” featuring Webster’s eight piece Large Ensemble. Webster plays all the members of the saxophone family but specialises here on alto alongside Roberts on baritone and Rachel Musson on tenor. Charlotte Keeffe plays trumpet and flugel, Graham Dunning is credited with electronics and the rhythm section is comprised of bassist John Edwards and drummer Andrew Lisle. The line up is completed by the Belgian guitarist Dirk Serries, a regular collaborator with both the Raw Tonk and Lume organisations.

Webster has been a regular collaborator with most of these musicians and the press release accompanying this recording summarises the theory behind the Large Ensemble as follows;
“There are numerous different strategies, structures and approaches that can be applied to improvising large ensembles. However sometimes it’s just about choosing the right people and letting them get on with it. This was the approach applied by Colin Webster. The musicians involved have all performed together and listened to each other countless times in multiple configurations. Not only that, but all the musicians involved are bandleaders in their own right, and with that comes the confidence to assert themselves on to the group sound at appropriate moments, without necessarily waiting for permission. The result is a free-flowing and organic performance by accomplished improvisers, with moments of intense ferocity as well as intimate detail”.

The album was recorded live at London’s Café Oto on the afternoon 21st August 2022 and is comprised of two unbroken improvisations, the first lasting for just over half an hour and the second clocking in at thirty six and a half minutes. No descriptive titles have been applied subsequently, they are merely “Set One” and “Set Two”.

The octet’s début performance begins in abstract fashion with multiple sax squalls and the harsh clang of Serries’ guitar. Edwards and Lisle combine to establish a rolling, consistently evolving rhythm as the music continues to gather momentum and intensity, the multiple horns jockeying for position. This is classic, full on improv with full ensemble passages punctuated by more intimate musical conversations between members of the band as the Ensemble breaks down into smaller units, allowing each individual to find their own voice within the music. The various musical discussions range from the soft and intimate to the garrulous and argumentative, the mood constantly changing and evolving. The use of extended techniques is extensive, particularly from the sax players, and Serries’ guitar sound is particularly distinctive throughout. Roberts’ baritone is a particularly significant component in a relentlessly insistent passage that gathers a remorseless momentum that threatens to overwhelm everything before it, the very embodiment of the “intense ferocity” mentioned in the press release. Once a peak has eventually been reached there’s a quieter, dark hued ‘aftermath’ featuring the soft crackle of Dunning’s electronics and the more subdued interplay between the instrumentalists, this time representing the “intimate detail”. Eventually the music regathers momentum for a final tumultuous bout of no holds barred collective improvising that wins the approval of the Oto audience.

Drums and saxes usher in “Set Two” and embark upon a series of absorbing exchanges, sometimes augmented by the swish of Dunning’s electronics. Extended sax techniques are again in evidence and Serries’ buzz saw guitar subsequently provides extra heft to the proceedings. Once again the music continues to gather momentum and intensity as the octet commences to steamroller everything in its way in a ferocious display of collective improvising that is truly excoriating. The music continues to ebb and flow with the Ensemble producing a fascinating array of sounds, colours, textures and contrasting dynamics. Blistering ensemble passages featuring bellicose horns and roiling bass and drums are again juxtaposed against more intimate musical conversations between smaller numbers of individual musicians. This eventually leads to a typically incendiary collective passage towards the close, followed by a short, gradual decay.

“First Meeting” represents absorbing, invigorating, but sometimes challenging listening. The music is free improvisation at its most uncompromising and will therefore only suit so many ears. It’s typical of the genre in that to truly appreciate it you really had to be at Café Oto on that August afternoon in 2022. Such is the intensity of this constantly evolving music that it’s not always easy to discern exactly who is doing what, again you really had to be there, I guess.

Despite these reservations it’s still good that the music is out there for those of us that weren’t lucky enough to be present at Café Oto to hear. Now more than ten years old Webster’s Raw Tonk label has done much to carry the flame for improvised music and has released a rich catalogue of work. The saxophonist is a force for good on the free jazz and improv scene, both in the UK and internationally, and is to be congratulated for his efforts.

“First Meeting”, plus all other Raw Tonk releases can be purchased here;

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