Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019

by Ian Mann

January 12, 2016


Highly distinctive. The textures that they produce via the combination of human breath and electronics are consistently interesting and often richly evocative.



(Adaadat Records ADA0039)

In the summer of 2015 I attended a fascinating event entitled “Music and ... the Theremin” which formed part of that year’s Three Choirs Festival hosted by the city of Hereford. Part talk, part musical performance the event featured music by theremin virtuoso Lydia Kavina and was hosted by Sam Underwood and David Morton, two musical instrument builders and sonic experimenters based in rural Worcestershire.

As MortonUnderwood they also present a semi-regular series of events at Callow End Village Hall near Worcester under the generic title “If Wet…”
The following two paragraphs explain something of the If Wet… concept and are lifted directly from my review of the “Music and ... the Theremin” performance;

At “If Wet..” they invite fellow musical mavericks and inventors along on a “show and tell” basis to present both their instruments and their music. Conceived in 2013 as an antidote to the endless parade of blues and rock covers bands at the village hall the events, which take place on a Sunday afternoon, have proved to be a great success. Morton coined the name of the event, blatantly nicked from the ubiquitous last line on posters for village fêtes everywhere - “in the village hall if wet”. Despite the experimental nature of the music that village feel has also been vitally important to the success of the event with tea, cakes, home-made soup and real ale from a local brewery all part of the If Wet… experience. It has even inspired the If Wet Radio Show, a monthly broadcast on Sound Art Radio that has been aired on Sunday afternoons during lulls in the regular live events.

Such has been the success of If Wet… that the duo have toured with the format in other parts of the country including Sussex, Somerset and Cumbria, presumably retaining that rural vibe on their travels. The project has even captured the attention of Wire magazine which advertises the events and ran a feature on If Wet… and MortonUnderwood in its June 2014 edition.

MortonUnderwood have a particular interest in low frequency sound and for Sam Underwood this finds further expression in this improvising trio which features his own tuba playing alongside the sounds of Colin Webster on baritone saxophone and Graham Dunning who is credited with turntable and effects.

Webster has appeared on the Jazzmann web pages before in reviews of albums featuring his duo with Led Bib drummer Mark Holub. He has also collaborated with fellow saxophonist Archie Shepp, drummer Steve Noble and multi-instrumentalist Alex Ward and runs his own Raw Tonk record label.

Dunning is a sound artist specialising in tape and turntable manipulation who has recorded frequently for a variety of underground labels in addition to his own imprint Open Sound Group. He and Webster have a long running duo but added Underwood to the group for “Bleed” which was recorded at Underwood’s studios in Callow End.

The album arrived in the post some time after my conversation with Underwood in Hereford, presumably as a direct consequence of that, so my thanks go to Sam Underwood accordingly.

A copy also found its way to former Jazzmann contributor Tim Owen who reviewed it very favourably on his own Dalston Sound website

Tim’s musical tastes veer more towards the experimental than my own but nevertheless I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed the often uncompromising music to be heard on “Bleed”. The music on the album is entirely improvised and these words extracted from the press release from the London based experimental label Adaadat perhaps summarises it best;
“DunningWebsterUnderwood perform improvised music, avoiding conventional playing of their respective instruments. Graham Dunning uses a single turntable with dubplates of field recordings, dentistry tools and other objects to create crackling textures, tones and disjointed noise. Colin Webster is an experimental improviser who brings a palette of percussive and textural sounds, drawn tones and raw searing blasts. Sam Underwood is a musician, producer and instrument maker playing brass rasp and deep, drone, doom layers”.

The album’s eleven improvisations have titles that mirror the group name as the words bleed into each other, explaining, in part, the album title. First up is “Dustbleedblip” with the dolorous drone of Underwood’s tuba augmented by the crackles and scratches of Dunning’s turntables and other FX as Webster shadows them both and adds the occasional fog horn like brass on his baritone sax. Tim Owen’s review likens it to an ocean liner inching its way through a dense fog which sounds like a pretty accurate depiction to me. As Tim observes it is “deeply and subtly atmospheric”.

The following “Lavaeclustercore” is more freely structured and less visually evocative with its use of scuffling, percussive brass and reed sounds and over-blowing techniques allied to the myriad of mystery electronic sounds generated by Dunning. Some listeners would probably dismiss it as a tuneless racket but for me there’s a curious compulsiveness about the way it all unfolds.

“Mootmiasmaballast” is closer to the opener in the way that Underwood and Webster produce monstrous, droning, slowed down tuba and saxophone resonances that once more envelope the listener like a dense fog. I would wager that these improvising musicians have sometimes worked with visual artists, the grainy textures of this piece would be perfectly suited to a low budget horror movie from the Blair Witch Project school.

“Grapefleckserpent” begins by featuring Webster and Underwood locking horns in more bellicose fashion as Dunning adds lashes of glitchy white noise. There’s a more conversational middle section featuring the tuba and sax exchanging ideas, often deploying extended techniques. This however is the calm before a closing storm as Webster and Underwood wrestle like bellowing mastodons amid the abrasive crackle of Dunning’s FX.

The brief “Pisstwentysift” is partly a return to the abstraction of the second track with Webster and Underwood responding to the crackle and static of Dunning’s turntables but there is still the overriding sense of a three way conversation taking place.

“Tarnlavadust” begins as a further example of the group’s impressionistic, image generating style with samples of human voices present in Dunning’s output and with Webster and Underwood producing their trademark doomy, sonic drones. The visions that they evoke are unsettling and disturbing. Events then take a more conventional improv turn with a solo of sorts from Webster over Underwood’s tuba vamp and a later dialogue featuring pecked horn sounds and some astonishing multiphonics, the latter also being the predominate feature of the following “Kanineliceyard”.

Dunning shapes “Ghoulnimbusdart” with its echoed blasts of metallic white noise complemented by pecked horn sounds while the insistent electronic crackle that permeates the following “Tinyskeindot” offers another example of the sound artist beginning to assert himself.

The brief but evocative “Tuskcabstems” features almost impossibly low rumbling tuba frequencies and glitchy electronic static alongside Webster’s extended sax techniques. The saxophonist then delivers some more astonishing multiphonic sounds as the album concludes with “Driftyoklang”, a final visit to the distinctive, near subsonic audio world that this trio explores so successfully.

The music to be heard on “Bleed” won’t be to everyone’s taste but it is highly distinctive and I, for one, found it strangely compulsive and thoroughly absorbing. The trio improvise in a non-idiomatic way and the textures that they produce via the combination of human breath and electronics are consistently interesting and often richly evocative with some of the improvisations having a definite cinematic quality. Each piece presents a distinctive, self contained sound world of its very own.

The frequent use of extended techniques on baritone and tuba help to keep the music free of cliché and Dunning’s contribution demands that turntable specialists such as himself and Philip Jeck should be considered as fully fledged serious musicians - I’m as guilty as anybody of looking down on DJs and other exponents of non conventional instruments and not thinking of them as ‘proper musicians’.

There’s no danger of that with Webster who impresses throughout with his technique, extended or otherwise. Likewise Underwood who also performs as a solo tuba improviser using the name Ore.  It’s astonishing to think that he has only been playing the tuba since 2011 and that he has already established a distinctive voice on the instrument, very different to those of acknowledged tuba virtuosi such as Oren Marshall or Daniel Herskedal. 

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