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Various Artists

Freedom Of The City Festival, Conway Hall, London, 2-3 May 2010

by Tim Owen

May 06, 2010


Tim Owen enjoys two days of improvised music at this long running London festival.

Freedom of the City,
Conway Hall, London,
2-3 May 2010

Sunday 2 May, 7pm:
Louis Moholo-Moholo, Steve Noble, Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith
SUM (Ross Lambert, Eddie Prévost, Seymour Wright)
Peter Evans, Okkyung Lee, Evan Parker

Monday 3 May, 2pm:
John Butcher, Mark Sanders
Jennifer Allum, Grundik Kasyansky, David O’Connor, Eddie Prévost
Adam Bohman, Phillip Marks, Paul Obermayer, Ute Wassermann

I could only manage a partial attendance of this years’ Freedom festival. I arrived for the second house on Sunday, barely an hour after the publicised start time, only to find that I’d missed not only the opening set by John Russell’s Quaqua septet but also the bulk of what promised, in advance, to be one of the most interesting, Wadada Leo Smith’s novel trumpet/dual drums trio with Louis Moholo-Moholo and Steve Noble. And it seemed I was to be doubly disappointed as, by the time I took my seat, Moholo-Moholo had apparently lost any inclination to participate. Steve Noble, on the other hand, was relaxed and in full control, working up a mild swell of percussive brushwork beneath Leo Smith’s bold, muscular phrasing. The trumpeter’s tone was plangent, precise and beautifully sustained.

Despite the avowedly democratic nature of the music, SUM is primarily a showcase for Eddie Prévost’s skills with free- and post-bop rhythms. These are, for him, disconcertingly conventional approaches to a conventional drum kit. Imagine a more cerebral Elvin Jones. Guitarist Ross Lambert and alto saxophonist Seymour Wright play against Prévost’s percussive flow, disdaining its centrifugal pull. Lambert’s timbre was dry and austere, and Lambert likewise restricted himself to short, neat phrases. The occasional bright hint of a melody seemed all the more beautiful for it, but overall the trio’s music was curiously static, with Prévost’s drive effectively neutered.

For the final set on Sunday Evan Parker was paired with two remarkable New York-based artists, trumpeter Peter Evans and cellist Okkyung Lee. Evans’ pairing with Parker is particularly fruitful, as the two men engage in dialogue almost as if forming a new language. Evans’ articulation is remarkably fluent even as he shapes notes of often lip-smacking pungency, and Parker of necessity responds with a gritty resourcefulness that belies his experience, starting anew, again. Okkyung Lee occasionally laboured in vain, her cello practically inaudible, though she was tirelessly resourceful, concentrating on abbreviated bowing around the cello’s bridge and curt lateral strokes that imbued proceedings with a vibrantly strident edge.

Kicking things off just after 2pm the next day, John Butcher and Mark Sanders delivered a terrific, fully engrossing set of the first order. I would be astonished if either man delivered a performance that was less than worthwhile, but this duet was uncommonly strong. At times Butcher made the acoustical properties of the hall resonate with the sound of his tenor. Of course this is something he’s renowned for, but I didn’t expect him to achieve it in this most sonically sedate of venues. Otherwise he took the set through a slow morphogenesis in a sequence of various but consistently non-idiomatic changes. Sanders seems almost ego-less. His approach to the drums was purposeful but restrained as he switched between drumsticks, brushes, brass bells and simple hand pats to achieve the required degree of subtlety, always with a deft and musical sensibility and always maintaining clarity of purpose. I’ve heard few improvisations so elegantly managed.

The festival always features certain artists in multiple contexts. There would, for example, be another Leo Smith set to close the final session. The next set saw the return of Eddie Prévost to the stage. This time he sat pointedly stage left, obscured by a large gong, and concentrating solely on percussion. His three colleagues were familiars from a weekly workshop: Jennifer Allum (violin), David O’Connor (baritone saxophone), and Grundik Kasyansky (electricity). Kasyansky’s manipulations focused primarily on the physical application of a pickup mic to various bits and pieces, notably a single wire (possibly piano wire or a guitar string) stretched across the objects on the table in front of him. Prévost and Allum’s approaches were in keeping with this sonically severe aesthetic, being similarly minimal, though whereas Allum’s micro-bow strokes and scrapes were rather austere, Prévost focused primarily on bowing his gong, to contrastingly shimmering effect. O’Connor was admirably restrained, restricting himself mostly to breath sounds and avoiding any overt show of physicality on his somewhat cumbersome instrument. As the set drew to an accord he released a brief melodic shard that was luminous in its brevity.

The final set of the day for me (I couldn’t stay longer) was by Adam Bohman, Phillip Marks, Paul Obermayer, and Ute Wassermann. Originally billed as a FURT gig, Obermayer’s regular partner Richard Barrett was indisposed, so percussionist Phillip Marks, from another Obermayer project, Bark, was drafted in as a substitute. Presumably this changed the dynamic rather significantly, but the result was terrific. Adam Bohman’s contributions were perhaps too easy to overlook, as they were often either inaudible or unidentifiable amid the general clamour, but whenever the sound field thinned out he was right in there, laying down the sonic turf with his amplified objets sonores. Obermayer was equally busy with his electronics, presumably playing mostly from a library of samples, though I’m pretty sure he also live-processed elements of Wassermann’s wordless vocalizations. Wassermann’s articulation was rapid and precise as she flirted rapaciously with stylistic allusion and mimicry. In the latter half of the set she opted to play a crude whistle rather than exercise her voice, which may have been feeling the strain of the frenetic pace sustained by Phillip Mark’s wild drumming. There was obviously a lot of fairly academic stimulus behind this set, but the experience of it was cathartically anarchic.

On balance this was another remarkable year for one of our most vital annual music events. As I’ve already said, the sets I’ve reviewed were just the ones I managed to catch. I missed all of the sessions on Sunday afternoon and Monday evening. I missed Quaqua and the beginning of Wadada Leo Smith’s set on Sunday evening. I had to leave before Jean-Luc Guionnet, Ross Lambert, and Philip Somervell’s set closed proceedings on Monday afternoon. My apologies to those artists not mentioned. Full details of the lineup can be found at

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