by Ian Mann
April 12, 2020
Inspired by the wild but beautiful landscape of the Welsh Borders this is a notably ego-less approach to free improvising, and one that helps to make this quartet so distinctive.
(The 52nd 52NCD007)
Charlie Beresford – acoustic guitar, Sonia Hammond – cello, Gerry Gold – trumpet, flugelhorn
Rod Paton – piano, melodica, french horn, voice
The What? Quartet is a new collaboration featuring four improvising musicians based in the Welsh Borders.
Guitarist Charlie Beresford and cellist Sonia Hammond are musicians that are well known to me and they have recorded together fairly frequently as a duo on albums such as “The Science of Snow” (2015), “Each Edge of the Field” (2017) and “Circle Inside the Folds” (2019), the latter arguably their best and most accessible to date. All three releases are reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann.
For “The Lightning Bell” (2016) they temporarily expanded the group to a trio with the addition of pianist Carolyn Hume, one of Beresford’s collaborators in the group Fourth Page. The album also included an unexpected, but surprisingly successful, guest contribution from vocalist Judie Tzuke, who lives in the same geographical area as Hume and who enjoyed some mainstream pop success in the late 70s and early 80s, particularly with the 1979 hit single “Stay With Me Till Dawn”.
“Lightning Bell” review here;
I first became aware of Beresford’s music in 2009 with the release of his highly personal solo album “Dark Transport”. He combines solo projects with membership of the improvising quartet Fourth Page alongside Hume, bassist Peter Marsh and percussionist Paul May. This quartet’s album releases include 2011’s “Blind Horizons” and 2018’s “The Forest From Above”, both of which appear on Leo Records. Meanwhile “Along The Weak Rope” (2011) and the live recording “Ticks and Moans” (2012) were issued by the London based independent For/wind.
Beresford, Hume, Marsh and May are also part of the quintet Crystal Moth, which also features the percussionist Patrick Dawes. This line up, augmented by a number of guest musicians, released their eponymous début album in 2016.
Beresford has also played with the multi-instrumentalist Mark Emerson (piano, accordion, viola) under the name Five Turnings Duo. Others with whom he has collaborated include the Russian free jazz saxophonist Alexey Kruglov, French guitarist Christian Vasseur, and Brits bassist Tim Harries, folk singer June Tabor and performance poet Ian McMillan.
Beresford co-ordinates the Radnor Improvisers, a collective of improvising musicians from around the Welsh Borders and also has a parallel career as a visual artist and photographer. Further information on his numerous activities can be found on his website http://www.charlieberesford.com
Also a member of the Radnor Improvisers the classically trained Hammond (nee Oakes) 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 and the St. Woolos Sinfonia (acting as principal cellist for both) plus 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, Philip Kane and Chloe Goodchild and with the bands Babysnakes and Ennui.
More recent collaborations have included a duo with jazz/folk guitarist Adrian Crick resulting in the albums “Something Beginning With…” (2016) and “More (off the beaten) Tracks” (2017). Hammond has also been working with the high powered blues/rock guitarist/vocalist Troy Redfern, on the face of it an unlikely pairing. Having also covered Redfern’s music on this site I’d be highly intrigued to hear the results of this!
Living in the same geographical area as Beresford and Hammond I’ve been fortunate enough to see both musicians performing live in nearby locations. Fourth Page visited my home town of Leominster in 2012 while in 2018 the aptly named aggregation Borderless came to the town, a quartet featuring both Beresford and Hammond plus Camilla Cancantata (previously Saunders) on piano, trombone and vocals and the Baghdad born Ahmed Mukhtar on oud. Review here; https://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/borderless-leominster-community-centre-leominster-herefordshire-09-10-2018
In May 2019 the Beresford Hammond duo performed at The Globe in Hay-on-Wye as part of the ongoing Nawr (Welsh for ‘now’) series of experimental music evenings. Usually based in Swansea but occasionally making forays out to Hay the Nawr events typically feature short-ish sets from four different and very varied acts, a kind of avant-garde music review that I like to liken to a live version of Late Junction.
The Beresford Hammond set was particularly enjoyable and it was good to see the core duo performing together live for the first time. Beresford told me afterwards that everything that they had played had been entirely improvised, even the lyrics that featured in the occasional vocal episodes. It’s an approach that the duo have been honing since 2014, a kind of ‘instantaneous composition’ that puts the focus on mood, texture and narrative rather than technique or extended technique, although both are essential components of their work. Instead of the noise and bluster of most free improv the emphasis here is on beauty, albeit one of an often melancholic kind. It’s a highly distinctive approach that also informs the music of associated acts such as Fourth Page and Crystal Moth.
It’s tempting to see this new collaboration as being an extension of the work of Beresford / Hammond. Once again both the music and the album artwork are inspired by the beautiful, but often wild, landscape of the Welsh Borders. The packaging for the Beresford / Hammond duo releases features the distinctive black and white photography of the Canadian photographer Gaena da Sylva from Quebec who collaborates with Beresford under the generic name the52nd (as in parallel). See http://www.the52nd.com
For the What? Quartet release the photography is by Beresford himself and features atmospheric black and white images of the bleak but beautiful Border landscape. Meanwhile Rod Paton’s evocative liner note essay presents a verbal counterpart to Beresford’s imagery;
“The rain moves steadily and relentlessly across the high landscape in oblique pillars of moisture, crossing the Welsh border into England and back again, with no respect for anything other than the timeless laws of Nature. The sheep endure with quiet acceptance and a few bedraggled rooks flutter in the wind. The borderlands are otherwise empty, the sodden ground unwelcome to any human feet, booted or bare”.
Paton is a fascinating character, a multi-instrumentalist, academic and educator who has re-located to Brecon after many years living and working in the Czech Republic, where he taught at the Janacek Academy in Brno. Since moving to Brecon Paton has become involved with the local Jazz Club and Festival, bringing Czech musicians over to perform at the latter. Paton is one of a rare breed, a jazz french horn player, and he has guested on that instrument at various Club and Festival nights, appearing with bassist Ashley John Long and pianist Atsuko Shimada among others. At the 2018 Brecon Jazz Festival Paton led his own Czech Connections band, a Czech / Welsh septet built around the nucleus of saxophonist Pavel Zlamal’s quartet. This ensemble performed music from Paton’s “Moravian Peace” album.
At a 2019 club night he was the co-leader (with pianist Ray d’Inverno) of a one off sextet that featured guests Tony Woods (reeds) and Nette Robinson (vocals) and a rhythm section of Ashley John Long (bass) and Martin Fisher (drums). Review here;
“What?” finds Paton displaying his talents as a multi-instrumentalist as he also appears on piano and melodica. He also features as an occasional vocalist, in a role normally undertaken by Beresford.
The fourth member of the What? Quartet is the only one previously unknown to me. Trumpeter Gerry Gold has proved to be an elusive figure to find on line. He appears to have combined the career of an economist with music and currently seems to be involved with the National Theatre of Wales. His musical credits include several recordings with bands led by improvising drummer Eddie Prevost. He also appears to have had some musical involvement with the contemporary classical composer Cornelius Cardew. Gold is therefore no stranger to improvised music and the avant garde, making him a perfect fit for this adventurous new quartet.
The music on this album was recorded in the remote location of an old school house somewhere in the Welsh Borders. Paton’s introductory essay offers some insight into the collective creative process;
“Four musicians from significantly diverse backgrounds gather to play a kind of music which, though freely accessible to anyone, is yet somehow neglected in a culture based on forward planning and avoidance of risk. The music grows spontaneously out of the conversation, a few seemingly random notes, a flutter of sound, difficult to identify, a small bark from a trumpet, a shimmer or shudder from some other blown source, a strumming of strings and a short lyrical whisper of melody, the hint of a pulse. Free improvisation often begins in this exploratory way before finding a direction and suddenly emerging, miraculously like a story which is at once completely novel and yet surprisingly familiar. Such music often has this dual quality of freshness and familiarity, as if, though being given voice for the first time, it is nonetheless tapping into some archetypal source”.
“In this instance the musicians, though having recently met almost by chance, rapidly discover a common space in which to explore this primary source of sonic dialogue and give sense and shape to a music which grows quite literally out of the moment in which it is born. In this sense improvised music belongs to the landscape and connects directly and quite literally to time”.
The music was recorded at different sessions at different times of the year. Some was documented during the winter rains, described so graphically by Paton in an earlier paragraph. Some was captured later in the year, with the landscape now looking and feeling very different as Paton recounts;
“On another more clement occasion, with the doors flung wide open to let in the late spring sun, an improvisation was taken up by a songbird in the garden, her enthusiastic trilling filling the space opened up by the piece that the musicians had just set free”.
The programme consists of five fairly lengthy collective improvisations with Paton’s notes also providing valuable insights into the individual characteristics of each piece.
Of the opening piece, “De-Liberation”, Paton states;
“Like strangers meeting for the first time only to discover that they are in fact old friends, the music begins with separate footsteps before coalescing into a quiet, almost melancholy hymn. The pulse, which was always present, becomes explicit and a short dance celebrates the reunion”.
I’m conscious that in these summations of the individual pieces that Paton is almost doing my job for me. By documenting my own impressions of the music I’m almost paraphrasing HIM. Nevertheless, here goes.
“De-Liberation” begins with the sound of acoustic guitar, an initial anchoring point in a mysterious and atmospheric sound world featuring the sounds of eerily bowed cello and an assortment of brass generated sounds. Paton’s french horn is partly responsible for the pulse of which he speaks, but as the piece progresses that function is shared by other members of the group. There’s a sense of collective responsibility throughout and in this conversation of equals one can almost hear the individual musicians thinking, but always with the aim of making the ensemble sound like a unified entity. Paton switches to piano part way through the piece, the move freeing up Gold, who is able to become more expressive on trumpet. The shadowy opening section evolves into something more coherent, almost structured, while the closing dance is decorous, almost courtly.
Of the following “Hill” Paton states;
“An ancient flute sounds among the gentle clatter of wind and stream. Insects, birds and small rodents answer the call and suddenly the landscape comes to life; the ancient energies find renewal, the old songs are sung and the primal dances swirl before the deep breath”.
There’s no flute listed in the credits, but somebody manages to approximate the sound, in conjunction with Hammond’s cello and the vaguely percussive sounds of Beresford’s extended guitar techniques, these involving the placement of objects on or under the strings, akin to the methods of prepared piano. The scurrying and scrabbling of the insects, birds and rodents finds expression in darting instrumental phrases while the clarion call of Gold’s trumpet seems to summon up those “ancient energies”. The the swirl of the “primal dances” is embodied via Paton’s piano while the “deep breath” is represented by a quieter closing passage, again featuring the distinctive sound of ‘extended’ acoustic guitar, followed by piano and cello.
Clocking in at over twenty minutes duration “Wolf” is by far the lengthiest piece on the album.
“A strange encounter, a dialogue of muted horn and cello opens the portal into a shaded and mysterious journey. A song in an ancient minor mode appears from over the hill, illuminated faintly by the moonlight. Horns and cello turn the song into a probing conversation, which becomes momentarily playful. But the story must be told, the journey continue towards its inevitable and magical conclusion.”
“Wolf” does indeed commence with the eerie, unsettling bowed timbres of Hammond’s cello, joined by Paton’s horn and by furtive, scrabbling noises, presumably generated by acoustic guitar. It’s a brooding dialogue that evolves slowly and organically. Paton’s move to piano seems to signal the emergence of the ‘song’ from over the hill, whilst an ensuing passage featuring just piano and cello serves as a reminder of the classical roots of some of these players. Brass and cello subsequently resume their conversation, at times mellifluous, at others darker and more uneasy. Piano returns to the equation as the mood lightens once more, but this is a journey in which the sonic landscape is constantly shifting and evolving, sometimes almost imperceptibly. I’m reminded of the cloud induced interplay of shadows and light in the Border landscape, shards of brilliant sunlight, the dappling effect of clouds drifting across the landscape, casting their shadows on green fields; the ominous billowing of storm clouds, the beauty and capriciousness of nature. Every image is fleeting, unique and precious. This is truly music born out of its location and surroundings.
This is emphasised by the following “Is”, a piece presumably recorded during the winter with Paton remarking;
“An edginess, a shimmering landscape of random events, nature at its most unpredictable, squalls of rain, scurries of cold wind, a no man’s land of uncertainty unfolds. Confidence (and pulse) returns and the music somehow finds identity on the edge of chaos – in the borderlands”.
The piece is introduced by harshly bowed cello, the twang of acoustic guitar, and the “small bark from a trumpet” that was alluded to previously. A new sound is also introduced as Paton takes up the melodica but again it’s the switch to piano that signals a return to some kind of order, as close to ‘structure’ as this impressionistic, wholly improvised music gets, but still with that dark chaotic edge lurking just below the surface.
The album concludes with “Ask Me Now”, of which Paton says;
“The guitar poses a series of (eloquent) questions. There are no answers, but the question has to be okay and asked at the right moment ; the principle of Kairos. So cello and voice respond with an embrace, nothing more. The music now seeks an ending, a gathering of energy, descent of chords, a mournful trumpet, a shimmering guitar, a few carefully placed steps and a final two note question – the infant’s solitary ‘why?’.”
The opening passage, comprised of unaccompanied acoustic guitar, is something of a feature for Beresford, who introduces such extended techniques as the bowing of the strings. His regular duo partner, Hammond, makes a tentative response, subsequently joined by Paton’s ethereal wordless vocal. The use of piano again imposes some kind of structure, a chordal backdrop above which Hammond’s cello now soars majestically, subsequently joined by Gold’s trumpet as the music moves towards its conclusion.
As What? Quartet Beresford and his colleagues continue to explore a highly distinctive approach to collective improvisation. Eschewing the bluster and fury of so much free improv this new group mines a similar seam to the Beresford Hammond duo and related acts such as Fourth Page. The focus is again on mood, colour and texture, and indeed narrative, qualities more closely associated with through composed music.
Indeed what this quartet and the associated acts mentioned above are trying to achieve is a kind of ‘spontaneous composition’, the telling of a story ‘in the moment’ that will never be told in the same way again. Technique, and extended technique are important, but always function in support of the overall vision. This is a notably ego-less approach to free improvising, and one that helps to make this quartet so distinctive.
Another factor that makes this music stand out from most free improv is the fact that it is directly inspired by a rural, rather than an urban, landscape. Thus it is generally less fraught and frenetic, capable of generating great beauty, while still retaining an underlying wildness and sense of adventure.
I appreciate that What?’s music won’t appeal to all listeners but it does contain moments of genuine beauty and is generally less aggressive and more approachable than much freely improvised music. Over the years I’ve found myself drawn more and more into this type of soundworld and I’m sure that there are plenty of adventurous listeners out there who would derive great pleasure from What?’s music.
The quartet were due to launch this album with a live performance at St. Mary’s Church in Hay-on- Wye on March 20th 2020, an event that had to be postponed due to the Corona Virus outbreak. It is to be hoped that they will be able to re-schedule the event for later in the year, which will at least be something to look forward to.
The band’s own strapline for the proposed event reads;
“The What? Quartet create a mesmerising and unclassifiable music that at times sounds like the music you saw in a dream”.
This strikes me as a highly perceptive and accurate example of self appraisal.
Meanwhile in these dark days of Covid-19 you can still take yourself on a sonic journey to the wild but beautiful landscapes of the Borderlands by purchasing this CD.
“What?” is available via http://www.the52nd.comblog comments powered by Disqus