One of the things I think I have missed most moving away from London is the availability of improvised music – music from the wackier end of jazz. Improvised music is a strange beast. I live the excitement and energy I’d watching live improvised music, knowing that anything could happen. But I find it very hard to listen to at home: maybe it takes too much concentration. And there is something contradictory about recorded improvised music. It has to be live, for me. This means that I have no recordings of some of my favourite musicians!
So when I noticed on Twitter that vibes player Corey Mwamba was coming to Glasgow, I made the effort to get across for the show. He was playing in a quartet as part of a four day festival of improvised music organised by Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, supporting GIO who were playing a piece commissioned by Radio 3. How did I not know about this before?!
Mwamba was playing with Andy Champion on bass, Sylvain Darrifourcq on drums and Valentin Ceccaldi on cello, a cross-Channel quartet who had been playing a few dates in the UK. They played for forty five minutes, straight through. Mwamba was the visual centre, energetically dancing around his vibes; at times it seemed like the vibes were playing him. He played recorder at one point, too. The band were lively, energetic and played exciting music that twisted and turned. At times all four played percussion, Champion and Ceccaldi banging the bodies of their instruments; indeed, Champion and Ceccaldi routinely sought novel ways to play, Ceccaldi playing his cello’s spike at one point. They finished their with a long work out to a groove-waltz, giving a lie to the idea that improvised music is just for the head – we could even have danced to that!
I found the GIO commission, “Parallel Moments Unbroken”, more challenging. I had seen the “composer”, Raymond MacDonald, discuss his methods earlier in the year, and it was interesting to see him put them into practice. With more than thirty performers, they need to be disciplined and organised: each musician had a pre-prepared sketch – both musical and pictorial – to play with, though they decided exactly when and what to play. MacDonald directed the orchestra at times, moderating the pitch and volume through hand gestures (though not the precise notes).
There were moments of emotion and excitement, but the sheer number of musicians meant that some got lost in the mix. Marilyn Crispell was one of several visiting artists, and I would have loved to have heard more of her (she had played solo and small group gigs earlier in the week, so this was partly down to my choice!); similarly some of the local musicians, like trumpeter Robert Henderson and MacDonald himself on sax, played some beautiful phrases, and I wanted more of their playing. Other musicians seemed to my ears to create cacophany – I wondered whether using an electronic keyboard to produce noise fitted into the structure of the piece; it certainly didn’t add anything for me.
But the overall effect of the piece was fascinating, worth the challenge, and one I will be seeking out again!