Review: SPARCfest, London

The first in a week-long series of concerts, SPARCfest kicked off with perhaps one of the most intriguing collective improvisations ever seen, says Roger Farbey

Union Division, 13 musicians including some who are making serious waves on the British jazz scene, assembled at London’s City University on 11 September to perform an 80-minute set comprising four unnamed, spontaneously composed pieces.

As leader and initiator of the event, Moss Freed, guitarist with Let Spin, explained at the start of the concert that it would be wholly improvised but would incorporate hand signs (see below) where the players nominate themselves to take temporary control of the ensemble.

So each piece is developed in real time with band members taking cues from others or playing whatever they liked. That said, the performers all used music stands with paper (not necessarily containing scores!) so some elements of the concert might have been pre-arranged. However, given the complexity of the signals, the sheets may have simply contained a glossary of signs.

At times the signals were so bizarrely cabalistic that participants looked like they were playing a game of musical charades. Other leaders such as Frank Zappa and Billy Jenkins have used similar non-verbal instructions to a band, but never to this Byzantine extent. The players themselves often appeared highly amused by the changes in direction but it’s likely that these unspoken in-jokes were lost on the audience.

Yet, despite these unlikely criteria, the music worked well. There were no empty spaces but equally no fillers and as an exercise in musical democracy it worked perfectly. There was also an uncanny sense of cohesion and camaraderie.

Along with Freed, some of the more well-known musicians included altoist Chris Williams from Led Bib and also Let Spin, Laura Jurd and Elliot Galvin from Dinosaur and in-demand drummer James Maddren.

There have been other large-scale improvisational big bands such as those led by Barry Guy and John Stevens, but this was really something else. This was Freed’s baby, as the players all enthusiastically intimated at the end of the performance by pointing to him in gratitude. This was a high-stakes gamble that could have gone disastrously wrong but actually worked brilliantly. If the experiment in this process of a musical “hive mind” is repeated then this novel methodology could just pave the way for something huge.

Union Division comprised: Moss Freed (g), Elliot Galvin (p), Otto Willberg (b), Rachel Musson (ts), Chris Williams (as), Sam Eastmond, Laura Jurd (t), Rosanna Ter-Berg (f), PA Tremblay (elec), Tullis Rennie (tb), Brice Catherin (clo), James Maddren, Will Glaser (d).

Photos by Roger Farbey

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