JJ 10/81: Walking The Line – Actual ’81

Forty years ago Ken Ansell enjoyed the second of the late Anthony Wood's pioneering new music festivals in London. First published in Jazz Journal October 1981


With a festival devoted entirely to freely improvised music there is a tendency to regard the musicians, their music and the form itself in isolation. In fact, free impro­visation – whilst it has successfully developed a distinct idiomatic voice of its own – is part of a matrix of musics which cannot easily be annexed into neat, separate pigeon-holes. Taken in extremis such an argument would lead to an unendingly inclusive policy which, in the case of a festival, sacrifices character to breadth in a confined event or sprawls to become so large that overall vision is lost to factionalism. Actual ’81 – the second of such festivals promoted by Anthony Wood – walked the line that divides both approaches, indicating the blood relatives of free improvisation without diminishing its specific identity.

The closest of these blood relatives, his­torically speaking, is jazz; this festival emphasised just how close that bond can still be. John Lindberg gave a virtuoso solo bass performance. He employed a beautiful, deep tone and worked comfor­tably within the modern and free jazz idioms, concluding with a telling rendition of the old standard Yesterday. It was strange to hear the bass used as a solo in­strument in such an overt musical context.

Keshavan Maslak and Charles Moffatt, on the same bill, also offered up freewheel­ing free jazz. Maslak used his red-blooded sound to embroider organic extemporisa­tion around his themes, frequently welling up into hoarse, full-throated outbursts over Moffatt’s spartan, rolling percussion and splashing cymbals.

Mama Lapato walk a hinterland between free jazz and free improvisation, on this occasion edging nearer to the latter. But when member Marc Charig appeared separately with Taya Fischer he seemed a little hesitant, as if too aware that simply in terms of volume he could all-too-easily smother her zigzagging violin play.

Maarten Altena brought the importance of the jazz tradition to the heart of the Fred van Hove septet. Just as their music seemed about to peter into doodling introspection he strode in with a walking bass line which, although nobody actually picked up the pulse, temporarily provided the corporate music with a sense of momentum. There were other noteworthy moments but, overall, it was a disappointing set which (once again) prompted questions concern­ing the organisation of free improvisation within larger groups.

Altena’s own quartet struck a balance between improvisation and composition, the latter shifting through jazz and that peculiarly Dutch brand of bouncing lop­sided thematic material to music which drew on the contemporary classical idiom. They combined breadth and quality with an awesome – and enjoyable – group accord.

Pianist Guus Janseen – who has re­corded an excellent solo album for Altena’s Claxon label – also shared these composi­tional predilections. It was a joy to hear him turn his own lyricism on its head, or undermine it in quite surprising ways: for example, weaving sharp, acidic little phrases into delicate poised melodies.

Contemporary classical ideas – or at least an awareness of them – was implicit in the way the musicians involved in the Brass Project organised their music. Above that there were similarities in the solo performances of Melvyn Poore and Martin Mayes: for instance, they both modified the mouthpiece sounds of their instru­ments (tuba/euphonium and French horn respectively) through off-the-mouth-piece sounds and using a reed inside them to give a tone not unlike the bagpipes. Paul Rutherford used a throat microphone to in­troduce a growling counterpart to his brass play; both could be effectively and disturbingly coloured electronically, or set against a counterpart of cloyingly piping electronic tones. The series of solo sets cul­minated in two quartets (they were joined by George Lewis) on the final day. Stately improvisation resulted, at first tentative, testing common ground, then very relaxed and with great warmth.

It was the Roscoe Mitchell trio who, in their criminally curtailed and consequently somewhat unsatisfying performance, indi­cated the most percipient relationship with contemporary classical music. It was a cycle in which songs and solos alternated: from an aerated amalgam of silence, thin arranged instrumental lines and Buckner’s expressive classically trained voice to the pummelling fervour of Mitchell’s solo.

The second extended project of the festi­val was the Parker Project. Bringing to­gether organiser Evan Parker, Barry Guy, Paul Lovens, Paul Lytton and Alex Schlippenbach (as well as George Lewis) it gave an opportunity for some of the ‘elder statesmen’ of European freely improvised music to display fresh examples of the idiom they had done so much to wrench from the shadow of direct musical for­bears. The Parker Project ranged far and wide; their music could be passionate and virulent (especially when Lovens and Schlippenbach locked together to whip the music to climax after climax), shot through with a plethora of detail at Lytton and, especially, Guy’s hands or eased into a light buoyant dervish dance by the Lewis-Parker partnership. In its three appearances during the festival it balanced these ele­ments in differing proportions with extremely interesting results: a volatile symposium.

Tony Oxley traded old partners for new (Ulrich Gumpert and Radu Malfatti) but, in a brief set, seemed unable to avoid relapsing – as if inevitably – into exten­ded bursts of free clatter between which the moments of real poise and articulation were compressed and frustrated.

If the Parker Project occasionally glanced over its shoulder at the raw material from which it had shaped an auto­nomous music then others demonstrated just how far the fabric of it can be reshaped and overhauled, reworked and modified almost beyond recognition as the basis of a quite different vernacular. Vario II assembled a densely constructed music from superficially lightweight vocabulary whilst precision, clarity and invention underscored the fleet architecture of the Roger Turner-Carlos Zingaro duo. Sim­ilarly, Klimaat revealed themselves to be a friendly, conversational little trio and the Henry Kaiser-John Oswald duo gave a per­formance in which free guitar play endorsed with the momentum of rock music was mated with the popping, tem­peramental torsion of Oswald’s sax. Peter Cusack pulled the carpet of festival strictures out from under his own feet in a series of simply engaging solos and in complete contrast, Howard Riley employed his considerable technique to create shat­tering emotional statements.

But two sets which stood most distinctly outside the mainstream of the festival came during Saturday evening. Fred Frith and Bob Ostertag (the first without guitar or violin through choice, the second without his individualistic synthesizer through mal­function) were joined by Phil Minton. They erected a volatile live ‘music concrete’ that was as dense and demanding as it was rewarding – with just a passing nod to the earliest AMM Music – thrown into a sharp, fresh perspective by Minton’s use of lyrics in the closing moments of their set. Singer Diamanda Galas, working both solo and against prerecorded tape of her own multitracked voice, used a compelling unearthly voice to draw her listeners into a cathartic, emotional – and exhausting – maelstrom that kicked at the pit of the stomach and rang in the ears.

With nine concerts in five days, Actual ’81, taken as a whole, was an exhausting and provocative event . . . here’s to the next!

Actual ’81, London, 19 August to 23 August 1981