Trevor Watts’ Original Drum Orchestra: The Art Is In The Rhythm Volume 2

Double CD captures 1989 English concerts by the altoist's band, that while Afro-Anglo-Irish in personnel, tried to defy implied genre


Trevor Watts set up the Drum Orchestra in 1982 as an improvising vehicle, taking his freely improvising playing in Amalgam and other groups along another route rather than making a dramatic break with that past. The paired African drummers from Ghana and bass player Ernest Mothle from South Africa provided a collective rhythm that transcended any styles and genres from African jazz, while both violinist Peter Knight and Irish drummer Liam Genockey had roots in English folk and traditional music. They introduced accents, emphases and inflections that were quite distinct from any African input, increasing tensions that rose and then found resolution and generating much of this music’s excitement.

As for leader Watts, while he wanted to play with African musicians, he had no intention of playing with an African accent, preferring to generate a conception of collective improvisation that generated “a consistently intriguing succession of melodic and harmonic elements, while the rhythmic impetus springs from the reciprocal interplay of all members of the group”, as the sleeve notes so aptly put it.

The music on this double CD set was recorded on tour in Cardiff and then Southampton. Cardiff opens with Peter Knight’s violin gently gliding across a lilting rhythmic background before Watts’ insistent alto enters, the group gradually cohering to create a mesmeric whole as different layers of music make their mark and fade into something new and equally fascinating.

Cardiff 2 is slower and more melodic, mbira notes adding a warm under-glow before Watts gently glides in and the piece speeds up to become almost Arab- or Berber-sounding in its hypnotic drones before it becomes more folk inflected. The encore to the Cardiff gig with its intermeshing keening saxophone and sawing violin lines is suitably frenetic.

The two extracts from a long gig in Southampton continue in the same vein, although with more rhythm bounce to proceedings, and with Knight’s expressive violin more linked into Watts’s probing explorations. As before, the African rhythms are often subsumed by Arab influences.

With such a percussive input, and an electric bass keeping patrol, one would expect this music to be heavy and perhaps ponderous, but it floats with a buoyancy and lightness of touch that is most welcome. Individually plucked notes from the mbira and violin stand out, while Watts’s saxophone lines are often pizzicato in effect. It is totally mesmerising, an immersive music that beguiles and entrances. Of the Drum Orchestra albums that are available, this is by far the best.

CD1: Cardiff 1a; Cardiff 1b; Cardiff 2; Cardiff 3 (78.08)
CD2: Cardiff (Encore); Southampton 1; Southampton 2 (77.21)
Watts (as, ss); Peter Knight (vn); Ernest Mothle (b, elb); Nana Tsiboe (African pc, mbira, didgeridoo, v); Kofi Adu (African pc); Liam Genockey (d). Four Bars Inn, Cardiff and Southampton Arts Centre, 1989.
Jazz In Britain JIB-46-S-CD