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Music for the People: An Interview with Terry Day

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Dusted's Marc Medwin chats with British Improv veteran Terry Day about the state of the genre.

Music for the People: An Interview with Terry Day

“Look at me, look at me, look at me look at me look at me, look at Meeeeeeeeeee! – A great big racket!” yells multi-instrumentalist Terry Day as he leads the often introspective and contemplative London Improvisers Orchestra at the Freedom of the City festival in 2002; they are only too willing to oblige, squalling, thumping rhythmically, responding in serio-comic terror to Day’s shouts and exhortations in loose but pulsed frenzy. A cymbal rhythm pervades everything, nervously energizing the ensemble and providing a backdrop for Day’s speech-song exhortations, by turn accusatory and beseeching.

“Ruthless,” the “conduction” track, on which this mayhem occurs, exemplifies perfectly Day’s approach to music and to improvisation. As he enters his 67th year this October, humanism and its implications, what he calls “humanity’s predicament” are of the utmost importance to him. Like Whitman, he clearly wishes to glorify extended individuality, not the confined self-representation of conservative rhetoric, but the all-inclusive vision of the species being. “Well I’m an animal, right? I mean, my music is primeval, I just beat up the drums, and I have to taste it, to sample it immediately, know what I mean? It’s gotta be right there – I mean, it’s the language of the universe really, isn’t it?” One of his recent lyrics – he insists on calling them lyrics, not poems – encapsulates the scope of his concerns for liberty, equality and fraternity:

Save us from the self-appointed ones,
Save us from the superior ones, …
Let our humanity win the day.

Day’s vision has remained remarkably consistent over the last 40 years, coming into focus and into a degree of prominence with The People Band, a product of the 1960s where all boundaries were blurred, most notably between performer and audience. However, as Martin Davidson’s liner notes to their lone album’s reissue make plain, Day was playing free long before those 1968 recording sessions, having played drums in an improvising trio in 1960 with bassist Terry Holman and keyboardist Russell Hardy. The case might even be made that the impulse to play outside established formal lines came earlier, while Day performed in dance bands. Presumably playing “time” for the most part, Day thrived on the freedom of stop-time. “On the four-bar break, my brain went all over the place, but people liked what I was doing! I had no trouble hearing the beat, I just sometimes messed about with it and played on another beat.” – this followed by a gale of laughter. He still speaks with reverence of bebop’s innovations and revelations as gauged by the mind of a child. “People don’t remember how modern that really was, how free it sounded. I grew up on that – my father was a drummer, all my brothers were jazz aficionados, so I was hearing bebop as soon as it got to England in 1945.” His brothers channeled musical interest in quite a different way than did young Terry. “Oh yes, they could hear the pop music of the day, waltzes, dances, you name it, and they’d hear it for the first time at 6 a.m. and have it down to play that night! I never worked that way. When it came down to Western harmony, these kind of conventions, I just didn’t work that way.”

A moment beautifully representative of Day’s brand of musicianship occurs on the People Band album as “Home Trio” crashes headlong into “Part 1.” Jazz stylings, or at least shards and fragments of it, segue jump-cut fashion into a pan-African percussion ensemble, only the slightest hint of jazz remaining. The texture is dense, tribal and fittingly primitive, and the resemblance to those free-psych free-folk orgies currently emerging from Finland and Massachusetts is more than striking. As the disc proceeds, a layer of distortion or two drives the point home. “Oh yeah, it was loud, so loud sometimes that you’d be playin’, and you’d see somebody running toward the door and think ‘Wow, that person’s running toward the door screaming their head off, cuz they’ve had enough.’ I could hardly blame ’em, but I couldn’t hear a thing they were sayin.”

Alterations, the 1980s improvising band that featured Day along with David Toop, Steve Beresford and Peter Cusack, was at once more inclusive and more refined. It’s amazing just how contemporary their material can sound, certainly appealing to any No-Neck Blues Band fan or any follower of Sunburned’s activities. All manner of electronics, acoustics, small toys and combinations of the above can be heard in the fray, and to Day, a fray it often was. “You’d be involved in a beautiful passage, going really well and somebody comes along and wrecks it, or maybe you wreck it yourself, but that’s just it. We played with concepts, with ideas, and the best thing to do was – David put it very well – to accept the conflict. You couldn’t stay in your corner for long, cuz somebody’d pull you out; that or kick you out.”

Poor health put Day in a corner of sorts for some 12 years, during which time he neither played nor listened to what was going on in the improv game. An invitation from Steve Beresford to check out an London Improvisers Orchestra gig in 1999 changed everything. “I’d designed these bamboo pipes back in 1967. Actually, Russell and I both made some while visiting a friend down in Spain. Steve said, ‘Why don’t you bring your pipes down, see what happens?’” Day now performs with the orchestra as often as he can, health permitting, on the first Sunday of every month, either singing or playing the pipes. It’s an unearthly yet primitively familiar sound, a mixture of pure straight tones and buzzing slides, as heard to stunning effect on Caroline Kraabel’s “Notes for Terry Day.” A kind of improvised concerto, the mood is quietly contemplative, wonderfully subtle changes in textural detail providing a sense of motion throughout, both regarding the orchestral accompaniment and Day’s solo. He’s been influenced by the electro-acoustic and laptop experiments coming out of Japan. “I heard these guys, not believing at first that a machine could produce music like that, but I’m sitting there having a spiritual experience! I love what they do with those computers – really beautiful, isn’t it?”

Detail, the amount and use of it, in today’s improv is one of the things that impresses Day the most, having been the first thing he noticed when he “got back in the game” six years ago. New detail informs his meditative but energetic solo on “Notes”; however, Day’s not listening for that. “When I hear my stuff back, I hear the struggle, the constant searching for new ideas, the way I explore them, you know.” New sounds, new ideas – I kept thinking of his comments on humanism, on audience participation in People Band shows, so I asked Day if every sound was acceptable? “Music is sacred, but no, every sound is not acceptable. I won’t accept the sound of war.” So Day’s vision, like Joyce’s, is the nightmare of history from which we try to awake. Sublimated, it nevertheless continues and flourishes, leading Day to end “Ruthless” by screaming of war, poverty, greenbacks and all that would limit humanity and its expression, “What did it achieve, for cryin’ out loud, what did it achieve?”

By Marc Medwin

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