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John Coxon & Wadada Leo Smith / Han Bennink / Evan Parker & Matthew Shipp - Brooklyn Duos / Amplified Trio / Abbey Road Duos

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Artist: John Coxon & Wadada Leo Smith / Han Bennink / Evan Parker & Matthew Shipp

Album: Brooklyn Duos / Amplified Trio / Abbey Road Duos

Label: Treader

Review date: Sep. 12, 2007

The Treader label is run by John Coxon and Ashley Wales, and this is the label’s third series of three releases. (A clever marketing ploy, eh? I mean, would you buy Series 1 and 3 of something but omit Series 2?) As with the first six releases, their covers – designed by Frauke Stegmann - are instantly recognizable as being from Treader; the plain, brightly colored card sleeves, each embossed with a gold relief of an animal, may be somewhat eccentric but they definitely stand out in a crowd, giving them a clear identity.

Since the turn of the millennium, Coxon and Wales – who also record under the name Spring Heel Jack, although that name never appears on Treader releases – have become ever more involved and influential in the London improvising scene and beyond. Following a period creating music with samplers and drum machines, their 2000 album Disappeared used jazz instrumentalists for the first time (notably John Surman and Ian R. Watson). This led to the ground-breaking albums Masses and Amassed on Thirsty Ear, characterized by transatlantic co-operation (including Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Tim Berne, Mat Manieri, Evan Parker, Han Bennink, Paul Rutherford, John Edwards…) and the use of sound environments prepared by the duo as stimuli for improvisation. Regular gigs followed, with Coxon and Wales later involving such luminaries as Wadada Leo Smith and John Tchicai. When their time with Thirsty Ear came to an end, Treader was born in 2004.

Treader releases music by a small, select group of players. Coxon & Wales have worked closely with all of them, and this latest batch is typical of the label’s output. These intimate associations give Coxon & Wales the insight to find fresh, interesting contexts for the musicians. In the past, these have included Evan Parker playing with birds, and Tchicai with strings (his most intimate recording to date). Tellingly, Coxon & Wales do not adopt the Company approach to improvisation (i.e. whatever happens happen), instead opting to to pre-plan and direct proceedings. That’s particularly pertinent here, as Smith, Bennink and Parker were all present at the birth of Company in 1977. Yes, improv has moved on in 30 years!

Brooklyn Duos, the collaboration between Coxon and Smith, raises the specter of the latter’s playing with Derek Bailey. At times, Coxon’s guitar knowingly seems to echo Bailey (or is it just that Bailey’s approach to improv guitar is impossible to avoid?) and Smith responds accordingly. However, this is never a recreation of past glories. (That would be pointless; the Company discs sound as fresh as the day they were recorded.) Coxon’s use of harmonica as an improvising instrument is particularly innovative, the first such use I can recall. In Coxon’s hands, it is versatile and flexible, capable of expressing a wide range of emotion. The harmonica imbues the music with blues undertones, and Smith’s playing emphasizes them. Structurally, the music isn’t blues, emotionally it definitely is; many of Smith’s phrases are hauntingly beautiful, with his playing on “Sacrifice: Dreams and Lovers” (a typically enigmatic title) being particularly affecting.

On Amplified Trio, Coxon & Wales are joined by Bennink (who was on their ground-breaking tour of 2003). In typical fashion, Bennink grabs the music by the scruff of the neck and completely dominates proceedings. The album title is no idle promise; the music bursts with energy. Coxon’s electric guitar and Wales’ electronics stir up a maelstrom that would overwhelm many a drummer, but Bennink more than rises to the task and leads from the front. For much of the time, he lays down a solid polyrhythmic tapestry that centers the music, giving it great drive and verve. His energy seems to spur on Coxon & Wales, who give as energized a performance as I can recall. This, in turn, drives Bennink on. A virtuous circle indeed.

Abbey Road Duos, a meeting of Evan Parker and Matthew Shipp, was recorded in Studio 2 at Abbey Road, as famous for its sound as for its illustrious past inhabitants, The Beatles included. Shipp and Parker were both also on that 2003 Spring Heel Jack tour, so they have a history. These duos – two sets of four pieces, one a “Tenor Suite”, the other a “Soprano Suite” – reveal great empathy between the two. From the first note, the pair are on the same wavelength, shadowing and/or anticipating each other’s every move in a way that is rare to hear, but always breathtaking when it occurs. Listening to this, I was reminded of something Parker said in an interview a few years back: “You know that thing that people sometimes say, ‘That was so good, it could have been composed.’ Well I've given up saying ‘thank you’ to that now. My response to that is, ‘It was.’ ‘Composed’ only means ‘put together.’ We put it together. It sounded put together; it was put together.”

The early evidence is that Series 3 is the strongest threesome of releases yet from Treader. The three albums are very different, but recognizably from the same stable. The label has now established a clear identity and house style, and is jumping from strength to strength.

By John Eyles

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