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Iskra 1903 - Goldsmiths

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Artist: Iskra 1903

Album: Goldsmiths

Label: Emanem

Review date: Jan. 18, 2012

You may have noticed that strange side-effect of long-term relationships where one person will finish the other’s sentences, and yet there’s no sense of awkwardness. The process seems so natural that altering it would ruin it. It’s not the kind of thing that’s supposed to happen in a fairly new relationship. And yet, listening to this archival release by the first incarnation of Iskra kept bringing the phenomenon to mind. It happens a lot in the best work of Paul Rutherford, Derek Bailey and Barry Guy, together and in other aggregates, but something propels this 1972 material to a higher level. The trio had been together less than two years, making the music on offer here all the more remarkable.

The March concert that fills most of the disc has been under release consideration for years. Martin Davidson’s notes relate that an original source tape emerged just as the disc was ready for pressing, and it was hoped that more would follow, which didn’t happen. However, Davidson’s exacting standards ensure that recording quality is as small an issue as possible. Such concerns are, in fact, paramount in Iskra’s case, as the music often thrives on rapid-fire dialogic intimacy. Luckily, in both the Goldsmiths College concert and some bonus material from the same year, not a lick is lost to hiss or haze, even though the sound could never be described as demonstration quality due to a little distortion during loud moments.

The constant interaction is due, in large part, to the conversational way each player approaches his instrument. Their respective vocabularies can be heard from the Goldsmiths performance’s first gestures. Rutherford enters with an upper register but slightly restrained hulloo, followed by a few descending pitches in what turns out to be part of a scale, stopping abruptly midway, but Bailey jumps in immediately with the next note, plus a few others for good measure. The long but pianissimo moan from Rutherford, atop a sustain from Bailey, completes the paragraph, followed by the briefest but most poignant silence.

The poor reviewer is faced with the task of large-scale summary or description of a key interaction or two, and obviously, I’ve chosen the latter. Moments such as the opening are too many to catalog, but the territory covered by the trio, even in the first five minutes, presents a microcosm of the whole. Check out Bailey’s percussive rhythms at 1:35, and the way that Rutherford picks them up in the next instant. You’ll have to listen carefully for the trombone entrance, as it’s situated way behind Guy’s rhythmic contribution to the conversation. Alternately, listen to the way the guitar and bass harmonics merge repeatedly to create a single sound, or the way Rutherford and Bailey bend notes together at 0:33. The word “Together” actually doesn’t even address properly that fortuitous level of communication. The trio breathes as one, coming to moments of collective fruition. The effect is similar to listening to the best rehearsed string quartet or bebop combo, only this is completely improvised with no prior discussion. Each member of Iskra 1903 is simultaneously a soloist and accompanist, which is one of the radical developments in late 1960s European improvisation.

Davidson points out that the members of the trio were very keen to have the concert released. The fact that it has finally happened is cause for celebration amongst enthusiasts of European improvised music, but it should really be heard by anyone even remotely interested in the way improvisers develop a language, as there can be no better demonstration of the disparate forces that shape music in its most transcendent form.

By Marc Medwin

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