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London Improvisers Orchestra - Freedom of the City 2002

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Artist: London Improvisers Orchestra

Album: Freedom of the City 2002

Label: Emanem

Review date: Jul. 1, 2003

Mildly Successful Group Improv

CDs of large ensemble improvisations have always struck me as fundamentally awkward. Improvisations are pieces of music created spontaneously by individuals; the individual is the most important unit in an improvisation, since each individual's background and approach to responding to what's happening are what makes the music sound the way it does. That is, when a group is playing music that isn't through-composed, the individual rather than the group is generally responsible for the musical choices being made. Most of the thrill of listening to good improv is in observing the way unique individual musical voices mix. But the more musicians included, the harder it is to keep those individual voices from being obscured. There are plenty of amazing large ensemble improvisations, of course, like John Coltrane's Ascension, Alan Silva's The Seasons and a number of releases by Anthony Braxton. But since individual voices in large ensembles can be harder to discern, successful large ensemble improvisations require both a good-sounding recording and interesting orchestrational and structural strategies.

By the first criterion, Freedom of the City 2002 just barely gets a passing grade. Everything seems to be audible, but there are hints of distortion and many of the individual parts sound distant.

On the second, more important, criterion – quality of orchestrational and structural strategies – the results are mixed. The London Improvisers Orchestra has a spectacular roster: it includes Lol Coxhill, Evan Parker, Simon H. Fell, Veryan Weston, Paul Rutherford, the brilliant Swiss violist Charlotte Hug and a couple dozen other excellent musicians. With a few exceptions, though, the listener isn't really supposed to be hearing any one part, so don't expect to actually hear much of any single musician. Freedom of the City 2002 instead spotlights seven composers who have devised various structures for the improvisers to work with.

Paul Rutherford's excellent "Phone In" is the most successful piece here. The orchestra interacts with mobile phones, the ringing sounds of which are featured in the middle of the piece and then again at the end, following an urgent improvisation led by the squawking, slurred lines of a single saxophonist (Parker, probably, in one of the few solo-like passages here). We tend to hear cell phones most frequently in busy, crowded situations, like in city streets or trains, so Rutherford's use of cell phones to bookend a similarly busy, crowded texture works well. Simon H. Fell's "Too Busy" is another highlight: Fell wisely divides the orchestra into sections, allowing small groups to come to the fore, and nicely employs a wide variety of dynamics.

Unfortunately, several other pieces sound like fairly generic large ensemble improv. It's not that the musicians play badly, but rather that the composers' ideas aren't necessarily the sort that translate well to CD, in that they tend to focus on the entire group rather than sections of it – Philipp Wachsmann's "Fanfare For L I O," which features the audience clapping and shouting along with the orchestra, must have been a blast live, but on disc the textures sound nondescript and the dynamic shifts don't have the power they might have in concert, so it's hard to get as excited as the audience must have been. And the recording doesn't do the London Improvisers Orchestra any favors: "Fanfare" might have sounded fantastic with a better recording. Freedom of the City 2002 is an intriguing listen for fans of Rutherford and Fell's compositions, but other than that, the album makes me wish I'd seen the group live.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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