Efpi Festival 2017
(The Deaf Institute, Manchester, 16 November 2017. Review by John Marley)
Efpi are a shining beacon of creative music making in the north of England. Running an independent label can be a thankless task but one that can give a music scene an identity, a focal point and a following. This evening celebrated the unique improvising artists that Manchester is producing. Defying categorisation, it would not be the first time the city has produced a music scene with an immediately identifiable sound.
The Madwort Saxophone Quartet opened proceedings, layering contrapuntal melody lines over wonky hip hop foundations. Many of the quartet’s grooves began in unison but harmonies gradually appeared, illuminating the compositions like rays of sunshine on a cold morning. The baritone never flinched as the remaining members manoeuvred frantically around it. It was like a lumbering beast whose mischievous children refused to behave. The groove based material was broken up by soundscapes where the chords ebbed and flowed. The percussive baritone allowed the trio to build closely voiced dissonances.
The nature of the ensemble left much of the harmonic movement to the imagination. The space encouraged the soloists to move in and out of tonality. The final piece saw the quartet move through the changes as one, but break out into differing rhythmic subdivisions, easing the set to a rippling conclusion.
Pianist Adam Fairhall adopted a host of keyboard instruments in the absence of a piano. His opening piece on the Dulcitone sounded like a free improvising Victorian music box. The percussion effects were like those of a child’s play buggy, giving the piece a sinister undertone. Whether it was harmonically consonant in a conventional sense stopped being discernible and became irrelevant. The audience was brought to a fascinated silence.
The second piece was an Appalachian folk tune performed on accordion. Unidentifiable to begin with, the melody was imprisoned under a web of manic free improv. It was eventually forced out by its pentatonic roots, settling on a bed of pulsating chords.
There was a brief move to a miniature piano for a freewheeling improvisation before Fairhall closed the set on an unidentified droning instrument. This time the improvisation featured more discernible melody lines. Nothing brings out the colour of a simple major triad like the absence of one, which was true for much of the set. When it appeared it was warming and enjoyed all the more for its familiar simplicity. Thank goodness there was no piano in the venue, otherwise we may have missed a spectacularly varied performance.
A subdued groove introduced Anton Hunter’s Article XI. The piece was intensely restrained. This accentuated the drama when the groove began to break up under the extended trumpet solo. The horns were synth-like and produced swelling textures. Seth Bennett’s bass solo showed an advanced agility, particularly in the right hand. The energy grew increasingly erratic as the horns began to stab. They became aggressors pursuing an increasingly panicked prey, and eventually overwhelming it. The resulting mix of rasping horns and chaotic improvisation evoked Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath.
The leader took an extended solo on the second piece over sloth-like chords. He turned to his rhythm section, back to the audience to lead the intentional abstraction & destruction of the groove. The horns returned lazily, almost seeming fatigued by the energy of the trio playing.
The set closed with the memorably titled I Dreamed I Spat Out A Bee. In this evocative performance, the frenzied dialogue between Oliver Dover’s alto & Johnny Hunter’s drums could as easily have been the sound of the traumatised bee as the unsuspecting spitter. Hunter played sparingly while patiently introducing the 7/8 groove section by section, climaxing on a forceful riff.
Beats and Pieces Big Band, now in their ninth year, delivered a blow to the sternum via an unrelenting wall of improvised counterpoint over a tight dance groove. The second tune showed a post-rock influence. The introduction of the delay laden guitar, playing emotionally teasing chords made the screaming brass lines all the more rousing.
The band have a great command of dynamics and their blend of old and new was not overdone. The baritone sax became the synth, the muted trumpets sounded like electronic effects, the horns blew out voicings which were nourished in the womb of traditional jazz harmony and born into a post-funk world. The horn backing figures were precise and mathematical, landing unpredictable blows.
The older material walks a marginally more conventional path while still retaining a sense of individuality. The indie rock and dance influences are still present but with the emphasis towards the big band tradition. It was interesting to put the material of the band in a chronological and developmental context.
A sombre trip-hop groove gave Riley Stone-Lonergan the space to build a solo which showed a well developed musical maturity. Leaving extended pauses between sentences, allowing the listener to absorb what has been said, he became more and more animated in both tone and vocabulary.
Beats and Pieces operate like an erratic genius – one who will tell you about all of the inner workings of music, if you can just get him to stop dancing.