Live reviews

REPORT: The Sequestering of Corey Mwamba (His Final Public Performance) in Derby

Corey Mwamba
Photo credit: Brian Homer

The Sequestering of Corey Mwamba
(Baby People Studios, Derby. 23 March 2019. Report by AJ Dehany)

An inspirational creative force in the music, Corey Mwamba is many things to many people. An improviser, composer, vibraphone player, theoretician and even philosopher. A voice of conscience and integrity not afraid to criticize the failings of the scene—but with an affability and openness of spirit that makes him its great champion too. He spotted early the stellar talents of his own and younger generations, such as Shabaka Hutchings and Xhosa Cole (who were in his groups before each moved to London).

It’s almost unique for a musician working in improvised music, unhindered by health or other problems, to quit playing live—but a few years ago Corey Mwamba set a firm date for his retirement from public performance: 23 March 2019.

Let me give you an indication of the effect his decision has had on the close-knit community of musicians involved in the British scene associated with free improvising and new approaches to composition. Composer-saxophonist Cath Roberts, while we were talking about it in February at the BRÅK night she co-runs with Tom Ward and Colin Webster, put it like this: “Corey’s giving up live performance and everyone’s losing their shit.”

There are good reasons for his decision that he has set out clearly on his mid-2018 blog statement “Why I’m retiring from live performance”  and in Huw V Williams’s Improvised Music Agenda Podcast Episode 25 . These include dissatisfaction with certain projects in which he felt misunderstood, racism within the music scene, and practical personal matters concerning live performance.

It’s crucial to note that he hasn’t quit music. He’s just stopped doing the bit that’s most painful to him. He will continue to focus his energies in other directions: a PhD, creative director roles for Derby Jazz and Out Front! He will continue to collaborate and record music and act as a thoughtful and reflective voice. “As a musician,” he says, “how we decide to reflect what music means to us is important. We have to make that decision for ourselves. That doesn’t mean we have to pander to expectations for what other people think we should be doing.”

Andy Champion (L) and Corey Mwamba
Photo credit: Brian Homer

As the clock ran down over the last few months, I, like others, attended as many of those last London gigs as I could. In December I saw bassist Dave Kane visibly break down with emotion during the last minutes of Yana trio’s final London performance at the Vortex, squaring a circle fourteen years in the making. In February at Jazz re:freshed in West London’s Mau Mau Bar, Mwamba’s final live London gig with a quintet including Robert Mitchell and Rachel Musson made for a quizzical swan song to the behemoth London which has always been a site of professed ambivalence to Corey Mwamba, who remains based in and committed to his hometown Derby.

The date, Saturday March 23, arrived, with the mirrored and mezzanined open performance space of Baby People Studios in Derby the scene for an evening of heightened emotions and a celebration of musical and personal fellowship. The evening, already pregnant with pathos, seemed to gather in emotional weight and gravity. The applause and appreciation growing more keen and concerted, the mood was tightly wound but the evening released and proclaimed a sense of joy and unity in the making of music collectively.

The first set emphasized close personal and musical friendships with a sequence of duos, opening with fellow Midlander artist and percussionist Walt Shaw, then with saxophonists Jason Yarde, Rachel Musson, and Martin Archer. The second set, Nth Quartet with Laura Cole (piano), Andy Champion (bass) and Johnny Hunter (drums), demonstrated the memorability and flexibility of his jazz compositions in a band format and the edifying rapport of his contribution to a group dynamic.

Introducing the next set he started along a line, “There’s a lot of nonsense in this, what promoters and papers have the temerity to call an industry” before opting to pursue the no-nonsense approach of just playing. Yana is a trio which is a key ensemble for Mwamba, formed with bassist Dave Kane and drummer Joshua Blackmore whom he met in Derby some 14-15 years ago. Their music is completely improvised, often without conscious preparation but with a remarkable and unshakeable personal chemistry. “That group is solid,” he says. “We’re brothers, and it’s just always gonna continue.”

After Yana came a warm speech from Newcastle-based Jazz North East promoter Paul Bream, whom Mwamba had thanked earlier on. Bream reminisced warmly, speaking on behalf of everyone, thanking Corey and wishing him the best in his future endeavours. In a lovely gesture of community spirit on behalf of a group of the musicians who contributed, he presented a bouquet of flowers “and more importantly: a case of Rioja!”

Rachel Musson and Corey Mwamba
Photo credit: Brian Homer

Connections are more important in this music (whatever ‘this music’ is!) than perhaps in any other. Rhizome is a vast interactive map Corey Mwamba has made with Tom Ward that shows the intricate connections between diverse musicians, a sort of cybernetic family tree of musical scenes at an interpersonal level. In a way the next part of the evening represented this in microcosm.

“There are a lot of people here who are really good friends and mean a lot to me so I’ve decided to pile them all on stage at the same time and conduct them,” he said, warning humorously, “this might not work…”

“It will definitely work,” interjected Jason Yarde, lurking behind the piano with a camera and a saxophone, “it’s just a matter of degree.”

At this point during a directed free improvisation and a biting funk noise, the joy in the room overpowered any maudlin thoughts. Mwamba conducted an impromptu big band formed from the combined talents of the gathered visiting and performing musicians there including Dave Kane, Joshua Blackmore, Andy Champion, Johnny Hunter, Laura Cole, Walt Shaw, Rachel Musson, Jason Yarde, Martin Archer, Xhosa Cole, Martin Pyne, Tom Ward, Alya Al-Sultani, Zoe Champion, Gary Reader, Richard Belfitt.

Returning, Corey Mwamba introduced a final live set lasting all of five minutes, dense as a neutron star, a super-compressed improvisation presenting in miniature his sense of mystery in sophisticated harmonic nuance, his melodic lyricism and rhythmic swagger, culminating as ever in climactic sheets of virtuosic vibraphone noisemaking.

“It’s been an interesting death,” said Corey Mwamba, bookending one chapter and opening up another. “Tomorrow will be the start of an interesting life.”

“An impromptu big band formed from the combined talents 
of the gathered visiting and performing musicians there”
Photo credit: Brian Homer

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff.

LINKS: Brian Homer photo album:
Victoria Sparrow photo album
Barney Stevenson video
Huw V Williams Improvised Music Agenda Podcast
Bio/interview with tea
Corey Mwamba website

…and AJ, as might be expected, had some unexpected adventures in Derby

Categories: Live reviews

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