BRÅK Festival of Improvised Music (Hundred Years Gallery, Hoxton. 29 February 2020. Review by AJ Dehany. Photos courtesy of BRÅK)There’s a smart little place called waterintobeer in Brockley that stocks an intimidating range of esoteric beers and will even do you a selection of yeasts and hops if you’re minded to brew your own. Hosted by this tiny South London dispensary the BRÅK improv night has for three years now been brewing up heady varieties of creative music. Each month three duos make it up on the spot: three guests paired to the triumvirate of organisers: Cath Roberts, Tom Ward, and Colin Webster.
The organisers of BRÅK
At the crossroads of jazz/improv/noise/sound-art, it’s an intense and exposing experience for all the players involved in these duos in the tiny beer shop. It’s a great way for them to understand others’ individual styles, and for audiences to see unique configurations at eyeball level. These duos are the gigging equivalent of listening in to a phone call between two brilliant eccentrics; sometimes the line might crackle and hum, and then you hear something that makes your ears effervesce.Transferring across the river to the Hundred Years Gallery in Hoxton, “BRÅKFest” was a one-off all-day special taking place in a larger venue that kicked loose some of the constraints and included not just duos but trios… and drums. The afternoon and evening concerts nicely mirrored each other, each having three improvised sets opening with a non-idiomatic duo followed by a trio, concluding with a loud band. A mixture of BRÅK favourites and new faces presented a window on a scene that is and isn’t part of the larger jazz and improvised music scene and which shares some vital characteristics: everyone knows each other, sales are modest, and attention to creating brave art is serious but endearingly good-humored.Opening the day, Graham Dunning and Brigitte Hart presented what I might dare to call an ecological investigation into the sonic properties of lost and abandoned things. Literally an archaeology of sound, Dunning’s electronic manipulations accompanied Hart’s interventions and spoken word, with contact mikes strapped to her fingers as she sifted through shopping bags of seashells and inventoried the dirt and detritus they’d mudlarked from the banks of the River Thames the day before: tooth, brown stone, silver circle, pebble (burnt). Adam Fairhall and Matt Atkins opened the evening session with something also tending toward sound art. Atkins worked with two small 1980s tape recorders, feeding strings of metal beads into a tiny metal dish and scraping bowls and cymbals across the gallery floor, pouring a ping-pong ball around in a bodhran and playing tapes of ambient sound and voices in rhythmic loops. Fairhall played teasingly halting accordion tones woozily delving into sound-based playing beyond diatonic or even chromatic musical conventions, moving onto the twinkling oddness of toy piano, abstract but eerily evocative.Following this in the second set of the evening session, alto saxophonist Sam Andreae’s trio with cellist Hannah Marshall and Alison Blunt on violin found all three employing bat noises and wolf tones to evoke an eerie kind of classical chamber improv. Extended techniques including blowing into the croft without the mouthpiece and manipulating the mute inside the bell of the horn, pizzicato clicks behind the bridge and whacking the bow against the neck. These are rhythmic and sonic methods to explore feelings less familiar to musical conventions but which always have oblique reference to them. Very much the hinterland of both contemporary composers as well as improvisers. it seemed ‘classical-ish’ not just because of the strings but because of the use of predominantly tones that were fully uttered rather than just percussive. It was carefully, delicately musical with a sustained but softly mesmeric sense of unease.
Cath Roberts’ Trio
If this second set of the evening was suggestive of practice in contemporary classical, the second set of the afternoon developed from a language more identifiably steeped in jazz. LUME co-founding partners Cath Roberts on baritone sax and Dee Byrne on alto, with Craig Scott on guitar, opened their set with the kind of sonic language jokingly referenced in the title of Roberts’s 2016 duo album with Tullis Rennie: “Blurts/Growls”. Later a moment of pitchbent guitar effects and sax and pinching up the harmonic series of the strings made for some wackily original sci-fi sounds I liked a lot. Scott’s guitar tended to follow Roberts and Byrne’s idiom more often than drawing them somewhere unfamiliar. Some problematic general electronic feedback may have been a happy accident, arresting the earlier mood of abstraction and making them respond with a more full-bodied blowing session giving vent to the formidable power and force of their playing.
Kodian Trio (above) are saxophonist Colin Webster, guitarist Dirk Serries, and drummer Andrew Lisle. They rock with a fierce rhythmic assault recalling Black Bombain with Peter Brötzmann with the controlled ferocity of a contemporary Machine Gun. Webster is an exceptionally energetic free player with a piercing intensity, exceptional at non-idiomatic playing that isn’t just squawks and extended techniques but uses fully uttered tones that keep away from key centres without obeying other codified vocabularies. Dirk Serries tends to play the guitar more percussively here whacking the strings with metal sticks and plastic rulers to create a barrage of non-tonal noise. Lisle batters the kit but has a gift for varying the energy and volume and maintaining a pulse for the right amount of time rather than too often. And then, before tinnitus can set in, the trio changes attack completely, with Colin Webster blowing those weird whistle tones, those ghostly tremoloes that Tom Challenger also does so well but which you don’t hear enough of in the music more widely. Then the band builds to an authoritative climax, and after twenty-four minutes of sustained sonic revolt, Kodian Trio’s conflict music is done. If Kodian Trio evoked confrontation, the closing set of the evening felt friendlier, with the spirit of the liberational free jazz of the 1960s that came out of post-bop before rock rhythms really got involved. There was a kind of earthy jazz workshop quality to the trio, with Huw V Walker‘s double bass opening up a resonant depth to the sound. Johnny Hunter is very different to Andrew Lisle’s playing in Kodian Trio, assertive but more jazzily playful; he is one of the most versatile of the younger drummers in the music. Saxophonist Tom Ward plays with that same vitality as Colin Webster but a touch more of a warm jazz sense. His technical assuredness in using squeaks and harmonics within and around his tonal phrasing led neatly into some almost Rollins-like punchy lyricism. Ward moved over to flute a couple of times which varied the texture (keeping with a sixties vibe) but I think it’s a newer thing for him, with a shorter prosody of phrasing. On sax, he really talks. His pedalling sax with Williams’s bowed bass drew the performance into a powerful doomy sense of a happy end of the world. And then it was the end of the night. Martin Clarke was recording the lot and it was filmed, so we will hope to hear and see back from this remarkable event.AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.ukThe next BRÅK improv night in Brockley takes place on 21 March at waterintobeer.