Ron Mathewson – Memorial
(Jazz in Britain JIB 17-S-DL. Album review by Liam Noble)
So this is a review. I’ve never really thought about that word, what it means specifically, until now. Should I evaluate how well something has been done, or whether the aims of the people doing it are, or were, worthy? Did they succeed? Well, I was lucky enough to play with many of these musicians as a young player just out of college. They were my teachers, and often the best lessons on the stand were not through achievements, but through failure – glorious and fearless, chaotic and cathartic. Things fell apart, and the centre was often nowhere near holding, but the putting back together was where the party was at. To set oneself a goal and simply achieve it would have seemed ludicrous; where’s the drama in that? You had to come up with something, and you had to do it all the time.
I don’t want to talk too much about what happens here, but just as an example, listen to Harry Beckett’s Tomorrow Morning Early. Ron Mathewson is on his second instrument here, the electric bass, and his solo intro is almost a piece in itself, aggressive and humorous, downright silly in places. It leads into a typically upbeat Beckett theme, pithy, almost nothing there to work with: but the piece ends up being almost 17 minutes of Herculean improvisation, ups and downs, surges and sudden moments of calm. When Ron and John Webb come crashing back in after Pete Lemer’s unaccompanied solo, the utter ramshackle confidence of the interruption made me laugh out loud. These moments go beyond “notes”, beyond even human personality traits…it’s as if the music itself has characters that are in conversation, and not always in agreement.
Such moments are scattered throughout this collection of Ron’s private recordings. Even playing more “in the pocket” (he almost feels like the stable centre through Stan Sulzmann’s incredible dialogues with Tony Levin in Gordon Beck’s F.I.V.A), his personality shines through. An utterly individual touch, even on the electric bass. And it’s hard not to feel yourself lift off your seat as Ron and Spike Wells suddenly launch into a swing feel in Tony Coe, Kenny Wheeler and Co’s version of Neil Ardley’s Kaleidoscope Of Rainbows. To play with Ron was to be constantly surprised by such waves of energy, which could come at you at any time. It was like playing that arcade game, “Asteroid”, if anyone remembers that.
Everything here is a revelation, but there’s something extra special about the concluding solo piece Black Forest. About three and a half minutes in, following an extraordinary demonstration of dynamic control with the bow, he very audibly puts it down with a reverberant crash (just in case we thought we were at Wigmore Hall) before tearing into the bass with a scrapbook of whoops and hollers, walks and scoops, melodies and scraps of chord progressions that appear only to be submerged, as if he wouldn’t let himself fall for anything so predictable. He sounds like a giant, and it makes me realise that actually, yes, there are obstacles to be overcome in this music. The double bass is a pretty big object, but for Ron the barrier between the player and the instrument seems to disappear. He’s not playing but dancing. Suddenly the music ascends into bell-like whistling of high harmonics and then, like many of the conversations I had with Ron, they simply, and inexplicably, stop at some point and are gone.
Memorial is released today, 23 December 2020.
LINKS: Memorial is available on Bandcamp – follow link for full track listing, dates, personnel.
Tributes to Ron Mathewson by Dave Holland, Stan Sulzmann…