A year and a half after its release in May 2020, John Law’s Congregation will be celebrating the launch of their new album CONFIGURATION next month at King’s Place. Feature by Jon Turney.
John Law has more reason than most to be frustrated by the long interruption to live music we all just endured. The pianist’s brilliant new quartet, newly signed to Ubuntu, saw their CD CONFIGURATION released last May, just after touring ground to a halt. The fact that it made several “best of the year” lists at the end of 2020 is small consolation for not being able to take the music on stage.
That ends next month, when the CD finally gets a London launch at Kings Place, Law joined by Roller Trio saxophonist (and guitarist) James Mainwaring, the young bass virtuoso Ashley John Long and, new to the group, Dave Hamblett on drums.
And of course he can’t wait. Like so many players, he is devoted to the musical connection that’s only achieved in performance. A long-time resident of Frome in Somerset, he never fails to enthuse about Bristol’s BeBop Club. The venerable upright piano in their pre-pandemic venue wasn’t exactly a top notch instrument, but the small pub back room, with its audience of intent listeners close enough to touch, makes up for it: “I really enjoyed every time I’ve played there”.
Still, lockdown wasn’t too bad, he avers. Speaking from the studio at the top of his house, he looks back on the enforced pause as a chance to take a step back and review all he’d been doing. “I know it’s been terrible for lots of people, but I’ve actually enjoyed myself”.
He didn’t take to live streaming, and was wary of insisting on the need to perform. “To be honest I was ambivalent about the whole situation of artists. There were people dying, or not able to breathe, and people were saying it was such a trial for the creative”.
An artist finds an outlet, though. He relished the self-sufficiency of his instrument, and found lots of time for “more strenuous practice”. After a lifetime at the keyboard the pianist, who turned sixty this year, insists: “I find playing the piano so hard: I keep working at it every day”. Just now that work focuses on “some technical, classical things, and on gaps in my jazz technique – I explored some stride”.
The gaps he attributes to “my path into jazz being a bit weird”. That’s an oblique reference to his earliest career: he began playing at four, intent on becoming a concert pianist. The vast breadth of his work since is hard to summarise, but the short version is that the budding classical player, hoping to follow in Alfred Brendel’s footsteps, turned aside in the mid-1980s to play free music with the likes of Evan Parker, Barry Guy, Paul Dunmall and Louis Moholo-Moholo. Since then, there has been a dizzying array of bands and recordings, ranging over solo piano, jazz trio, electronica and ambient music. Characteristically, a return to the classical discipline to record the Goldberg Variations a few years ago saw Bach’s matchless miniatures bookended by electronic additions supplied by Law, and he performed live with custom visuals that complemented the exquisitely organised music.
A similar spirit of using whatever musical ingredients enhance the piece pervades the new CD, and the general approach of Law’s Congregation, the name he has used for a succession of bands that play his own compositions (a separate quartet, Re-Creations, is reserved for treatments of others’ music).
The aim, as he puts it, is to locate each piece into a different space, with a different identity. If they were colours they would, he hopes, blend to form a design but, “The idea is that every piece is in a whole different world.” The variety of worlds is extended by these players, he says, warming to the subject of this band: “I built this version of Congregation around James, who comes out of a rock and an experimental tradition, contributing guitar and some electronics as well as sax.” Ashley John Long is equally at home in classical and jazz contexts, while like Mainwaring keeping “one foot in free jazz”. And Law adds that although he returned to tunes and regular harmony after his extensive exploration of free music, “I still have that inclination too… so we’ll see”.
The live sets will share the broad sonic resources evident all through CONFIGURATION, which has a fuller sound than many of the pianist’s solo and trio recordings. Law maintains he has never become a dab hand at managing the electronic set-ups himself. “I surround myself with people who can do it! Then I try and use it creatively on the day”.
The show is taking shape now: “we’ll do six tunes from the album, and some new ones”. The first set, he muses happily, will open with a new piece that begins with a classical sample, but he won’t say where from. When live dates resumed, Law found, “like everyone, that I wasn’t match fit. I sat there for a moment thinking, ‘what the hell am I doing?’. You get back into it, though, after a couple of sets.”
And getting back into it with this band begins with a date at the acoustically inviting Wiltshire Music Centre before the London date. Then comes a longer tour running into 2022. After the pandemic hiatus, it seems the pianist will be busier than ever. Last year saw him recognised with a Paul Hamlyn Foundation Artists’ Award, and there is Arts Council support lined up for a new project, Renaissance, with Law playing midi-keyboards in more ambient mode alongside long-standing collaborator saxophonist Jon Lloyd, which will tour cathedrals and other sacred spaces. But first, there is that CD to launch. That remains rooted in jazz, but Law’s final words about what to expect can sum up his work as a whole: “Whatever someone thinks jazz is – whether lots of notes, or a kind of rhythm – they will find it in the music. But it will never be only that.” It’s a credo that has served this restlessly creative player and composer well, and comes to a new fruition with this Congregation.
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