After two fascinating collaborations with jazz musicians on Thirsty Ear's Blue Series-Amassed with a group of mainly European improvisers; Masses with an American ensemble-Spring Heel Jack took to the road earlier this year on an eight-date tour around England for the Contemporary Music Network. The live group was a slightly slimmed down version of the Amassed lineup, with John Coxon and Ashley Wales (Spring Heel Jack) on electronics, Evan Parker on tenor, Matthew Shipp on Fender Rhodes, Jason Spaceman on guitar, William Parker on bass and Han Bennink on drums.
Live comprises two sections: "Part 1" from the fourth night and "Part 2" from the opening night, in Bath. I was at the latter performance, fascinated to see how the project would translate to a live setting and to see how Coxon and Wales, two producers best known for their experimental drum 'n' bass, were going to relinquish control of the minute particulars of their studio work to the impulse of the moment. While I went fearing a car crash, Spring Heel Jack was hot-wired for a joyride.
Wales and Coxon removed the contentious element of free jazz, periods of drift and indecisiveness that sometimes cause the music to loose shape on the CDs, by-as in "Piece 1"-introducing fresh elements of sound to move the music in a new direction or, in "Piece 2," dictating the flow of the music. On the former, Shipp's restraint is a revelation, the warm tone of the Rhodes suiting the music perfectly and allowing Bennink's impetuously driven rhythms to flow and mutate and give the music dynamism and urgency. Evan Parker's sound-sheet solos are used both as background color and foreground feature while Spaceman, often barely audible live, has a clearer role on record in shaping the density of the music. "Piece 2" is equally absorbing. The fascination again is with Shipp's hypnotic playing, doing exactly what is required at precisely the right moment either in bringing shape to the music or framing a soloist.
As Jack's Oddities from 2000 revealed, Coxon and Wales like space and time to work. Spring Heel Jack applied this unhurried philosophy to the live concerts. The soundscapes Coxon and Wales created for the improvisers could have unleashed gusts of wide-eyed soloing. It didn't. Everyone seemed acutely aware of one another's role in the plot; no single player dominated either piece but rather related his playing to the evolving whole that in turn revealed itself over time. A mixture of communication and intuition-it's the hardest form of jazz to do well.