February News 2000

In Concert: Elisabeth Chojnacka at Présences Festival
Derek Bailey and Steve Lacy: OUTCOME
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Elisabeth Chojnacka at Présences Festival

February 7th 2000

Elisabeth Chojnacka has been new music’s harpsichord virtuoso for twenty years or so (and looks like it), though with her legendary BRIGHT RED mop of hair and sequinned bellbottoms she should be singing Dusty Springfield covers in a Working Mans Club in Royton Lancashire (accompanied on the Wurlitzer by a retired bus driver, probably called Harold...). Tonight her program is about as good as her hairdo. Of her eight pieces, only Mauricio Sotelo’s “Càbala del Caballo” (featuring Stephane Schmidt on flamenco guitar) is remotely convincing. To kick off, she rushed through Ligeti’s “Continuum” (hard to hide bum notes in such a machine-honed precision score, isn’t it, Elisabeth?), continued with Toshi Ichiyanagi’s nondescript (whatever happened to his early wild experimentalism?) “Mirage”, for harpsichord and shô (Japanese mouth organ, played by Ishikawa Kô), before Uzbek-born Dimitri Yanov-Yanovski took the stage with his chang (Chinese zither) for his “Music of Dreams”. (This would have sent me off to sleep nicely had it not been for the light reflecting off Elisabeth’s hairdo.) François-Bernard Mâche’s “Ziggurat” was a characterless five-minute thrash about (was it written like that, or was Chojnacka really screwing up badly?), and Graciane Finzi’s “Espressivo” (with a tape part which sounded like a harpsichord re-tuned by Harry Partch) was dreadful, but worse was still to come in the form of Grant McLachlan’s “Umbhiyozo Waze Afrika”, which teamed Liz with Xavier Mertian on African percussion. This utterly embarassing (and very badly written) medley of aimless doodles would have disgraced a twelve-year old, and the fact that the audience erupted into wild applause at the end only testifies to their crass stupidity. Mr. McLachlan, we’re told, has returned to live in his native South Africa - may I take this opportunity to wish him a happy retirement (he’s only 25, but I think he should make an early start, quit now while he’s at the bottom)?
Things could only get better with the final piece (but they didn’t), “Phrygian Tucket” by Stephen Montague, an ex-pat American living in London. Apart from writing third division minimalism, Montague is also President of the Society for the Promotion of New Music, so any hopes I ever had of an Arts Council SPNM tour in the UK are, after this review, definitively fucked - “Tucket” is a sort of toccata that starts off and soon grinds to halt (no less than four times) and ends up going nowhere at all: the gratuitous fisticuff clusters at the end of the work sound more like composer frustration than legitimate climax. Again, needless to say, the public loved it, and Elisabeth basked in the starlight as long as she could. Personally, I was about to ask for my money back when I remembered it was a free concert. Appalling.

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35, rue Marcelin Berthelot
33140 Villenave d’Ornon

“Improvisations Volume 1” (a second volume is in the pipeline, as is a whole album of Ornette Coleman cover versions) slipped out onto the market last Autumn in the customary hand-crafted cottage-industry format that has become the hallmark of La Belle du Quai (you won’t find this CD in Tower or Virgin, you’ve got to make the effort and go get it yourself from the folk at the above address). It’s a 68-minute, no-concessions acerbic display of impressive interplay from two musicians, saxophonist Jean-Luc Guionnet and percussionist Edward Perraud, who have played together long enough to know each other’s moves damn well (from my own experience, playing in a band with the pair of them, it’s often only a downright Machiavellian “divide-and-conquer” approach which is capable of splitting them up and setting them against each other... musically speaking of course). In concert, Calx (Guionnet’s typically abstruse name idea, by the way, as well as his cover artwork) are uncannily awesome at times, and as the last piece on this CD is a concert recording you can check that out for yourself. However, the laboratory-pure acoustic is ultimately tiring on the ear, especially with such uncompromising instrumentation - plus I constantly question the necessity of making a disc that has to last the full seventy minutes... Then again you don’t have to play it from beginning to end, do you?

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Derek Bailey / Steve Lacy

Derek Bailey / Steve Lacy

On June 25th 1983 I was playing video games in a pub in Rochdale, Lancashire, listening to the Eurythmics’ “Love is a Stranger” and sighing audibly a) because I was about to turn twenty, and b) because I would have preferred to be back drinking warm Martinis in my Cambridge room with my then girlfriend. The horrors of the Falklands Task Force and the hideous yuppie pop of New Romanticism (can’t decide which was worse) were receding into the background, Thatcher was elected again and life was generally boring and miserable.
On June 25th 1983, Derek Bailey and Steve Lacy played a little club at 28 rue Dunois tucked away in the 13th arrondissement of Paris. The gig was recorded, as have been so many over the years, by Jean-Marc Foussat, and here it is, sixteen and a half years later. (One day, someone ought to raid the Foussat archives, as this affably genial sound engineer has single-handedly amassed a treasure trove of amazing free jazz / improv recordings... have a look at Jimmy Lyons’ “Riffs” (1980), Fred Frith’s classic Massacre album “Killing Time” (1981), Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron’s magnificent “Let’s Call This” (1981), and you’ll find it was Foussat behind the desk. Many of the recent memorable events in Parisian free music, from William Parker and Joëlle Léandre’s bass duet set at Sons d’Hiver a couple of years ago, to Noël Akchoté and Evan Parker’s mind-blowing electroacoustic set at the Instants Chavirés (both on Leo) were also captured by Jean-Marc. His characteristic floppy hat was also spotted at Saint-Denis last year for one of the most seismically shattering gigs ever played by the European Cecil Taylor outfit... dare we hope that, one day...?) Sixteen years have drifted by, Thatcher and Reagan have both gone (mad), and 1983’s beatbox experiments have grown into the bloated ugly dinosaur of dance culture now known as HipHop, while grunge, Acid House and Acid Jazz have all come and gone... And this set by Bailey and Lacy sounds as if it was recorded yesterday.
The only one of Derek Bailey’s recordings that you can accurately pinpoint regarding its date is “Guitar Drums’n’ Bass” (Avant 1996), not because of Bailey but rather DJ Ninj’s already-dated (even back then) techstep programming. Bailey’s playing is not only utterly original (an oft-stated cliché, I know, but...), it’s ahistorical, existing out of time, so perfectly concentrated on the moment of its creation that it seems (gloriously) oblivious of whatever is going on around it. But though Bailey is no way oblivious to what is going on around him here, namely the liquid crystal linear perfection of Steve Lacy, his guitar work still makes no concessions to standard duo “conversational give and take” orthodoxy. Each of these master musicians continues along his own way with characteristic determination (stubbornness, even), and from time to time the paths cross, forcing them along other avenues of exploration. (If I have one reservation, it’s that Bailey seems to be somewhat in the background in the mix - inevitable, perhaps, given the recording circumstances?- and his customary extraordinary use of harmonics is at times hard to hear. For Baileyphiles, the clearest sound on record is still on his 70s solo sets, “Lot 74” on Incus 12 and “Improvisation” (1975) on the Italian label Cramps... newly reissued I see on 180g vinyl too!) As one might expect, listening requires concentration. This is not music to stick on in the background while you’re having dinner with friends, but something to be savored - and it will still be so sixteen years from now (and sixteen years from then), when the Puff Daddies and Daft Punks are as far behind us as 1983 seems to me today. As Jon C. Morgan’s excellent liner notes remind us, this is, amazingly, and regrettably, only the second time Bailey and Lacy have recorded as a duo (their other album being the long-deleted “Company 4” (1976)). Or is it? Maybe Jean-Marc Foussat has other buried treasure from these two masters... in which case, do I really have wait another sixteen years?

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