Writing – Recent sleeve Notes

Anne Briggs – Sing A Song For You (Bo’Weavil Recordings)

Jan 2007


“Fleeting, volatile, flighty, breathless: a flash of sunlight in the glade. Anne Briggs’ pure, unmistakable voice: like a gentle tremor, fragile and timeless as a dandelion clock, and her too short career summon the same images in my mind.

Her recordings are few and all the more precious for it. When these 1973 sessions finally saw the sunshine, back in 1996, they were greeted with joy; joy mixed with astonishment that they should have been consigned to obscurity in the first place. Sure, her work with the electric Ragged Robin may have displeased the purists of the time. Sure, Anne Briggs was unhappy with her voice, heavily pregnant with new life and on her way to a Scottish retreat. But for something so beautiful as these songs to be casually put aside…

And they are beautiful. Sunshine and time: flitting snatches of melody heard floating across a meadow on some forgotten summers day. Songs ancient as the hill’s bones – yet half are Anne’s own compositions. The distillation of a unique talent let fly like a butterfly from the hand.

And they were to be the last. To determined retirement amoung the stern Lewisian gneiss outcrops of the North West went Anne. We waited for that transitory vision of a summer’s day to return and we wait still.”

Roscoe Holcomb – The High Lonesome Sound

LP Reissue – Bo’ Weavil Recordings

Sleeve note October 2007

“The sounds on this record were collected some 40 odd years ago. Sometimes when you listen to Roscoe Holcomb sing, it might have been 400 years ago. Sometimes it could be happening to you right now.

These songs and instrumental pieces go back to the 20s and 30s and beyond, into the mists of pre-recorded time. They are traditional songs of the Kentucky mountains before the advent of radio and record player when itinerant musicians, market places church and country fair were the conduit for tradition. But these songs, recorded in the unique high and lonesome style of Roscoe Holcomb, were the last folk songs. Already, 40 years ago, Holcomb’s music was not appreciated in his own community. He was a throwback, a dinosaur in the age of the ‘Twist’.

So what are we doing listening to this archaic music now, when all the music in the world can be stored on a chip the size of one of Mr Holcomb’s plectrums; when the places sheltered from the unblinking eye of progress, technology, speed are almost non-existent. What do we hear in the songs of a man suffering from diseases caused by coal dust and smoking that won’t exist in the privileged west of our future children; songs from a repertoire of folk themes that bear no relation to the way we live today; songs played, for the most part, on the survivor of an archaic west African lute?

Music, for one.

Whatever you do to it, music will always have a place in human society. Listen to Mr Holcomb singing the unaccompanied Baptist hymn The Wandering Boy and you could be listening to the Gaelic psalm singers from the Isle of Lewis, or the indigenous choirs of Taiwan. Listen to the attack and passion in the singing and guitar playing on Coney Island and you’ve Bob Dylan in a nutshell. This is a universal music.

Honesty, for another.

In an age when songs are put through hit-making software to ensure popularity/profitability, where any sound can be synthesised, the truth-speaking of Roscoe Holcomb is a rare commodity. The whole process of recording an album like The High Lonesome Sound is more honest – no digital reshaping of the sound, no producer in the background with a record company breathing down his neck and an accountant standing in the shadows sharpening his knife. Mo Ashe’s Folkways Records – John Cohen – Roscoe Holcomb: a simple trinity.

This reissue is an honest attempt to capture the chemistry of the original. Vinyl is the appropriate medium. The original album was recorded with vinyl in mind – the artist, engineer, listener – their ears were attuned to the warm sound of stylus slowly peeling off microscopic layers of plastic as it wound its way around the spiral groove. If you want to hear Robert Johnson as the devil intended, listen to a 78. Howlin’ Wolf’s Chess 45s just sound best on a juke box in a concrete floored shack.

Roscoe Holcomb speaks to you directly if he speaks to you at all, and this is what a whole new generation of musicians and listeners are getting into. The want to reproduce that intensity, that honesty, that directness you hear on this classic record. They’re buying this ancient music on ancient vinyl and playing it on ancient record players to ancient kids of seventeen who, like previous ancient seventeen year olds, will try to tell their betters and elders about the simplicity and truth to be told in song and they won’t be listened to any more than they were the last time but it doesn’t matter because “music is the healing power of the universe”, and Roscoe Holcomb understood that as he sat on his porch and played to the ancient mountains of Kentucky.”

N.E.W – NEWtoons (Bo’ Weavil)

sleeve note   March 2008

“Noble, Ward and Edwards play together on this CD. Simple statement, but playing is a serious business. The great cultural historian Johan Huizinga even suggested re-naming our species homo ludens: man-the-player describes the human (sapiens, wisdom, certainly don’t). Play incorporates language, ritual, myth, laughter. Play is at the heart of the interaction of these great players. From the opening riff, with Ward’s scattergun guitar fizzing around Noble’s detonations, the game is on.

It’s often the element of play in improvised music that prepares the ears for its more profound moments. The skittering of drum and bass gives way, suddenly, to a sonic shriek, a blast that leaves the listener metaphorically pressed against the wall. There are few musical experiences that move from the titillating to the terrifying in such a short space of time. Noble, Edwards, Ward are experts at the improv game, tooled up, as they are, with the sharpest of musical wits, the most adroit techniques and almost uncanny powers of perception. Listen, and experience N.E.W. at play.

Wilkinson/Edwards/Noble – Live at Cafe Oto

Sleeve Note  Oct 2008

“Experiencing music live is what it’s all about! One could go as far as to say that recordings came about as means of catching a fragment of the live experience. Music has been played live since civilizations inception and recordings are a relatively new phenomenon.

This statement is never more true than of the Obliquity trio. A trio of improvisers that have been playing together for years in numerous different line-ups, and have an innate knowledge and understanding of one another as musicians and friends. To see Alan, John and Steve attack their instruments is to truly understand their musical heritage. The shear energy and inventiveness of ideas is something to behold. So it seems apt to release a live recording from this powerhouse. Recorded live at the wonderful new venue Café Oto in Dalston in July, the ferocity and fire of their music is captured in all it’s magnitude, for all to enjoy. We live in a vast world where not everyone can get to go down the road to their local venue to catch them play.  If live is where it’s at, this comes in a very close second. Turn up the music, close your eyes and it’s like you are in the room!

The live music experience is what it’s all about! Let’s face it, the recording, the thing (CD, vinyl, ipod), that you’re listening to now is a luxury – a convenient form of storing and a flawed attempt at revisiting the ecstasy of the live experience. Live music is at the heart of civilization and culture. Live music is real music – the recording is simply the run out groove of time.

The Obliquity Trio is defined by live performance. The relationship between the three, fused into an innate musical understanding through constant exposure to one another in the fiery amphitheatre of improvisation, riven by their individuality, bursts into fissive conflagration in live performance. Resourcefully, remorselessly, inventive; muscular and graceful as the needs be – as the moment requires – they are live, alive, life.

You won’t experience the Obliquity Trio in all their live magnificence on this wonderful recording, made at the Café Oto in London’s Dalston last July. (You could, if you can get to Dalston – and this we’d thoroughly recommend; but not everyone can and not everyone will and this is a vast world still).  What you do have is a document, authentification if you like, of the Obliquity Trio Live. This is what it’s like; all you have to do is close your eyes, spin the volume dial clockwise, conjure up Café Oto in your mind’s eye and revisit the ecstasy of the live experience.”

Wilkinson/Edwards/Noble – Obliquity

Sleeve note March 9 2007

Chance would be a fine thing, and in this case, it was.

It seems entirely appropriate that the origins of a ‘free jazz’, ‘improv’ record – whatever the current cliché has it – should lie in happenstance.

Chance, of course, is no random thing and the bringing together, for the first time on disc, of the mighty talents of Wilkinson/Edwards/Noble has an inevitability about it that in retrospect demonstrates the hand of fate…

…or, in this case, the hand of Lol Coxhill – it was his indisposition that lead to the three playing together (the gig, at London’s Flim Flam club, had originally involved Lol, Steve and John in a trio with Alan solo). W/E/N played up a storm; promoter Pete Johnson booked them on the spot to support Keiji Heino at the Spitz; Bo’ Weavil boss Mark Morris was in the audience and…well, that’s the process.

…and these three protagonists are masters of that chance moment, musicians with the uncanny ability to harness the unpredictable and lend it form.

Obliquity is a free jazz record, if you’ll forgive the use of such a hoary, old fashioned phrase. Its scorching, heads-down momentum, rhythm and drive places it in direct line of descent from the fierce originators of the genre: Ayler, Sanders, Graves, Frank Wright. It also swings. At times it dances.

Obliquity is a free jazz record through the prism of the improvisational movement in Europe, though. This is no attempt at polite revivalism or looking back/up to the 1960s. Wilkinson/Edwards/Noble are producing new, vital music of and for now.

You need form to work at this level of spontaneity and certainty and any frequenter of the outer limits of the European music scene could vouch for the jazz porridge these three have put away.

John Edwards is such a fixture around the London scene these days it’s hard to remember who did bass duty before he turned up. Here he pins down the trio with precision and energy – his tremendous internal rhythm on display to full effect throughout. Check how he pulls out of the headlong tail spin of the title track with a trademark walking bass figure at 7m50sec. Or the tambura drone 2.30 minutes into South of 4.

Alex Wilkinson is a ferocious improviser, probably best known for membership of the demon Hession/Wilkinson/Fell trio. Obliquity features full-spectrum Wilkinson: flatouttakenoprisoners saxophonication, squeals, coughs, sustained improvisational experimentation and east London tribal chanting. Fierce and wonderful.

Steve Noble is an upright drummer who reminds me of an old photo of Baby Dodds. Articulate, with a surgeon’s accuracy, his crisp percussion work has accompanied dancers, funksters, poets and tuba players.  But he’s not played better than here: great power, allied to grace, a subtle touch and solid time – the drumming drives the music on to real heights.

Obliquity: advancing obliquely; deviating from the straight; freedom from the humdrum constraints of time and place.

This is a great jazz album.


Wilkinson/ Brötzmann /Fell/Kellers

Irish Centre, Leeds 11/11/96

Sleeve Note  October 2007

Ridetque sui ludibria trunci (“And soaring mocks the broken frame below” Lucan, IX, 14)

“In the lexicon of rock climbing, commitment describes the state of mind that takes the climber over an extreme, fearsomely exposed pitch. The word implies the decision to go ‘out there’, beyond the comfort-zone, into a world where only the actions of the individual count for anything – “a complete simplicity…of action, direction and situation”.

The individuals on this recording commit in the same way. They consciously put themselves ‘out there’, over the edge. The energy, the electricity, generated by saxophonists Wilkinson and Brötzmann, is a result of their fearless approach to the precipice and their willingness to stare, unblinking, into the abyss.

And yet while this music, free jazz, improv, call it what you will, exists at the boundary of our cultural existence, it echoes the sounds first identified as jazz, back at the birth pangs of the modern age. The commitment to a collective sound devoid of ego is the second element, along with the fearless individual, that makes this music extraordinary, that provides the moments of almost spiritual communion – between band members Alan Wilkinson, Simon Fell, Peter Brötzmann and Willi Kellers; between band and crowd.

There’s another climbing expression: the crux – the difficult or dangerous instant in a climb. Turn it, and you’re away. Again, also with this music. In the interplay between four fine players a moment is reached; tension: a resolution. This is the beauty, the freedom, of improvisation.

[Quotations, including the use of Lucan, from Jim Perrin’s collection of writing On And Off The Rocks (Victor Gollancz Ltd 1986)]

Decoy – Vol 1 Spirit

sleeve note   © 2009

“We demonstrated the Model A on university campuses and radio stations, for women’s clubs, in music stores and churches, and even mortuaries. The only places we avoided were the gin mills.”

Bob Pierce, early Hammond salesman

“The disturbing, distorted Hammond organ sound is a natural fit for a free jazz combo. With a pedigree including low-cost church pipe organ substitute, novelty instrument (vide Walt Disney’s Blame It On The Samba, part of his 1948 animated film Melody Time, where a Carmen Mirandered Ethel Smith plays a Hammond as it’s blown to bits by ‘toon Aracuan) and jazz cool tool bar none courtesy of Smiths – Jimmy and Dr Lonnie Liston – McGriff, Patton, Young et al, the B3 and Leslie cabinet’s overblown bastard tones one minute toying, the next destroying, were made to play the freedom sound.

Ra did it (free jazz funk on Lanquidity, 1978) but the Hammond has been over-looked by the improv community. Which is a surprise as it combines huge tonal potential with visceral attack, speed of articulation and sheer presence and volume that, when geared to a powerhouse drum ‘n bass combo (as here), creates compelling, reality-jarring music.

Alexander Hawkins has a pipe organ background (which is the ideal grounding for the Hammond – you can hear his churchy tones during this album’s playout) and exploits the potential of the C3 to the full – pulls out all the stops, in fact. From the interstellar sounds of the opening Outside In and slick be-bopisms of Decoy to some fine spine-juddering scronches interspersed in Shadows.

Rhythm team Noble and Edwards never let it rest (of course), interjecting – injecting, imposing, prompting, inspiring, kick-assing and generally motoring along in fine style. It takes great players at the top of their game to play solo and rhythm at one and the same time without compromising either role and Noble and Edwards together are able to effectively lock down a groove while using their own instruments (Noble’s cymbal work, Edwards bowing) to counterpoint Hawkins’ organ’s additive waveform synthesis, almost becoming tone generators themselves, so at times the three fuse in one, augmented, Hammond (hear the beautiful opening to track one).”


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