"This is the second recording by the London Improvisers Orchestra and, as good as the first one was, this one is even better. What is most impressive about this aggregation is its democratic approach.
The two Proceedings here seem to indicate the extra year's existence. The group seems much more focused and well-directed. Ensemble sections tend to emerge and recede into the group as a whole much better than they did on the first LIO disc. Dingo's Creep is an improv for the saxophone section (six members strong) which starts from a series of deliberately pecked phrases from Evan Parker which gradually fill out into a sextet, in which the saxophonists slip unobtrusively in, around and through each other's lines. Music for Pianos, Percussion and Harp uses another subset of the orchestra to create a unique textural exploration. The first section consists of the pianists and Rhodri Davies' harp. With the pianists exploring the insides of the piano as much as the keyboard part, the pianos almost become harps themselves. When the percussionists enter, the piece becomes a barrage of wood, skin and strings. It's a well-modulated improvisation (as are all the unconducted improvisations).
The more formal pieces are no less interesting. Simon Fell's Morton's Mobile was inspired by a hearing of a (composed) work by Morton Feldman where the materials gave the music the impression of the flexibility of an improvisation. Fell attempted to use the same devices for this improvisers' group. The musicians carry it off with aplomb (at least to these ears). For Pat Thomas' Pulse Piece the orchestra is divided into subsections, each being assigned a different pulse (different from a beat or rhythm.. it has more to do with a musician's sense of flow) which at its apex creates a remarkable mass of orchestral tension.
The LIO has in a short time become one of the most formidable large groups working in music. They sound like an edgier version of what has now become the venerable London Jazz Composers Orchestra, with a flexible but surprisingly consistent membership, and a generous approach to compositional chores, they have created a remarkable thing: a contemporary big band capable of free improvisation as well as compositions and conductions. Let's hope the hearing continues even further."
ROBERT IANNAPOLLO - CADENCE 2001
"Highlights include both Proceeding 3 and Proceeding 4, much stronger than the two corresponding pieces found on the ensemble's first album. Weston's Concerto for Soft-Loud Key-Box is a beautiful piece of cynical humour as the orchestra mimics a more traditional version of itself. For How Can You Delude Yourself?, Alex Ward gave the orchestra two simple but counter-effective directives: whenever nothing is played, you must play something immediately; whenever more than two other musicians than yourself are playing, you must stop. The resulting piece evolves from timid staccatos to orchestral punches - very entertaining. The same comment applies to David Leahy's Prior to Freedom, where at one point all musicians are asked to play whatever they were playing before turning to the free improv scene. The resulting cacophony of Beethoven, rock, jazz standards, and miscellaneous bits is simply hilarious.
THE HEARING CONTINUES documents a much stronger ensemble, fully matured, who still follows the 'laboratory' concept but with better results. This album is simply one of the best examples of a creative orchestra and presents one of the highest talent-per-cubic-feet ratio in history."
FRANÇOIS COUTURE - ALL-MUSIC GUIDE 2001
"The Orchestra improvises piece for the most part within rules or directions set by individual members. Some inevitably work better than others, and it's not always easy to predict which from the instructions. A favourite for me is Concerto for Soft-Loud Key-Box, a piano concerto created and played by Veryan Weston and conducted by Steve Beresford in the manner and form of a classical concerto. Equally effective but strikingly different is Morton's Mobile by Simon H Fell (drawing elements from a piece by Morton Feldman) that calls on the musicians to improvise with minimal material. At the end of the day, however, the most lively and affective pieces are the freely improvised tracks, though the compositional devices offer fascinating oblique views of the Orchestra's collective consciousness and provoke welcome reappraisal of the art of improvisation."
GUS GARSIDE - RUBBERNECK 2002
Reviews of LIO CD Freedom of the City 2001
"If there is doubt that improvised music can be successfully performed by Large groups, then the dozen players, 10 strings + two electronic manipulators, that constitute Strings with & without Evan Parker put this conjecture to rest. Trick on the Speed of Making It is half an hour of beautifully sustained motion, serene even. The second piece, with the addition of EP, ups the ante, his free-flowing melodic soprano carrying the orchestra along with new urgency.
The grand finalé is the complete concert of the 39-strong London Improvisers Orchestra. Each of the conductors utilises the orchestra in a quite different manner: Dave Tucker (Flower of Flesh and Blood) establishes the organic p ower, the vibrant character of the orchestra. Gigantic! Simon H Fell's Morton's Mobile, in contrast, is closer to breathing, subdued, the feeling set by two pianos at extreme pianissimo instilling the hushed stasis the composer was seeking. Caroline Kraabel's Group Dynamics Around the Slide is unsettling in its triangulated conduction. Steve Beresford, a talented bloke, always investigating, brings out elements that are not always obvious with his Concerto for Sylvia Hallett, herself the soloist. Superb! Phil Wachsmann's Double Rainbow, a compelling rolling tumble finding crescendos, has a certain spatial urgency involving the conductor as an integral element in the orchestra. The spiky, scurrying drama of Knut Aufermann's Birthday Piece using number boards (1-80) with the players looking for their possible birth dates as a cue, causing an ever changing stream of random sub-groups. In Terry Day's unusual piece he simultaneously conducts and recites his poem/composition An If, But, To and When which he describes as being 'about Dagenhamness; of an attitude born from an impoverished cultural background.' An admission of his roots. Formidable. And the grand finale, apparently a tradition, the London Improvisers Orchestra left to their own devices for a 33-minute free improvisation. To quote Martin Davidson, 'The performance goes through a whole kaleidoscope of aural colours and feelings. It's all to do with listening as much as playing - one of the hallmarks of the London improvising scene.' Couldn't have said it better myself."
BILL SMITH - CODA 2002
"Unlike its companion release, SMALL GROUPS, this double CD only features two ensembles Strings with (and without) Evan Parker, and the London Improvisers Orchestra. In recent years, both have made very significant contributions both to the Emanem catalogue and to improvised music. As with the small groups release, this one provides a good way to sample these two ensembles, without investing in their own multiple disc releases. (Those who have already invested will doubtless want this new material.)
Large groupings are notoriously difficult settings for improvisation; at their worst, they can easily degenerate into a cacophony of individual voices with little or no relation to each other. In two very different ways, these ensembles have addressed and overcome that issue.
Strings with Evan Parker do so by using an instrumentation with its own internal unity; the strings here (including four violins, two cellos, two guitars and double bass) rarely sound in conflict and largely gel together. They sound quite different with and without Parker. Alone, they adopt a slowly evolving, laid-back approach that is occasionally punctuated by Hugh Davies' amplified strings and springs, or by Kaffe Matthews' reprocessed sampled sounds. When Parker joins them, the strings become more animated and energised, in response to the harsher sound of the saxophone.
LIO address the size issue mainly by ceding control to a series of composer/conductors drawn from their ranks. LIO grew out of Butch Morris's visit to London in 1997, in which he fulfilled the composer/conductor role with the large London Skyscraper grouping. Ever since, LIO have met and performed monthly, establishing a variable but largely stable personnel and a great sense of camaraderie. The musicians' familiarity with and respect for each other pays obvious dividends.
The compositions/conductions that the ensemble play are open to great differences in performance, as comparisons between the studio versions and these live renditions of Simon H. Fells Mortons Mobile and Knut Aufermann's Birthday Piece reveal. Rather than being prescriptive, the compositions provide organising principles that serve to tame the grouping's power and prevent cacophony. When they do let rip, as on sections of a recitation by Terry Day, they can be quite overwhelming. However, the closing piece is a long free improvisation that demonstrates the orchestra's particular ability to listen to each other and produce sensitive music without any composer/conductor."
JOHN EYLES - BBC 2002
"Emerging from a supportive community, FOTC's participants readily display a willingness to learn from each other as they explore the wealth of possible permutations within their number. For example, the String ensemble opening the LARGE GROUPS set with two length improvisations are sufficiently elastic in conception to incorporate Chris Burn's piano, Hugh Davies on amplified springs and strings, and Kaffe Matthews wielding laptop sampler from a seat in the audience, as well as nine string players. The opener unfurls gradually, a rolling continuum of small gestures with spots of turbulence and stretches of tranquillity, made strange in places by the mournful wailing of Sylvia Hallett's sarangi. For the second piece the string players are joined by Evan Parker, whose soprano sax spins and darts over a steady yet variegated surface of rubbed and plucked sounds.
The remainder of the double-album is given over to the flourishing London Improvisers Orchestra, a massive group that here channels huge energies through seven compositions for improvisers, the shifts into full improvisatory mode for an exhilarating final half-hour. There were 39 members in attendance, but skilled listening, shared understanding and shrew conducting keeps the juggernaut on course throughout. The depth of the total group sound is awesome. Reined in, as on Simon H Fell's Morton's Mobile, the LIO broods magnificently. The entire programme is invigorating, but Terry Day's recitation of his poem An if, but, to and when, punctuated by the return of the fabulous rampaging herd, is specially irresistible."
Reviews of the LIO CD Freedom of the City 2002 (Emanem 4090)
Excerpts from reviews:
"The 2002 festival recording opens with Simon H Fell's Too Busy for orchestra and pre-recorded sound, a requiem for drummer John Stevens. The pre-recorded material includes church bells, electronics, applause and Stevens speaking and playing solo. In recognisable Fell style, the music embraces disparate elements that coincide or collide in rich simultaneity. There's a marvellous translucent quality to quieter passages, like hearing through fine veils of layered sound, something like the hazy evocation that Charles Ives created with The Housatonic at Stockbridge. The voice of Terry Day, a drumming contemporary of Stevens, surfaces to pay tribute near the end.
Day's own Ruthless follows, a shrewd poetic weighing of fame and anonymity. He delivers a memorable performance, enacting the words, activating meaning, and the orchestra responds, repeatedly erupting into turbulence, the setting back into a light and agile percussive continuum. Steve Beresford's Concerto for Paul Rutherford is a 'conduction', with Beresford steering the improvising ensemble while trombonist Rutherford playes without external guidance of any kind. A tribute to Rutherford, Beresford's Concerto also acknowledges the springboard for LIO provided by Butch Morris.
Mamosa, a highly disciplined listening percussion trio featuring Tony Marsh, Louis Moholo and Mark Sanders marks mid-point in the programme. Paul Rutherford's Phone In, for orchestra and mobile phones, follows John Cage's advice that if you find a sound really irritating you should incorporate it into a piece of music. A tapestry of timbral contrasts, including sumptuous bass clarinets, double basses, violins, vibes, clipped trumpet tones, drums, chattering saxophones and razor-edged electronics, suffers unseemly interruption from trite mobile ringtones.
Electric guitarist Dave Tucker's Giallo is a highly effective ad hoc conduction that builds layers of sustained tones gradually and inexorably from hush to the brink of pandemonium. The set closes with violinist Philipp Wachsmann's Fanfare for LIO, alternating lean strings and ebullient wind instruments while making the audience participate in an exploration of shifting moods and spatial relationships."
JULIAN COWLEY - THE WIRE 2003
"The seven pieces presented here have been taken from the performance at the 2002 Freedom of the City festival. Not strong enough to top the studio set THE HEARING CONTINUES, this album still lives up to expectations and delivers a hearty 77 minutes of focused group improvisation to prove once more than this ensemble is unique (yes, the star-studded roaster speaks for itself, although it goes way beyond that) and that large-scale structured improvisation is possible after all. Simon H. Fell's Too Busy adds pre-recorded sounds to the orchestra, but the blend is seamless and the piece ranks as a highlight - thanks to the laboratory that is the LIO, Fell is becoming a first-rate composer for improvisers. Ruthless features an energetic Terry Day spitting out a poem about punk attitude and the temptation of fame. The piece gets almost violently eventful. A bit disappointing is the Concerto for Paul Rutherford, part of Steve Beresford's ongoing series of improvised 'conductions' with featured soloist. The trombonist develops a nice parallel discourse, but somehow the piece lacks some spirit. Rutherford¹s own Phone In is much more interesting, and not only because it takes a bite at the existence of mobile phones by using them - actually, the short phone episode two-thirds in is its weakest feature. The piece has stamina, movement and wittiness, all core qualities of the LIO. Dave Tucker's unusually quiet Giallo, essentially an 11-minute crescendo, also deserves mention: however simple the idea, Tucker leads the orchestra through it with brio, reaching a riveting finale."
FRANÇOIS COUTURE - ALL-MUSIC GUIDE 2003
"Glance at the personnel on this record and the range of instruments they bring to bear. Expect a thing of great power and beauty and you won't be disappointed. Listen to the way that the softness of the strings follows the slabs of sound on Simon H Fell's Too Busy. Or how the strings, horns and electronics blur on Terry Day Ruthless to create new tone colours and shapes. On the latter, Day assumes the persona of the demagogue-preacher, as he howls his 'punk' poem as the orchestra thunders behind him.
Steve Beresford contributes Concerto for Paul Rutherford to welcome the trombonist's return to health. Utilising Butch Morris' 'conduction' approach, it's most notable as a masterclass in bravura improvisation but the combination of strings and soprano saxes and later the lilting sound of the orchestra rising in unison behind Rutherford are as lovely as any composition. Rutherford's own Phone In sees him take on that 'bloody nuisance' of the modern world, the mobile phone. On this showing, the Luddites have it. On Mamosa, three of our most gifted percussionists unite in improvisation, and later Dave Tucker's minimalist piece Giallo evokes a quiet, brooding melancholia in tribute to a friend. Philipp Wachsmann's Fanfare closes with appropriate joyful majesty. It's a record that reveals the sound and robust health of London's improv scene, but also how improvisation and contemporary classical composition continue to inform and fertilise each other."
DUNCAN HEINING - JAZZWISE 2003
"With the orchestra's latest release and others, it's more about the sum of the individualistic parts that round out the base musical concepts. The artists' institute colourific musical scenarios, in a manner unlike the traditional jazz or symphonic, orchestral implementations. Consequently, the element of surprise stands as an inherent attribute throughout, where various artists conduct the orchestra on a per track basis. On Concerto for Paul Rutherford - loosely conducted by Steve Beresford - the listener will notice booming accents, contrapuntal statements by the strings section and polytonal textures. Here, Rutherford weaves in and around his band-mates, via a sequence of thorny lines, interspersed with odd harmonic manoeuvres and more. Other highlights include, a delightful percussion trio improvisation by Tony Marsh, Louis Moholo, and Mark Sanders titled Mamosa.
One of the entertaining aspects of this production is rooted within the listener's ability to hone in on certain sections of the orchestra. Sort of a mind-bending aural experience, strangely enhanced by a smattering of pre-recorded sounds, blithe vocals and use of mobile phones. No doubt, the creative process includes subtle stabs at humour to coincide with the interrelationships of the soloists' respective inventions. It's all integrated into a rather cohesive package. (Recommended.)"
GLENN ASTARITA - JAZZ REVIEW 2003
"A wonderful selection of great musicians, LIO is here captured warts and all during a live performance that's as good as you can manage to guess: in fact, the big problem of this kind of setting is that many of the nuances present in the music run the risk being lost in the instrumental mass - and the theatre reverberation doesn't help, of course. That said, there are a couple of fantastic moments that alone are worth this CD, the top being a fantastic Concerto for Paul Rutherford (conceived by Steve Beresford) where the master trombonist draws lots of beautiful sketches, his instrument indicating trajectories and concepts to the very few who will be able to reach such heights. Very nice segments come also from Phone in (and the mobile phones, the great idea for the piece, are barely audible...here's what I meant before) and the final Fanfare for LIO where audience participation is direct. What I'm sure I can affirm, the sound of these souls never retreats into a shell but strongly radiates warmth and technical prowess at the same moment."
MASSIMO RICCI - TOUCHING EXTREMES 2003
"The most striking pieces come at the beginning: Simon Fell's Too Busy starts with a burst of frenetic brass and moves through passages of sorrowful violins, Vareseian orchestral textures, and manipulated tapes of John Stevens' voice and bell sounds, in the service of an homage to the late drummer, while Terry Day's Ruthless is a stormy brew of shouted poetry and ensemble swelling on the subject of punk. Percussionists Tony Marsh, Louis Moholo and Mark Sanders get nine of the disc's 77 minutes for a strikingly empathetic and sonically resourceful collective improvisation. Elsewhere, players such as Evan Parker, Lol Coxhill and Paul Rutherford are on hand, but this disc focuses on ensemble work rather than individuals, although Rutherford gets to muse at length on top of the orchestra in Steve Beresford's Concerto conduction."
PAT BUZBY - SIGNAL TO NOISE 2003
"Leaderless but hardly rudderless, a massive entity which takes over a London pub once a month, the London Improvisers Orchestra is an ensemble which has limitless resources of talent and thanks to their method could probably do a CD a week for the foreseeable future if their fans had the money to buy them. This is a quick overview of their most recent CD release, FREEDOM OF THE CITY 2002, and an appreciation of their willingness to keep on in the rapidly diminishing arena where new music is welcome. The first thing I like about this outfit is though perhaps they do not have the compositional tidiness of the often equally adventurous and late lamented London Jazz Composers Orchestra, their textures are all their own and after four years of existence they are about as far out as I have heard anyone get in a classical orchestra structure.
This CD gives a very solid idea of what the LIO is capable of and how it maintains its uniqueness. Certainly the improvising talents of all the members are evident upon listening, to say nothing of how well they follow one another and react to performance motions that their fellows haven't yet made; in fact, many I've played this for refuse to believe that literally nothing here is written down, that the compositions really are 'group compositions' or 'conductions,' if you will. A musician with some cogent ideas will stand before the rest of the group and assist them in directing the improv through hand gestures, pre-recorded material and cues.
The opening Too Busy here, a Simon H. Fell conduction, is typical of the group's more technical side. Dedicated to the late John Stevens, Fell's memoriam opens with a manic section for horns - an Irish funeral, perhaps, and you've never heard the like - and then cools down into a recitation for the fine string section, percussion, horns, and all in sequence, all beautifully phrased and executed. Funny how seamless it all sounds. Possibly having a fellow musician at the temporary helm gives all in the pit a confidence they may not feel otherwise, and an 'improvised conduction' can theoretically call on a wider palette of sounds anyway, as a classical conductor is channelling the thoughts of one person while at the LIO it's hardly a free-for-all -well, now and again, maybe - but neither is it a dictatorship. Thus, the possibilities for filigree and detail work are literally endless. Anyone will tell you that it doesn't matter how off-the-wall the composer thinks he's getting. If he or she did their job properly it will hang together in the ear. And this does, in its exquisite sense of segue and landscaping, especially in the closing pre-recorded digital rearrangement of the church bells. Beautifully done, and a fitting send-off for one of the mid-20th century's premier drummers.
Vocalist Terry Day, in his liner notes about his own conduction Ruthless, has a right to talk about punk rock and how early on it refused the tyranny of technological prowess; Day himself has a brawling squawk of a voice not far off that of John Lydon or Kevin Coyne. Reading his poem about the horrors as opposed to the necessity of anonymity, Day banks down and tamps up the roaring furnace that is the LIO in full cry. Not a technician, he knows how to get out of the group what's needed anyway. Good silly fun.
Concerto for Paul Rutherford makes me think of how Duke Ellington would take a soloist in his band and write a ditty for him specifically. Steve Beresford wields a large slapping paint brush of a sound to display Rutherford's trombone against, and the result is a great heaving mass of eddies and smears, raindrops a nd floodtides. Against musical abstract expressionism at its most obvious, Rutherford's trombone blats and flurries, cycles and folds in on itself. Some definite moment-by-moment brilliance here.
Mamosa is a treat as well, an improv for the three drummers: Louis Moholo, Tony Marsh and Mark Sanders. Voracious listeners all, it's clear: the snare and cymbal/gong work cascades, pitters and describes these patterns in the air I simply can't come up with a fancy simile for. Arresting, joyful and declamatory.
Rutherford may have turned out to be the de facto star of this CD but it most probably wasn't planned that way; his Phone In is a lengthy wingding mainly for woodwinds that undulates and bounces like a suitcase full of snakes. Slowly the strings and brass meander in, and we're about to cross over into Robert Browning Overture territory -an evocative interlude for piano and clarinet aside when a slow tidal wave of cell phone noises begins to overwhelm the proceeedings. Interrupted at every turn, the instruments attempt to coexist with the intruders but as they have nothing to say (except the standard ring tone, Old MacDonald and Jesu Joy of man's Desiring, all quite maddening in this atmosphere) - even the implacable bass clarinet, at the end, shrugs its shoulders and gives up. There's a humour here in how a vigorous conversation among programmatic and structural equals in this piece is purposely interrupted and decimated by technical gewgaws which we've come to think are so important, some of us won't switch them off when we go see a concert. Those who don't may imply by so doing that maybe art isn't as important to us as we think it is. In which case, why not stay home, because if we don't, Phone In may be the result. Frustrating, but for a reason. After all, Old MacDonald is puerile enough. When it interrupts Evan Parker it's practically an actionable offense.
Guitarist Dave Tucker's Giallo is diverting in that it begins in what Tucker in his liner notes refers to as a 'minimalist' state, grows slowly over ten minutes through added instruments and twists and shifts into a great swelling crescendo of a wavering drone. But as this is a 'conduction,' not a composition, and as a result there is a treat for the closely listening auditor: a wealth of tonal arrows moving within the envelope of sound created, you will hear a sense of detail within said envelope that few composers could write out in their music rooms.
We end here with Philip Wachsmann's Fanfare for the LIO, a fun if messy close to the CD, which nicely rounds out this program with more tendrils and shoots Roman-candling in all directions.
As I may have implied, I apologise for not being able to single out many of the players in the group, but since it is an Improvisers Orchestra, as opposed to an Improviser's, unison passages are almost always the rule. The LIO's a freight train with many moving parts, and sometimes it slows down to let you admire the scenery. Just not always. See you at the Red Rose the next time I'm in London!"
KEN EGBERT - TONE CLUSTERS 2003
Reviews of LIO CD "Responses, Reproduction and Reality", Emanem 4110
Excerpts from reviews:
"There is not a single disappointment here, as each piece extensively explores and exploits the possibilities offered by this magnificent improvisers' pool. Dave Tucker, Simon H. Fell, Caroline Kraabel, David Leahy, Pat Thomas and Philipp Wachsmann take turns conducting the behemoth, sometimes using creative forms of scores, at other times simply moulding the sound matter in the heat of the moment. Opening the program, Tucker's Wit's End features an instrument this reviewer had personally never heard in a free improv context yet: the steel pan, played by Orphy Robinson in an eventful controlled chaos of a piece that has nothing to do with the Caribbean. Fell's Improvisation Panels (1) is not as intriguing as his other works for the LIO, sounding a bit too much like building-blocks composition, but it still provides a nice textural moment. Kraabel has been contributing game-like pieces ever since the group's first recording; her Hearing Reproduction 5 asks from the musicians to reproduce as precisely as possible the sounds of the featured soloist, the arguably inimitable vocalist Jaap Blonk, and the results are hilarious. Wachsmann's Fantasy and Reality may follow more serious guidelines, but it turns out to be a highly entertaining piece, rich in sharp contrasts, odd instrument pairings and simply fascinating group playing. RESPONSES, REPRODUCTION & REALITY may be the best place to start in the LIO's discography. It synthesizes all the qualities found in the previous albums."
FRANÇOIS COUTURE - ALL-MUSIC GUIDE 2005
"The LIO is a phenomenon that's worth documenting in itself, as an index of depth and diversity of improvising musicians in the city at present. Intriguing for example to hear BJ Cole's pedal steel glimmering through the 2004 grouping. And the music is, as ever, full of interest as ways are found to organise collective expression out of an assembly of 30 uncompromisingly independent players. Conducting is Butch Morris's legacy to the ensemble, individuals taking turns to impose degrees of regulation, shaping and monitoring the large group's mobility and density through actions, ideas and even scores. For all that, the track that on initial listening has most appeal is Proceeding 6, freely improvised within its own unambiguous terms of reference. Then again, maybe the discipline of being orchestrated through conduction reverberates through that effective piece of instant composing."
JULIAN COWLEY - THE WIRE 2005
"With over thirty musicians, the orchestra's creative ways are partly signified by call and response dialogues, layered horns, and multicoloured contrasts. Effectively, the artists pursue a stop/start and regenerative process via a community-minded approach. Speckliing their notes with stabs at humour and wit, the musicians also pursue brash cadenzas with asymmetrical percussion grooves. Yet the instrumentalists are apt to splinter off into sub-themes. Part of the fun resides within the fact that they don't always perform as a group. It's akin to a theatrical component, where actors enter and exit a given scene. On Responses, the horns section evokes a sense of yearning, while on Fantasy and Reality, the overall muse is marked by weaving horns and subliminal exchanges, like Evan Parker's oscillating soprano sax lines. Nonetheless, they render a gamut of emotive qualities, as many of us have come to expect. And it's another cleverly articulated entry into this unit's gravitating sequence of musical revelations."
GLENN ASTARITA - ALL ABOUT JAZZ 2005
"First up is Wit's End by guitarist Dave Tucker. Here the conduction weaves features for various solo voices against the full ensemble. There is a symmetry that is created, framing the mounting activity with duos by Paul Rutherford and Veryan Weston to open the piece, and Steve Beresford and pedal steel player B J Cole to bring things to a close. In between, the improvisation lurches and jolts from hyperactive density to quieter pools of small-group interaction. Here, the textures of Orphy Robinson's steel pans, Cole's pedal steel, and Adam Bohman's electronics work particularly well against the swirling timbres of the ensemble.
Pat Thomas' Ism also uses the strategy of featured soloists; letting John Butcher, Lol Coxhill, and Alan Tomlinson loose over the energy whipped up by churning drums of Tony Marsh, Louis Moholo-Moholo, and Mark Sanders. Carolyn Kraabel's Hearing Reproduction 5 plays the ensemble off the input of vocalist Jaap Blonk, setting them free against his wild ululations, gurgles, shouts, and glottal splats. Bassist David Leahy's Responses takes a similar approach, with members tossing off musical fragments which are completed by other members, building a collective sense of attack and decay.
Simon Fell's Composition No. 67: Improvisation Panels (1) takes a different approach. Here Fell created a text-based score outlining general instructions for particular sonic events within the piece. He then used this score to conduct the ensemble, cueing the order of events, combinations of instruments, and dynamics. His mastery of structuring sound and silence comes out from the beginning, building up areas of growling trombone, glissed and plucked strings, and reed smears. Over the course of nine minutes, Fell contrasts sections of motion and stasis with blaring intensity and calm, creating one of the disc's highlights.
Proceedings 6, the free improvisation on this recording, is a bit less successful than the composed pieces. But even here, it is clear that this is a group that has spent a significant amount of time working together. It is striking how symphonic the improvisation sounds as the piece develops in sections around the gathering forces of the ensemble's various parts. This was clearly honed playing pieces like Phil Wachsmann's Fantasy & Reality, which works abstract tone clusters across the ensemble, developing a slowly evolving form full of swirling detail and constantly wavering densities."
MICHAEL ROSENSTEIN - ONE FINAL NOTE 2005
"The LIO plays monthly at the Red Rose, more often than many celebrated small groups, certainly often enough to ensure that it sounds genuinely orchestral whilst implementing dramatically different strategies. Never more so than on Simon Fell's conduction, which bears the paradoxical name Composition No. 67: Improvisation Panels (1), and proceeds so inevitably that one might think it was completely scored. No one will get that notion from Hearing Reproduction 5, in which Caroline Kraabel bids the orchestra to exactly imitate the utterences of last-minute recruit Jaap Blonk. Give 'em credit, they never flinch, and the results overcome my usually severe reservations about improvising vocalists. But my favourite moment comes from the uncharacteristically expressionistic introduction to Ism, in which conductor Pat Thomas induces saxophonist John Butcher to ride the surf of three energetic drummers."
BILL MEYER - SIGNAL TO NOISE 2005
Reviews of LIO CD Freedom of the City 2005 (Emanem 4216)
Excerpts from reviews:
"An eagerly anticipated annual release, the Freedom of the City CD is an essential complement to the live festival, providing the opportunity to check recalled perceptions against objective evidence and to fill in unavoidable gaps, but mostly - whether or not one was there - to catch some great music.
At the live event, my favourite performances were the two trios of Paul Rutherford with John Edwards & Mark Sanders, and Alan Wilkinson with Phil Durrant & Sanders (again). Listening to the CD reinforces that view. It is rare to hear Rutherford just with bass and drums, and the two tracks here leave me hoping this trio records a full album; they sound made for each other. The inclusion of bass and drums adds variety and depth to Rutherford's solo playing without unduly constraining his soaring, swooping style.
Alan Wilkinson can always be relied on to give an uncompromising, committed performance. Here, Mark Sanders' drumming matches it, serving to drive him even harder. Phil Durrant's laptop is an unpredictable element, throwing in whines and white noise that spur the music on, as well as providing tranquil interludes.
Phillipp Wachsmann improvised to a video by Kjell Bjorgeengen, one that his music affected. Live, it was easy to get too involved in the visuals without fully appreciating the music. Just listening to Wachsmann without seeing the video is a revelation; his playing is a tour de force in which he employs a battery of techniques and effects to build up a kaleidoscopic piece layer by layer.
The London Improvisers Orchestra has long been a highlight of the festival and their three short pieces here emphasise the variety that is possible when different conductors (Simon H. Fell, Caroline Kraabel, Dave Tucker) take control. Kraabel's piece, Hearing Reproduction 7, is a fascinating attempt to repeatedly get players to replicate exactly what they played at the start of the piece. The result is a short, focused piece; it's hard to believe it was improvised by a thirty-strong ensemble.
Most of all, this CD re-emphasises the unbroken high standard of music heard at the festival. Truly, there was never a dull moment."
JOHN EYLES - ALL ABOUT JAZZ 2006
"There are four trio performances on the set, and it's instructive how different the dynamic is in each of them. The opening trio pits the slippery Paul Rutherford with / against / at an angle to the well-attested John Edwards / Mark Sanders rhythm section: the trombonist's multidirectional and superbly deadpan lines engage only selectively with the scuttling activity of a rhythm section that insists on chasing down every idea right now. With Wilkinson / Durrant / Sanders the saxophonist is the lynchpin, hooking up in traditional free jazz fashion with Sanders but also matching up the graininess of overblown sax to Durrant's buzzes and shrills. It's an intriguing insection of tear-the-house-down free jazz with laptop electronics, even if the contradiction between freely pulsed drums and pulseless (or neurotically vibrating) electronics tends to be highlighted rather than resolved. The performance by Sylvia Hallett, Caroline Kraabel and Veryan Weston has a dappled, teasing quality, the notes darting around like minnows; voices and instruments swap places or double each other so often you can hardly tell where one begins and the other ends. My favourite trio, though, is Steve Beresford, Joe Williamson and Roger Turner, who turn in what's unmistakably a jazz performance, marked by crisp, quick-witted volleys between Turner and Beresford (who at times sounds like a pared-down, lightning-fast Paul Bley) and Williamson's oblique bass work, which flips back and forth rapidly between patient, broken walking bass and roiling, near-directionless masses of bowing.
There are three tracks from the London Improvisers Orchestra: Caroline Kraabel's Hearing Reproduction 7 is a conceptual piece in which the entire orchestra repeatedly 'rewinds' itself like a tape-machine - not really a particularly satisfying piece of music in itself, but I don't think that was the point - while the others are impromptu conductions by Simon Fell and Dave Tucker. Fell's adheres to the traditional orchestral section divisions of strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion in order to bring them into rather ominous dialogue, while Tucker's is more concerned with setting up sharply varied backgrounds behind featured soloists.
The remaining tracks on the album are duo performances. A soprano sax / flute duet between Lol Coxhill and Neil Metcalfe has a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't flavour: ideas are discarded almost as rapidly as they surface, at least until halfway into A Right in Phoenica, when Coxhill switches from wry snippets to reeling lyricism and the music finds a groove that carries them almost to the piece's end. Only one side of the interaction between violinist Phil Wachsmann and video artist Kjell Bjorgeengen is directly audible on CD, though Wachsmann's clear-cut juxtapositions of mood and texture are audibly the result of an unheard audio/visual dialogue. The opening minutes are a superb display of the violinist's wit and balletic grace, an essay of sorts in mixed-messages improvisation: a conventionally beautiful, silken tone, for instance, may be applied to a hopelessly out of tune phrase. The closing sections are something else again: meticulously constructed passages of tenuous beauty or scrabbling density, the electronics overlays at various times suggesting Reichian minimalism, Hardanger fiddle, or even a quiet church organ."
NATE DORWARD - PARISTRANSATLANTIC 2006
"For me, several combinations stand out, primarily because I wouldn’t have imagined them or thought they’d work. The trio of trombonist Paul Rutherford, percussionist Mark Sanders, and bassist John Edwards kicks off the comp, laying down something so close to jazz as to be shocking. Rutherford, always hilarious underneath all those chops, begins to slide and swoop, interjecting bebop flutters and the rhetorical honks of freedom he pioneered some 40 years ago. Sanders and Edwards glide along, brushwork and quasi-walk being the order of the day, but in the second track of this trio’s diptych, a more 'contemporary' mode of expression is evident, conjuring images of the first Iskra project in all its egalitarianism.
Sylvia Hallett’s work is too broad in scope for any kind of convincing summary. As comfortable in song craft as in the structured spontaneity of 'free' improv, her solo disc for Emanem, WHITE FOG, is one of the label’s best and, so far, Hallett’s most consistently satisfying statement. She has performed sections of that seminal disc during solo sets on FOTC compilations past, but on 2005, she is joined by Caroline Kraabel (saxophone and voice) and Veryan Weston (piano). The results go some long way toward putting FOG in the shade; I’m not sure I’ve heard a group that communicated, listened, and assimilated better than these three, as they produce something that crosses Ligeti with an early minimalist of your choice, eschewing only the pulse patterns. Weston is superb in many settings, but he outdoes himself here, choosing every note perfectly, blending seamlessly with voices, violin, and saxophone, the combinations producing astonishing unity from seemingly disparate source material.
Another trio, Alan Wilkinson, Phil Durrant, and Mark Sanders, surprised me the most. Any skepticism I had about the combination of Sanders’ percussion and Durrant’s electronics was quickly dispelled; the two forces merged so completely that it took me a full minute to be able to differentiate between hi-hat and electrotwitter. Wilkinson’s post-Ayler exhortations exhibit infinite control, even in the throws of passionate expression.
There are so many more things to talk about: The LIO conductions, where they obviously have huge fun, not to mention the astonishing and gorgeous Wachsmann piece with video projection, studies in minimalist tonal scope and maximalist timbre. Needless to say, this compilation lives up to the reputation deservedly enjoyed by its predecessors, and fans of this music needn’t hesitate. It would also make a fantastic introduction for someone new to the many riches this vibrant scene has to offer."
MARC MEDWIN - ONE FINAL NOTE 2006
"Due to lack of funds, the 2005 edition of the FOTC festival was reduced to a single-day event, whose testament is this double CD shining with beauty coming from everywhere. Insurrectional quarrels seem to spring out of the first trio, with John Edwards on double bass and Mark Sanders on percussion tumbling over inflammable balloons propelled by Paul Rutherford's trombone, up to those skies where maimed poetry and uninhibited melodicism gleam all day long. Sylvia Hallett, Caroline Kraabel and Veryan Weston (violin, alto sax and piano plus their voices) suffocate joy in a repartition of nostalgic surprises, their grainy atmospheres similar to the dust covering an ancient gramophone trying to play the only melted vinyl that it wants to accept, with the result of evoking sleeping gnomes from the attic. Underlining Kjell Bjorgeengen's videos, the electronically treated violin of Philipp Wachsmann weaves the concrete illusions and oblique fantasies of a kid practicing his grip on a future that's not going to be made of symphonies and quartets, rather of bird watching and progressive isolation.
London Improvisers Orchestra - a 30-piece supergroup this time - follows theoretical dreams of non-conformity: led by Simon H. Fell, it muddies Pendereckian lamentations with percussive clattering and apparent contrary motions; under the guide of Caroline Kraabel, a stop-and-go game of micro-counterpoint is put into action for an all-too-brief enjoyment; finally, Dave Tucker's The Dynamix reminded me of those fantastic East-European cartoons where every character's personality is highlighted by an instrument or a combination amidst continuous changes of perspective.
Only Steve Beresford, Joe Williamson and Roger Turner try to drive their musicianship around jazz: their piano/bass/drums trio sounds like frying popcorn in a room that visitors always forget to visit, yet they finish their performance with a serious spurt of gorgeous free music. Flute and soprano sax (Neil Metcalfe and Lol Coxhill in a two-movement utopian conversation) are the sole protagonists in a sunny world where good ideas not only have the right to exist, but also find their place in the mind of the ruling ones. Finally, Phil Durrant's laptop's shrieks and purrs carve their niche in the middle of furious exchanges between the saxophones of Alan Wilkinson - in torrential post-Archie Shepp eruptive power - and, again, the great Mark Sanders in a frenzy of communicative emotion. A fit conclusion for this indispensable set."
MASSIMO RICCI - TOUCHING EXTREMES 2006
"FREEDOM OF THE CITY's small-group improv offerings are new but fall into familiar categories: energy music (the trio of saxophonist Alan Wilkinson, laptop Phil Durrant and drummer Mark Sanders, with Wilkinson matching the aggression of Durrant's set of shrill noises), elegant, classical-tinged improv (violinist Sylvia Hallett, alto saxophonist Caroline Kraabel and pianist Veryan Weston), a multi-media experiment (violinist Philipp Wachsmann interacting with the video effects of Kjell Bjorgeengen in a 24-minute solo statement) and several sets of ambling, conversational improv. The opening trio provides an especially strong example of the latter - while drummer Sanders drives it along, trombonist Paul Rutherford and bassist John Edwards trade off lead and accompaniment ably. As with prior Freedom Of The City sets, the advantages of free improv (constant conversation, unusual textures, the abundance of information) parry with the risks (the feeling that five minutes may go by with only one minute's worth of ideas emerging). The short pieces by the London Improvisers Orchestra stand out the most; Simon Fell, with his first conduction on record, creates a piece grounded by bass clarinet drones, while the other sections provide fluttering statements on top, winding up with as much organization as many through-composed pieces, while Dave Tucker's conduction is looser but features several amusing ensemble exclamations (like Ornette Coleman hijacking Benny Goodman's band) and the set's only extended glimpse of Evan Parker. Kraabel's Hearing Reproduction 7 features her ensemble playing a few seconds of music before Kraabel cues a halt and then has them attempt to recreate it. It's a pity this piece lasts only two minutes."
PAT BUZBY - SIGNAL TO NOISE 2007
Reviews of LIO CD with Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, "Separately and Together", Emanem 4219:
Excerpts from reviews:
"Given the number of musicians involved listeners will be surprised at the coherence and delicacy of much of the music here. As is so often, the pieces mainly consist of 'conductions' wherein one musician directs the orchestra, giving an overall form and structure to each piece - at least, that is the intention. So, Philipp Wachsmann's On the point of influence closes with a long restrained duo for cello and bass, while Ashley Wales' Study for Oppy Wood is an atmospheric tone poem.
In addition to such conductions, there are free improvisations by both ensembles. The LIO use improvisations as bridges between their conductions. The GIO include one long improvisation, Big ideas, images and distorted facts. The GIO argue strongly that large ensembles can freely improvise without degenerating into cacophony - 'the cocktail party effect'; this piece provides compelling evidence that they are right.
On the improvisations, it is fascinating to hear how controlled the players are when given their freedom; far from producing a free-for-all, the improvisations are highly focussed, frequently achieving a poignant fragile beauty through collective negotiation. Indeed, it is ironic that in several conductions the conductor actively encourages a free-for-all - goading the beast rather than taming it - the complete opposite of the original intention of conduction. So, in Hive Life, Alison Blunt's conduction, in addition to some music that (thrillingly) borders on anarchy, the string players are encouraged to use their voices, which they lustily do, at times sounding like a mutinous crew or an angry mob. It is only fair to add that this conduction also contains a prolonged section of subdued atmospheric playing from the saxophones; Blunt was clearly in control throughout! On Too late, too late, it's ever so late, Terry Day incites anarchy to accompany his recitation on global warming.
The final three long conductions, on which the two orchestras combine, involve over forty players. This is a remarkable exercise in coherence considering the fact that this is a combined ensemble, of two separate orchestras with quite different sounds. Again, the overall restraint is commendable, but when the full power of all the players is occasionally unleashed the effects are awesome... made all the more awesome by the contrast with the more subdued passages. This is most starkly illustrated in 1 + 1 = Different, a joint conduction by Glaswegians Una MacGlone and Raymond MacDonald, in which a huge central crescendo is immediately followed by near silence... that then builds to another barnstorming climax.
The entire two discs are a powerful argument for the continuing appeal of large improvising ensembles and of free improvisation, here both thrilling and surprising in equal measures."
JOHN EYLES - ALL ABOUT JAZZ 2008