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V/A - Free Zone Appleby 2003

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Artist: V/A

Album: Free Zone Appleby 2003

Label: Psi

Review date: Sep. 29, 2004

Last summer, an octet of world-class European improvisers converged upon the quiet English hamlet of Appleby. Their conclave, organized by saxophonist Evan Parker, was actually a follow-up to festivities staged the previous year (and also released on his Psi imprint). Differing from the earlier outing, the ensemble cast on Free Zone Appleby 2003 teeters between strings and winds consisting of: Tony Coe (clarinet), John Edwards (bass), Alan Hacker (clarinet), Sylvia Hallett (violin, voice, sarangi), Marcio Mattos (bass), Phillip Wachsmann (violin, electronics), Kenny Wheeler (flugelhorn) and Parker opting only to uncap his tenor saxophone. Positioned within the spaciously dry acoustics of St. Michaels Church, the musicians have lots of room to entice and provoke both each other and the audience.

Fourteen free improvisations clock in collectively at just less than eighty minutes. The pieces are broken down into duos, quartets and quintets. Titles correspond to a simple coding system of letters, numbers and initials (i.e. “S4/TC-1” translates to “four strings/Tony Coe-first piece). The participants never appearing together en mass, nearly all feature just the strings or strings plus a single horn. One notable exception occurs late in the program when the winds turn the tables, cornering Edwards by his lonesome and drafting him as counterpoint cantilever. The variety of component combinations coupled with the comparative brevity of most pieces yields a program of music that strolls along quite quickly and carries plenty of scrolling scenery.

The most surprising, and by proxy revelatory, participants are the two clarinetists. Coe is an elder improv statesman in Europe having been on the scene longer than Parker and contributed to scores sessions playing everything from dyed-in-the-wool Dixieland swing to the esoteric regions of chamber improv that are the order of the hour here. Hearing him leap licorice stick-first into the serrated thicket of slivery pitches whittled by the strings is a memorable thrill. Hacker holds a rep possibly even more prestigious, as one of the most accomplished interpreters of Mozart in the world and an academician with a steamer trunk full of accolades. Both men adapt expertly to free improv argots of their partners and their duet together on “W2-2,” a lush braiding of chalumeau flutters and slippery glisses begs for further elaboration beyond its three minutes.

Old friends Parker and Wheeler have their own chance to scrimmage with the strings as well as converse in isolation on the appropriately titled “W2-1.” Parker puckers his embouchure with a string of clipped percussive reed pops while Wheeler mixes terse blurts with more measured chains of brittle brassy notes. Soon the colloquy opens up, and the two are running a race to see who can be the most loquacious. The strings-only pieces, of which there are five, are engaging too, but somehow less so than those where the winds are enlisted. Several bog down a bit under worried fiddling and capricious scuttling, but when they coalesce the results are usually entrancing. The bowed constituents, Hallett and Wachsmann mostly, often sound like pressurized flumes of air escaping from a pile of punctured radial tires. Edwards’ puckish plucks take on the elastic girth of enormous industrial sized rubber bands, snapping and ricocheting with sternum-rattling force.

Disc and track lengths are the only nagging complaints I can lodge at this set. I found myself pining for more once the final number ended. While the 2002 edition seemed slightly over-stuffed at two discs this one strangely feels a bit too abridged crammed onto one.

By Derek Taylor

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