Its cover looks like a mid-’50s Miles Davis album on Blue Note, but don’t let it deceive you. It says nothing about the music that lies within. The trio of Alan Wilkinson on alto and baritone saxophones, John Edwards on bass and Steve Noble on drums is an improvising group, one with its roots firmly in free jazz rather than bop. Live at Café Oto is their second album, a follow-up to the fine studio-recorded Obliquity. Where that debut showcased the threesome’s pumped-up, high-energy approach to improvising, this one captures them in their natural habitat – in front of a live audience at London’s current venue of choice. Indeed, this trio first came together in public by happenstance: when Lol Coxhill couldn’t make a trio gig with Edwards and Noble at Wilkinson’s own club Flim Flam, and the saxophonist stepped into the breach… and the rest is history.
There are two tracks here, the thirty-two minute opener, “Spellbound,” followed by eight minutes of “Recoil.” If that sounds short on running time, wait ‘til you hear the music. This trio delivers concentrated chaos, so those forty minutes contain as much intensity as some albums twice as long. Compared to other improvisers, they are full-on all the time, without atmospheric silences, pregnant pauses or tentative exploratory negotiations.
The opening notes of “Spellbound” set the agenda. Silencing the crowd and grabbing their attention, Wilkinson unleashes a clarion-call blast that would shake the walls of Jericho, a blast that is simultaneously exciting and scary. Immediately joined by Edwards’ bowed bass and a barrage of cymbals from Noble, Wilkinson embarks on an unrelenting solo that is characterized by its logic and coherence; once he has laid down a phrase, he teases out its implications, plays with it and develops it further, leaving the listener with a sense of satisfaction.
But Wilkinson is not the sole focus. Edwards and Noble match him step for step, reacting to his playing and reflecting it back. So, when the saxophone reels out a staccato phrase, it is instantly returned by both bass and drums, leading all three players into a sympathetic exchange. Throughout, the bass and drums maintain a focus on their rhythmic role, never allowing the pace to flag and constantly driving things forward, to thrilling effect.
The shorter “Recoil” is just as propulsive, but acts as a refreshing contrast. It starts with Wilkinson’s voice issuing a series of declamatory phrases as uncompromising as any from his horns, sounding like a possessed man speaking in tongues. He offsets these vocal calls with saxophone responses, creating a dialogue with himself. Again, bass and drums propel him on, creating a piece that sounds sanctified. Unsurprisingly, through to the final fade-out, the crowd cheers. Obliqity is a hard album to follow. Oto manages to trump that ace.