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Mar 19, 2015

Alison Rayner Quintet, November 2014: Feeling Necessity, the Mother of Invention (by Gary Bayley)


In Exeter’s Princesshay area you will find no bands in the coffee shops or restaurants. Instead every three months the centre management audition and issue permits to musicians who then take their economic chances in the hypothermic wind-tunnels. These opportunities for musicians, externally  redefined as buskers, were described to me by the management as ‘lucrative’. Enter here the multiple perspectives of whether music is a diet that should be preserved in all its forms by grants and sponsorship, or a lean-mean animal that should adapt daily to its changing environment so as to stay healthy. We have now entered the realm of cultural politics described by Professor George McKay in Circular Breathing and by Dr Duncan Heining in Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers, and Free Fusioneers. Alison Rayner’s place on the spectrum is, as she told us: ‘If you don’t organise things then nothing happens’. Spookily, as the zeitgeist tends to be, London’s Blow the Fuse has developed as a musicians self-help group at the same time but independently of Exeter’s Message From ...; both are about getting the things done you want done by doing-it-yourself...
Posted by: Tim

In Exeter’s Princesshay area you will find no bands in the coffee shops or restaurants. Instead every three months the centre management audition and issue permits to musicians who then take their economic chances in the hypothermic wind-tunnels. These opportunities for musicians, externally redefined as buskers, were described to me by the management as ‘lucrative’. Enter here the multiple perspectives of whether music is a diet that should be preserved in all its forms by grants and sponsorship, or a lean-mean animal that should adapt daily to its changing environment so as to stay healthy. We have now entered the realm of cultural politics described by Professor George McKay in Circular Breathing and by Dr Duncan Heining in Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers, and Free Fusioneers. Alison Rayner’s place on the spectrum is, as she told us: ‘If you don’t organise things then nothing happens’. Spookily, as the zeitgeist tends to be, London’s Blow the Fuse has developed as a musicians self-help group at the same time but independently of Exeter’s Message From ...; both are about getting the things done you want done by doing-it-yourself.

We have been here before. Lomax describes Jelly Roll Morton as:
... not moaning the blues, the lost and homeless, the freezing-ground-was-my-folding-bed last night blues, he was not protesting against the way things were run, because within himself he accepted Jim Crow, economic inequality, frustration, and his own eternal insecurity, as part of the natural order of things.

This acceptance is not indifference to the macroscopic world, but a reaction to reform conventions in the cultural jazz-establishment-world rather than to challenge party-politics. Mike Westbrook has confirmed this in his response to an interviewer’s suggestion that his work has been political:
This often comes up, and I’m not sure how much it related to the wider, sort of political, scene but within the musical scene as it were there was a sense of change happening really. Bursting through barriers was something to be prized really, questioning things, and in that sense there was a sort of political element.

Such ‘revolutions’ Westbrook prefers to call ‘periods of tremendous experimentation’. Sociologist Peter Berger noted a shift in the 1960s from talk of political revolution to cultural revolution. Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm highlighted no necessary connection between socialism and the cultural avant-garde: it being a semantic confusion that what is revolutionary in the arts must also be revolutionary in politics. Similarly Bertolt Brecht did not commit to any political agenda for change; his Marxist way of looking at the world artistically did not translate into joining the communist party. Willet said: ‘For Brecht scientific thought in the social field was identified with Marxism, but that did not lead him to talk Party jargon’. Community is not Communism.

Collective and co-operative organisations in jazz are few but not unfamiliar. Count Basie called Bennie Moten’s 1930s big-band a ‘commonwealth band’ as members could vote on anything. In this way Moten was eventually deposed democratically and Basie took his place. In Britain in 1939 The Herald’s of Swing co-operative was formed, the idea being that bands could be assembled from a pool of musicians to share out work rather than turn it down. In 1947 George Webb’s band was a co-operative with equal profit sharing. When Humphrey Lyttelton brought Buck Clayton over from America to guest with his band: ‘he made it clear from the outset that he didn’t want to work as a ‘star’ soloist but as a member of the band’. (Ironically, when Lyttelton took over Webb’s band he restructured it as management-and-employees; he became a successful jazz-businessman by forming and running a booking agency.) John Dankworth’s 1950s band began as a social unit as well as a musical one: they watched cricket together. It was a ‘a profit-sharing alliance’ and he said:
Don Rendell [...] was married and thus, we all felt, qualified for a rent allowance, meaning that when business was bad [...] Don’s rent was taken out of the kitty before the split. This rule, also unwritten, always applied when anyone with extenuating circumstances needed a bit of assistance.

In his The Jazz Book Joachim Berendt said that collectives have been a general trend in European jazz. However, the first truly democratic group was the Bristol Musicians Collective formed in 1974, followed by co-operatives in London in 1975 and Southampton in 1978. Prior to this in the 60s there were small groups at the heart of large groups. There was SME (Spontaneous Music Ensemble) formed by John Stevens, Trevor Watts, Paul Rutherford: later came the Incus record label; AMM had Eddie Prevost and Lou Gare at the core; The Music Improvisation Company (MIC); the Instant Composers Pool (ICP) and Willhelm Breuker Kollectief in Holland, and Schlippenbach and Brotzmann of Free Music (FMR) in Germany. And there have been leaders. In 1976 Derek Bailey formed Company where he brought ingredients together rather than shaped the outcomes; he said: ‘all attitudes towards free playing were included but it was enough that they appeared alongside one another, they did not have to reconciled’. Mike Westbrook, who preceded Bailey in this respect, said in his private notes - Overture to a Jazz Life - that it was his early life experiences that gave him a ‘contempt for authority’ and made him ‘a socialist for life’.

So, it would seem a collective or co-operative is a creative response as a cluster concept. Rather than be rigidly defined in advance they compare by way of family-resemblance(s). As location and context is key, I am watching keenly how Blow the Fuse and Message From ... evolve.
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Although the Alison Rayner Quintet is from Blow the Fuse they wore no shroud of administrative/logistical worries. As a true ‘band’ they provided a welcome antidote to the prevalent phenomenon of local-trio-plus-nomadic-guest-star (altoists Peter King and Greg Abate have both spoken of the more-workmanlike-than-creative scenarios that have resulted from this). They had the unselfconscious looseness and confidence that can emanate only from their being over the crest and on the other side of the ‘well-rehearsed’ hill. Clearly the band members delighted in being in each others company and let us in by inviting us, the (genuinely) packed house, to reciprocate their warmth and spirit of generosity. ARC made the audience feel they were in a club rather than a concert. I was drawn back continually to a comparison with the 1980s Morrissey-Mullen band at the Half Moon in Putney - where 90% of the audience was on the guest list and any single Monday night session was better than any Saturday night party I have ever been to. So, I need a summary for this gig that encapsulates the atmosphere - exuberant, effusive, smile-forming - as much as it does the music; and it is this: ARQ advanced a socialist utopian value that communal happiness emerges from the simplicity of a catchy tune and a stonking groove well communicated.

Unlike the blues clubs of Chicago this was achieved in a post-modern way, which was to magpie from the history of music with no regard for stylistic boundaries. The Beatles were in there. I thought ‘Abdullah Ibrahim’ and ‘Dudu Pukwana’s brand of Xhosa township music’ during Alison’s ‘Elegy for Art’. Swing and bebop were present in her ‘Queer Bird’, based on ‘I Got Rhythm’: complete with tritone substitutions and first inversion chord VI and band quotations from Charlie Parker’s harmonically identical ‘Anthropology’ (Ricker lists 17 tunes based on this chord sequence, Aebersold 61). Sure, not all the audience was in on all the jokes all of the time, but we could all laugh along infectiously because we trusted their promoting our welfare: nothing was being done to us at our expense.

We have come full-circle. Equilibrium points like ARQ, created by dynamic collectives like Blow the Fuse, are valuable in times of artistic stress. As microcosms of society they reflect change. Mike Westbrook put it: ‘One’s experience as a musician confirms it. I think jazz is socialist music; it has to be - because of its very nature, its origins, the whole image of society which is contained in the activity of playing jazz’. He really understands ‘origins’ as Lomax said of Morton:
For Jelly Roll, jazz was not just music. It was Creole New Orleans; it was home and family; it was security and acceptance. What Jelly Roll did was to absorb the complex currents of the music and his hometown and, very early, set about ripening them into a system of music. His compositions were inventions [...] reflections of what a whole musical community had to say.

Morton portrayed street, bar, and neighbourhood scenes, customs and celebrations: he depicted the whole rich background. Hobsbawm has characterised this type of approach as creating: ‘not individual works of art, ideally to be contemplated in isolation, but the framework of human daily life’; Chambers said: ‘contemporary art slides into the art of contemporary life’. As usual I give the last word to someone better qualified to have the last word. The social function of jazz as a unifying force - as presented by ARQ - was described by clarinetist/saxophonist Sidney Bechet’s brother:
... after they heard it so long, they begun to creep right close to it and enjoy it. That’s why I think this jazz music helps to get misunderstandings straightened out. You creep in close to hear the music and, automatically, you creep close to the other people.