The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

We're so used to the seemingly inbuilt inadequacy of Improv records. The recital is familiar: "you needed to be there...the space between musicians, between musicians and audience...the impermanence of Improv...every Improv record is 70 random minutes and another 70 could have done the job just as well...Statements...Documents." Sometimes you wonder whether you're expected to be the improviser in order to understand the music s/he's playing. You have to breathe their oxygen, drink their coffee, exist within their lives.

But every so often a record comes along and reminds us exactly why we cannot dispense with recording Improv. There is always, albeit infrequently, a performance which, miraculously or otherwise, will work as a record, will be aware of its own emotional and aesthetic peaks, will understand the solidity of structure which comes from intimate knowledge of your music and the improvisers with whom you choose to work. Such a record is Strong Language, the second album by the London-based quartet Lunge - led to all intents and purposes by the trombonist Gail Brand (she will doubtless deny it until her mute's blue in its face, but hers is, even if by default, the predominant voice here) and also including Pat Thomas (keyboards/electronics), Phil Durrant (violin/electronics) and Mark Sanders (drums/percussion). On the cover is a picture of peeling wallpaper. Punched out or struggled against? Lunge was one of many Improv units formed out of the debris of Butch Morris' "Skyscraper" tour in 1997. I think they might be the best.

The main body of the CD was recorded live in Amsterdam in June of last year and comprises four distinct "tracks." It's been a while since I've heard any piece of recorded Improv with the immense and immediate impact of the brilliantly-titled opener "Planarchy." Here Brand sets out her aesthetic stall - she is a musician of great purpose and power, but also of great discipline. Aware of Rudd (the low-register smears) and Rutherford (bell and mouthpiece manipulation, but with only very sparing use of multiphonics) but equally aware not to fall into laddism as so many notable European free trombonists have done. Brand's playing is one elongated punctum; it/she jumps out of the matrix/fabric and focuses your attention immediately.

But that is to belittle the contributions of Thomas, Durrant and Sanders, all of whom do more than keep up with Brand. Indeed, the duologues between Durrant's excited, pointillistic violin and electronic manipulations and Brand's purely acoustic trombone sometimes leave it difficult to decide who's playing what. And of course, it doesn't matter, because the collective structure is more important. There's a fantastic moment about nine minutes into "Planarchy" where Sanders almost imperceptibly, but entirely naturally, sets a drum 'n' bass tempo for a minute or so - this is fabulously exciting to listen to repeatedly - and then, with sublime architectural grace, the piece then naturally subsides into an atrium of quiet concentration and close-up, meditative interaction. The sustenatos achieved here give the piece a hymnal aspect, and it concludes entirely logically.

"Rough With The Smooth" emphasises what a wonderful "ballad" tone Brand achieves on her trombone - her high notes and tonality are very affecting indeed and remind me, strangely enough, of Jimmy Knepper's ballad playing (cf. Gil Evans' "Where Flamingos Fly"). There's a moving slow section about six minutes into the piece, mournful and contemplative, before the temperature gradually gets turned up again; and at the end, the musicians do seem to "lunge" at each other, or at least breathe with each other - dare I say that the music at this point takes on a distinctly carnal quality? Durrant signs off with a long, satisfied exhalation of electronic breath, presumably just about to light up a cigarette.

"White Writeable Areas" absorbs elements from both of these pieces for another fascinating journey. Brand here manages to be both affecting and decisive. Thomas' piano is patient, satisfied with its cautious chordality before later breaking free into joyful runs. At times, if not quite the "full industrial onslaught" cited in the sleevenotes, this music can be exuberant and propulsive (drum 'n' bass meets Ambient), at other times hover beautifully on the edge of extinction.

The final four-minute rave-up "No Filters" is the wildest thing here, but crucially the musicians (unlike certain participants in the good ole days of FMP) never lose control or poise; you realise instinctively that they know exactly what they're doing. Thomas' samples and electronics are ceaselessly inventive behind Brand's full-throated attack; indeed, towards the end you sense the ghost of Radiohead's "Kid A" seeping through the background.

There are two further tracks from a studio session in December 2000 which are fine in themselves - in particular I repeatedly return to the poignant "Rothko" - but were clearly made before the quantum leap which enabled Strong Language to be alchemised. But this album needs to be heard and listened to repeatedly. It has blood and humanity flowing through it in so strong a manner as I have rarely seen in a British free/Improv issue since Isipingo's Family Affair a quarter of a century ago. It's that good, that powerful, that beautiful. Gail Brand is a visionary.

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