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

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Another case for the advancement of British jazz after twenty miserable years of politesse, the quintet Led Bib, comprised of drummer/leader Mark Holub, saxophonists Chris Williams and Pete Grogan, keyboardist Toby McLaren and bassist Liran Donin, make me glad that the Polar Bear nexus aren’t the only ones at it. As someone who grew up in a period when jazz in Britain was at its finest and most outrageously and generously forward-looking, it has been heartbreaking, not to mention enamel-breaking, for my teeth to have repeatedly been set on edge by the tasteful “eclecticism” which arose from the mid-eighties “revival,” a “newness” measured only by units shifted, demographics and showbiz, to be respected by Jools Holland and all who buy into him. The sight of Courtney Pine, an entertainer compelled by his PR to suppress the musician he really is, admitting in The Wire a decade or more ago that he would love to play freer but has to “think about airplay,” was one of the most shameful things I have ever seen in print, if you don’t count his latterday dismissive attitude towards people like Evan Parker and Lol Coxhill – players for whom music is a lifetime of continuous discovery - with whom he was once happy to play and from whom he was once eager to learn.

The mavericks have continued, of course, with Pinski Zoo, the late Xero Slingsby and a few scattered others, denied their rightful media space because of the industry’s need, even at jazz level, for “stars.” But if Polar Bear/Acoustic Ladyland signified, as I believe they do, a sea change in British jazz, then Led Bib have moved their sailboat directly into the event horizon of its future. Their music is uncompromising, tending to take the form of hardcore harmolodic workouts of ambiguous tonality (with bitonality deployed extremely frequently) but with a push and a spring which enable everyone with open minds to access them. Sizewell Ten is their second, and better, album; from the opening sax fanfare of “Stinging Nettle” which rapidly plunges into a full-blown Prime Time thrash, punctuated by excited bubbles and whoops of electronica from McLaren, and both saxes going completely fucking mental – alas, the sleeve does not say which saxophonist does what when, and since both Williams and Grogan are playing alto it’s even harder to determine, but they lock swords in the fabulous manner of ye olde Osborne/Pukwana tussles in the Brotherhood of Breath, or Trevor Watts and Ray Warleigh slugging it out over one of John Stevens’ more approachable rhythmic matrices.

“Battery Power” has a somewhat misleadingly mellow intro of creeping, Zawinulesque electric piano figures, which soon explodes into a frantic alto/keyboard unison, in turn leading to an asthmatic sax soliloquy before the beats kick back in, McLaren's synths turning into a growl of pure radar noise, like Allen Ravenstine locked in the Peanuts Club. “Shower” deploys the old Miles “Nefertiti” trick of slowly-declaimed melody on the horns while Holub’s drums and McLaren’s piano become increasingly frantic, agitated and disparate behind them. “Manifesto For The Future” is more like a manifesto for 1972 to live again, with its angular thematic statements, incorporating a Batman theme paraphrase (accompanied by abrupt pauses) and its alto roundelays spun into orbit by occasional, sudden crashes of percussion – very Soft Machine 5.

“Spring” might be the masterpiece here, and displays McLaren perhaps to be the man of the match; following the initial statement of the harmonically gloomy Bley/Mantler-type theme – bouncy piano triplets offset by bowed bass and morose sax unisons – and another brief acceleration, McLaren takes off with a terrific piano solo, beginning with daring choices of single notes, mutating into solidly bitonal chordalities (note how Holub’s drums instinctively lock in when he does so) before erupting into post-Keith Tippett cascades of runs, strikes and slams. McLaren’s versatility is further underlined by his own composition “The Keeper” (most of the tracks being composed by Holub) which, after another watery, echoplexed Fender Rhodes intro, slams into a thrilling duet between alto and McLaren’s cackling, gurgling chemistry set of synths. “Forest Fire” is a long, brooding ballad (inevitably, it too escalates into vibrant freedom) steered by Donin’s hefty, thick double bass, and featuring Donin on a long, very Haden-ish solo whose intensity is temporarily interrupted by an ill-defined shriek from a long way away.

“Chocky,” written by Chris Williams, is another of the record’s big setpieces; following an introduction of McLaren’s electronic bells, the piece eases into a dirty slice of Larry Young free-funk, powered by McLaren’s lubriciously low down and frankly filthy Fender Rhodes, before one of the altoists, who I presume is Williams since he wrote the piece, launches into an epic solo containing both references to “Perdida” and gloriously ecstatic Ayler noise. Holub’s “Lichen” starts with Art Ensemble-type rapid fire alternations between fast unison and uniform chaos before settling in an alien field of astral electric piano twinkles, both Williams and Grogan joining McLaren up in the sky with elongated dog-register alto squeaks.

I was slightly sceptical when I noticed the presence of Bowie’s “Heroes” as the final track but Led Bib’s is a genuine reinterpretation which puts them on a par with John Zorn’s Naked City. Over a fast bop 4/4 tempo the saxes play the tune, but it is scarcely recognisable since it has been comprehensively reharmonised, or even deharmonised, over more coffee-pot bubbles of electronics. McLaren once again takes over with an extraordinary keyboard solo which puts me in mind of Joe Gallivan’s abstract synths-as-percussion approach; he sounds unmoored, dislodged from the tune, and possibly from the planet. In a bustling duet sequence with Holub one marvels at the endless subdivisions of beats and bar lines. But, guided by Donin’s authoritative bass, the saxes begin to play the closing section of the tune solemnly as McLaren continues to dwell in outer space, and eventually Holub rounds everyone up and brings them round finally to playing the tune straight, with a suitably cathartic climax. Bowie, I think, will love it, and so should you. British jazz lives again…and about time, too.

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