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

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

I remember, looking at the original sleeve of the third album by Ovary Lodge back in 1976, thinking that London SE27 must be in the exotic depths of nowhere. You never saw live albums recorded in places called Nettlefold Hall in such a remote-sounding district as SE27. In conjunction with the earthily unearthly music which the sleeve housed I got the impression that this release emerged, dripping, from the depths of nowhere.

Well, life teaches you a lot of things; and I now find that Nettlefold Hall is situated in West Norwood, at the top of Norwood High Street in a building which also houses the local public library, and moreover is located about 10-15 minutes’ walk from where I currently live. That knowledge hasn’t rationalised the music in any sense; listening to it now, the latest instalment in Ogun’s brave and, I am glad to say, increasingly frequent reissue programme, it still sounds like nothing else in music, either then or now, and moreover, Liz Walton’s modestly controversial cover design, which, shall we say, interprets the group’s name literally, still sticks out of the HMV record racks like a strangely smiling beacon.

Ovary Lodge began life as a trio, fronted by pianist Keith Tippett, in which he could exercise his free improv inclinations and perhaps catch his breath after the epic adventure of Centipede. The other key member of this initial grouping was percussionist Frank Perry; and the term “percussionist” undersells him sorely, since he was, in both appearance and outlook, New Age a generation ahead; deeply spiritual with a tendency towards the liturgical, his “kit” famously took several hours to assemble and dissemble, featuring multiple “little instruments” as well as the more familiar drum set-up, eventually expanding to incorporate Tibetan bowls, rows of wine glasses, huge ritual gongs and authentic Buddhist temple bells. This tended to incline group improvisation towards the meditative, the sustained tones, an essence of contemplation.

Whereas the group’s first two albums, both recorded for RCA, carried the impression of free jazz plus New Age without the two quite uniting, their third – which, nearly needless to say, was eponymously titled – sees the group finally achieving a true fusion. By now Julie Tippetts had joined, and original bassist Roy Babbington had left to concentrate on Soft Machine and the BBC Radio Big Band, but not necessarily in that order; in came the ever-reliable Harry Miller. So we have a quartet which ostensibly consists of vocals, piano, bass and drums, but that doesn’t even begin to tell the story.

Influenced perhaps by the AACM, and wary of coming across as too virtuoso or “learned,” Keith, Julie and Frank all made a point of doubling up on auxiliary instruments, not all of which they were intimately acquainted with (at least, not at that stage); so Chinese flutes, school recorders, various types of Oriental violins and sundry percussion and vocal chants all have a part to play in expanding the palate of the music.

The opening “Gentle One Says Hello” sets out their template, and, once again, that of New Age at least a decade ahead of its guiltily opulent wallpaper status; here, however, there is a tangible sense of spiritual questing, with all four offering long extended drones, slowly intertwining, Keith issuing ominous low piano chordings, Julie switching from scampering sopranino recorder to sustained vocal lines, Frank’s ceremonial percussion solemn as a salamander, Harry’s stern bowed bass holding it all together; the vocal interaction between husband and wife (Keith and Julie) is very affecting indeed.

But, when needs must, they can also roar. “Fragment No 6,” opening with Miller in Mingusian mood, cheerfully double-stopping his lines and setting the tempo, explodes into violent freedom, but it’s the ecstatic vibrancy of mutual discovery that powers the performance rather than anything destructive; Julie shrieks, yells, harrumphs and croons orgasmically against Keith’s furiously criss-crossing, and sometimes colliding, piano lines, Miller and Perry pushing the intensity as far as it can travel, and then further; at the four-minute mark the band appears to COME but that soon settles, but the building up starts again and gradually everything fuses together in a gargantuan and glorious noise – Julie working up to a scream, Keith practically pummelling the keyboard with his bare fists, and just before eight minutes Perry starts lashing his Tibetan bells and gongs like the volcano of punctum and all four miraculously BLOW UP in one, long, sustained, staggering ORGASM which, if you know what I mean, and of course you do, goes beyond “music.” The tide recedes, they retreat to a modal minor meditation, the track fades. No doubt the absence of this record from the public catalogue for nigh on three decades has given rise to the distorted fantasy that British free improvisation in the mid-seventies was going nowhere (as though the Incus releases of that time were not demonstrable enough proof to the contrary); newcomers will hear this and breathe bangles of radiant wonder.

Side two (as the old vinyl edition had it; tracks 3-5 on the CD) begins with the nearest thing to a groove on the record, with the fantastic haikuesque title of “A Man Carrying A Drop Of Water On A Leaf In A Thunderstorm.” Here Miller thrums out a solid bass riff as a crazed violin (I think played by Perry) starts off zigzagging in the Ornette tradition before settling on a droopy cyclical three-note loop in the venerable Tony Conrad/John Cale eternal theatre drone style which I am convinced subsequently cropped up on more than one “pop” or “rock” record, though I cannot currently recall which one(s), through which Keith and Julie provide very clearly defined recorder and vocal lines, Keith even resorting to shaking a pair of maracas and uttering Apache war whoops at the track’s climax.

“Communal Travel” at nearly eighteen minutes is the album’s centrepiece, and here the group achieves its ambition of concealing ego in favour of a collective soul, everyone enmeshed so closely that eventually it is impossible to tell who is playing, blowing, hitting or singing what (apart from Miller, who with dogged glee sticks to bass and nothing but bass throughout the entire record). With its endlessly inventive intersections of flutes, voices, chirrups, high tones, low pulses, delicate harmonium and a plucked piano interior which could practically be a harp, it is a logical if unlikely blood sister to the Brotherhood’s “Night Poem”; there is no central theme or riff diving in and out of the sonics here, but the atmospherics are beautifully handled and always on the edge of urgency – no surprise that Miller’s bass is the key anchor in both pieces – so that when the thrashing climax does eventually arrive, it doesn’t feel artificially reached but the most natural of conclusions; after that there is nothing left to say other than a minute-long “Coda,” where Keith, Julie and Frank’s voices harmonise, ascending higher and higher like nasturtiums towards a welcoming sun before they collectively squeal and ascend to the heaven of earthly revelations. Clearly, on the evidence of both this and the “new” Keith Tippett record about which I will shortly be speaking here, the spirit of ’67 survives in surprising but utterly truthful ways.

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