CBSO Centre, Birmingham, UK
They started and finished their continuous set with intense, tumbling pieces that had the same individual instrumental ingredients delivered in remarkably similar fashion. But what a difference! At the beginning it was like watching three musicians, each locked in their own little world, pouring out their own ideas for, it seemed, their own satisfaction. There could have been invisible walls between them; there could have been one between them and us.
On the left, Henry Grimes plucked urgently and nervously at the strings of his double bass to produce a low burbling thrum; in the centre Andrew Cyrille had set up a constant flurry around the drum kit that, likewise, formed a fairly uninterrupted swathe of strikes and scrapes; to the right Paul Dunmall poured out torrents of notes from his tenor saxophone in a stream broken only momentarily by the regular pauses needed for an intake of breath.
On and on they went, in isolation. Or so it seemed to me.
But just over an hour later they did the same kind of thing, except this time what I heard was a band – the three musicians still doing what they do best and, more specifically, the only thing they do, but now doing it in tight-knit accord with each other. Both pieces were a bit like the musical equivalent of a monochrome Jackson Pollock paintings (in dark grey upon dark grey, perhaps), except that the first time it had just been a murky mess while the second time light played across the surface, the layers gleaming. The difference is hard to express, but easy to feel. It’s the difference between wanting to leave and being glad I’d stayed.
In between, Dunmall played clarinet and came worryingly close to playing a tune; Grimes did one of his unfathomable arco solos, read a poem which linked the now to to the origins of the world, and played violin. His violin playing reminds me of no one so much as John Cale playing viola with the Velvet Underground.
The most magical moment for me came when Cyrille started a groove (or as near to a groove as free jazz gets) with stick on stick, varying the pressure of the hit and so producing an almost melodic variation in note and tone. He built this motif up and spread it subtly to the rest of the kit while Grimes held a rhythmic scrape and saw on violin and Dunmall conversed with the two of them on soprano. The sound of Dunmall’s bagpipes – again it’s a torrent of notes but this time uninhibited by the need for breaths – added a nice earthy and strangely British touch to what had been music not of any particular country or even of this earth. It’s somehow stranger than that – a kind of intergalactic buzz, rattle, screech and squeal of the spheres.
The encore was almost a blues, almost that jazz that is – what would you call it? – “fenced in” rather than “free”?