The Ort Cafe, Balsall Heath, Birmingham UK
Let’s try and find the right analogy here.
So you are wandering through a gallery of fine art – fine in every sense – of landscapes, portraits, still lives, some of them painted in super-realistic style, some a little more impressionist, but still following fairly clear and accepted rules of colour, of perspective, of proportion. And then you turn into a small side room and it is filled with what? Cubism? A bit too cut-and-paste. How about Abstract Expressionism? Yeah, that’ll work.
Or you are wandering through the Chelsea Flower Show – yep, a bit of a leap, I know, but stay with me here – and then you leave by the wrong exit and find yourself in an overgrown lot vacated not so recently by a demolished office block. After all that formality, or the flirting of displacement in that form, all that contrivance, all that showy cleverness, all that artifice, all that development of the tradition is replaced by what? By nature, by chaos, by flowers in amongst weeds, by paths formed by urban foxes, by the occasional rusting supermarket trolley and left-over rough-edged concrete chunk.
In either case, there is the surprise of the unexpected, the unpredictable, and yet the more elemental and more natural. While there are pleasures and profound delights in all these situations – on second thoughts, that Chelsea Flower Show thing is an error; something like Hampton Court Gardens or Stowe would be better – there is the refreshing blast, as in a cold shower or on a breezy cliff edge, of the wild and free, of the radical.
Response to this kind of thing – the abstract art, the wild nature – is somewhere deeper down, behind the frontal lobe, below the sternum, in the gut. I mean, one can talk about that other more formal stuff in all sorts of highfalutin’ phrases with all manner of sage nodding of the head; with this one’s reaction can be a grin and an expletive. And isn’t that enough?
So, to Tom Rainey on drums, Ingrid Laubrock on tenor saxophone, and Mary Halvorson on electric guitar. Holy shit, it was good!
OK, so that might not be quite enough. Briefly, the trio played five or so pieces, all I imagine spontaneously created although there might have been some loosely agreed sections that were so subtly interwoven as to be indiscernible to the audience.
Rainey plays like no other drummer I have ever heard. And I could listen to him for hours and hours on end. I am not sure there was any more than a brief bar of regular time-keeping type drumming the whole evening. Not in the conventional sense, anyway. You see, it’s not that Rainey doesn’t keep time. He keeps incredible time. It’s that that time is internalised within swirls and smears of percussion, in amongst delicate dots here, a splash there, a tightly stopped splat there, now an industrial thump, then wet-fingered groan across a vellum. “Gestures” was the wise word from a drummer in the audience, which acutely captures that link between the loose-limbed, deeply concentrated yet perfectly relaxed stature of the man and the music that results from his hands, sticks and feet.
Halvorson, again, sounds like no other guitarist, though I suppose one could reference some Derek Bailey and Sonny Sharrock and maybe a little Bill Frisell in there. She does great work with densely close chords and fast up and down strumming, and then there is the spidery finger-stretching single note patterns that completely bypass jazz cliche. I would imagine that Halvorson has a strict rule of never, ever, playing something she has played before. There was certainly not a note, not a chord, not a line that I had ever heard before. And yet, in some strange way I felt that I understood it – well a bit of it – anyway.
I have heard Laubrock play cool-sweet sambas, and sunny jazz flamenco, and I am sure she can still do that stuff if she wants to – she certainly added the occasional sweetly-toned phrase during her quieter exchanges with Halvorson – but she has slowly, steadily moved down this road to a much freer expression which also involves over-blowing, harmonics, double-notes, squeaking with a plug in the bell of the instrument, of singing through it, and even playing the horn without a mouthpiece. She does all this, as well as playing long, loping lines every bit as original as Halvorson’s, with complete coherence and a clear delight in the exploration.
To discuss each player separately is of course to miss out on the crucial element in all this which is the extraordinary empathy between them, the unity of their common purpose, the way in which each, with their own special skills, creates a united music of bumps and crashes, of slashes and groans, of beauty and ugliness, of light and shade, or joy and despair – a wide canvas, a vast lot, filled with interest and surging life.
Finally, I have very strong views on suiting band to venue, and if ever there was a perfect match it was the Tom Rainey Trio and The Ort Cafe. Lo-tech, lived-in, slightly scrappy, getting the priorities of life sorted in the right balance. It was all there. A triumph.
Thanks to Tymoteusz Jozwiak who programmes The Ort’s Friday evening jazz gigs, and to Tony Dudley-Evans for making this very special one a reality.
Categories: Live review