Somnambule - Writing About Music

Derek Bailey, Ashley Wales, John Edwards, Mark Sanders, Tony Bevan, Orphy Robinson

17 August 2004, 291 Gallery

No catchy, collective name for these musicians, their birthnames will suffice thank you very much. The evening begins with the inimitable Mr Bailey seated in the semi-darkness alone in front of the audience; his hair haloed by a strong orange spotlight, his familiar (semi-acoustic) nestled against his midriff. Your correspondent has just learnt that the guitarist has recently upped sticks and become a denizen of Barcelona. I’m still trying to assimilate this news, encountering the inevitable difficulty of picturing him in bright Mediterranean sunlight. He’s inextricably linked – at least to me - with two rather less popular tourist destinations: Sheffield, whose accent has never deserted him and the east end of London because that’s where I’ve always heard him play and where his Incus record label has served records from for the past umpteen decades. Although he’s escaped the English weather and headed for a more hospitable climate, tonight he’s close to his old haunts at the 291 Gallery, a former church now secular arts centre. The music is immediately familiar: pedal-sustained long notes, sudden flurries, jagged shards – Bailey’s unpatented spiky dream shapes. Although strangely, the overall effect proffers a softer orthodoxy than memories of past performances. Perhaps it’s the unsympathetic acoustics of the venue which blur everything with reverb, resulting in an unwelcome lack of definition.

After a few minutes Derek Bailey looks up to survey his audience. Momentarily it seems as if a mad Catalan barber has inflicted a radical mohican cut upon his septagenarian head, but it turns out – somewhat disappointingly - to be only a trick of the halflight. He makes a comment to which the audience, at least those close enough to catch it, murmur in amusement. He’s strumming a few comedic bars as if to underline the humour of his aside and the impression this conveys is almost vaudevillian. Then he’s back to sculpting those memorably angular shapes. Ashley Wales, one half of Spring Heel Jack and an increasingly common sight on the London improv circuit, silently seats himself at a small rack of electronics. Shortly afterwards limnal hums and burred tones gradually insinuate themselves behind Bailey like diffident shadows. The duo quickly swells to a trio as Orphy Robinson taps and strokes a steel drum, then drummer Mark Sanders appears and makes it a quartet. His presence on drums steers proceedings away from penumbral waters, a move completed when John Edwards begins to thrum the double bass and Tony Bevan wields his bass saxophone. There they all are at last in a line, almost all of them facing outwards towards the curve of a surprisingly large audience (perhaps eighty or a hundred people all told). The music gets louder, beginning to gain momentum until it sounds like a stormy night: close your eyes and lanterns might swing to and fro behind your eyelids and if you’re feeling particularly imaginative your face might be buffeted by wind and rain. The ensemble reach a natural pause and after a long moment of silence the crowd applaud appreciatively.

This time as they navigate their perennially uncharted waters, the group conjure a sense of doomed pursuit which quickly blossoms into an awful, almost terrible majesty which triggers associations with Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack to the original Planet Of The Apes. Someone’s repeated camera flash adds an air-raid frisson to proceedings. The music is full of bangs and knocks, rattles and strums. As Mark Sanders repeatedly strikes the side of a drum with a stick in his right hand while simultaneously lifting his left leg for no apparent reason, he looks like a strange pigeon, and suddenly all the musicians appear like a menagerie of eccentric creatures, each intent upon originating concerted new calls, charges, trumpetings.

Ashley Wales sits closest to our vantage point. From time to time he swigs from a bottle of Corona and puffs on a cigarette while managing to remain absolutely intent on what’s going on around him. A brief sax figure appears and repeats a few times – is Tony Bevan playing or does it originate from Ashley? This simple question prompts the following train of thought. All the other players are tied umbilically to their instruments. It’s clear where each sound is coming from, however far it wanders from the median line of sounds which, say, a double bass usually produces: thus that high-pitched squeak is clearly the result of John Edwards’ wet fingers dragged down the varnished wood of his instrument. A sampler wired up to an amplifier and speakers distributed around the group betray this apparent honesty. Ashley can play the thief and if he’s subtle enough, he might never get caught. One moment he could be Derek Bailey, the next Orphy Robinson. He has at his fingertips the opportunity to confuse and mislead. Why would he want to? To agitate, to raise people’s awareness. After all, however wonderful these musicians undoubtedly are, their music is hardly the sound of surprise (which of course it has never been meant to be). With that fact comes the danger of a certain cosiness which perhaps explains Bailey’s initial comic aside. Ashley Wales hardly indulges this role at all during the course of the evening, but it’s distinctly there as a suggestion. It does beg the question as to whether such methods would be at all problematic in the context of ‘traditional’ free improvisation. Would it be tantamount to a betrayal of the honesty of normal practice. Even without sampling, it’s often difficult to tell what Wales’s contribution is from his movements and the fact that certain sounds are difficult to trace to their source already places him to some extent in the role of suspect – one more step and he’s an underminer, a threatener of the constructions assembled by his colleagues.

As the music stops suddenly, Tony Bevan steps to the centre of the space and disappointingly states “That’s it”. Tellingly, as he introduces the players he holds a hand out and says “Ashley Wales on... ” and there’s a moment’s awkward silence “... er, sounds... ”
Colin Buttimer
Published by Me