Amok Amor & Andrew Woodhead

mac Hexagon, Birmingham UK

This was the second of four events that Cheltenham Jazz Festival and Jazzlines programmes advisor Tony Dudley-Evans is currently presenting off his own bat (as TDE Promotions) along with Fizzle, the fortnightly Lamp Tavern series. It’s a marriage of minds in that both TDE and Fizzle have a particular fondness for the type of jazz that often gets the words “free” or “improv” attached to it.

Amok Amor comprises Petter Eldh on double bass, Christian Lillinger on drums, Wanja Slavin on alto saxophone and Peter Evans on trumpet, and is also something of a meeting of minds.

Their music is fast, complex, busy and intense, and it moves some jazz conventions forward in an enthralling way. So, there are “heads” of a sort, though they are extended into what are surely pages of manuscript with only occasional repeats of phrases or patterns. And there are solos – mainly taken by the two horns – but these are by no means processional in the old-fashioned manner. In the way favoured by many contemporary jazz groups, Amok Amor often sound like they are all soloing simultaneously, so individual improvisations emerge from the group playing as a wave might peak amid the breakers before subsiding once more into the united onward flow.

Their opener set the overall form: an edgy, very keen-to-get-going drums intro from Lillinger, then a head with Evans and Slavin reading lengthy, completely bop-cliché-free lines which sometimes ran in tandem, sometimes interwove, sometimes clashed briefly; Slavin drew out a solo with composerly nods to the theme, then Evans burst forth with an astonishing set of contrasting continuations of the theme’s argument interpolated with abstract spurts and blasts. Then – amazingly, because I had been completely transported by the solos – the head returned!

There was no time to catch one’s breath before Evans attacked a solo trumpet segue and we hurtled onwards with a motif shared by trumpet and saxophone that gave the illusion, rather like a set of  Escher steps, of continually rising even when they weren’t. An almost bluesy theme, an alto solo pulling and pushing at the rhythm, fresh fountains of musical ideas raining down upon us with all the eye-opening shock of a shower – maybe not a cold one, but rather searingly hot.

Eldh announced a re-working of a jazz classic which might have been an Ornette Coleman tune (if there is a source in jazz’s pantheon of this band’s inspiration it is surely Coleman), but either I didn’t know it or it was transformed to unrecognisable in the re-arrangement. Later Evans did a show-stopper of a long-note display complete with circular breathing, and a beguiling Balkan-tinged – or was it Celtic? – dance-like piece emerged, the phrases hocketting back and forth between trumpet and saxophone.

I realise I’ve mentioned Evans and Slavin quite a bit, but Eldh and Lillinger are of course equally crucial to this music, Lillinger finding all manner of stylistic nuance in his fidgety beats, and Eldh, head down and fingers flying, not only stoking the rhythmic energy but offering an encyclopaedia of harmonic lift-off points for the horns.

After a tight hour’s set with the foot to the floor all the way and in this very intimate space I left amazed, exhilarated, excited, slightly stunned. I was full of admiration for it. How could one not be? Here were four musicians of extraordinary ability united in a shared pursuit of excellence in their field. They clearly love playing together and firing ideas off each other. No wonder the audience was probably 50% musicians.

Did I like it? Ah, that’s a rather more complex question. I found the set mined a very narrow seam of what can be expressed in music, a tightly focussed set of emotional colours with the accent on bold reds and oranges, the lines jagged and sharp. To say there is more Amok than Amor is a rather facile shot, and not quite accurate anyway as the playing is far too well-targeted to be akin to running amok. I’m not sure that macho is the right word – maybe simply male? It’s not gladiatorial exactly, or combative, as all four are clearly “fighting” on the same side, but it is musically quite geeky and quite “show-offy” too. The eye-gleaming nods of appreciation between players are a bit like those you might see among skateboarders amazed at each other’s dexterity and ingenuity – and just as well-deserved.

Fizzle main-man Andrew Woodhead forsook his usual piano for a laptop, an octave-and-a-bit of buttons, and a few linked boxes of electronics to give us a short opening set of bloops and beeps, decorated with occasional morse and bell tones, and passing distortion swoops. After a couple of looped motifs there was the occasional doldrum moment when Andy seemed to be searching both his head and the knobs for fresh sounds worth exploring, but then he built everything to a strong climax. In the middle of it all I imagined this improv recorded, transcribed and handed out to a traditional hand-bell group. Now that would be something!

Tony Dudley-Evans explained at the start of the gig how he was fascinated with the area where structured or written jazz interacts with more freely improvised music, and both sets offered prime examples of what he means. They were also characterised by his penchant for the uncompromising, the envelope-pushing, the visceral, the energy fuelled. Is there a name for this kind of music? Maybe one needs to be coined? How about TDE Jazz?

  • The next in the TDE Promotions/Fizzle series is Food in this same venue (a real treat, by the way, both acoustically lovely and intensely intimate) on Wednesday 2 December. More here.

Categories: Live review

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2 replies

  1. I am not sure that the term ‘TDE Jazz’ is appropriate though I recognise that the phrase may be coined with tongue in cheek. The mix of written and improvised material that moves rapidly and seamlessly between the two that worked so well on Tuesday is, I would contend, very much a trend in today’s jazz; it may involve rhythmic intensity as in Amok Amor, the use of electronics as in Polar Bear, In Bed With and many other bands, complex themes as Tim Berne’s Snake Oil, or big band structures as in the Surnatural Orchestra or Paal Nilssen Love’s Large Unit. I would also suggest that the phrase fails to recognise my love of other styles, such as straightahead jazz and the music of jazz orchestras such as that of Maria Schneider’s appearing tonight at Symphony Hall.

  2. On this question of contemporary jazz and the balance between composed “stuff” (either written-down in score/part form, or pre-existent as an oral/aural shared body of knowledge) and improvised music made in performance, here’s a beautiful example from a couple of guys from the Chicago scene…

    There’s nothing new in jazz about (expertly) crafting music that balances nods in directions both composed and improvised. In the words of the jazz historian Ted Gioia: “both Armstrong and Hines playfully employ subtle hesitations and anticipations in phrasing and engage in ambitious flights beyond the written score – if, in fact, there was a written score at the session – all with a comfortable command several steps beyond the scope of the early New Orleans pioneers. This was jazz, pure and simple, freed from both the shadow of ragtime and the dictates of dance music” (in The History of Jazz, 2011, pg. 63).

    I’m typing these words while listening to Petter Eldh’s “Ich Bin Sozialist” – another excellent example of the kind of approach to music-making Armstrong and Hines were employing almost 90 years ago. Jazz, in a word.

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