Review and pictures by John Watson
Hexagon Theatre, mac, Birmingham, UK
The content of Food has shrunk from time to time over the years… but the quality has always been maintained, and even improved.
Food, with UK saxophonist Iain Ballamy and Norwegian percussionist Thomas Strønen, began as a quartet in 1998 – with two more Norwegians, trumpeter Arve Henkriksen and bassist Mats Eilertsen, in the line-up – but later became a very effective duo.
From time to time the duo has featured guests – Austrian guitarist Christian Fennesz is the latest, and is featured on the group’s superb new ECM CD This Is Not A Miracle.
At mac we had a delightful surprise, as the versatile trumpeter Percy Pursglove was announced as the special guest for the performance.
Strønen has spoken about his aim of developing a mood, but with more of a sense of structure than in the past and “cutting the music to the bone” with ruthless editing. “Instead of taking time to find out where to go, I wanted to go there directly, with a clear idea,” he said in an interview released by ECM to accompany the release of the new album.
His concept has proved successful, for with the album and their live performances Food has achieved a new level of creativity while retaining the sense of spontaneous freedom of their earlier performances, quite a balancing act but one Strønen and Ballamy have achieved.
Much of the Birmingham concert– part of a short UK tour, and promoted at mac by Tony Dudley Evans and Fizzle – reflected the moods of the curiously titled new CD (“This Is Not A Miracle” refers, in an oblique way, to the cultural and emotional conflict between the influx of refugees to Norway and the established way of Norwegian life, according to Strønen).
At mac, however, the emphasis was on spontaneous music, using the composed elements purely as a springboard, and developing very long, but completely absorbing, movements of free improvising.
Strønen and Ballamy opened the concert as a duo, with the percussionist – who uses electronics extensively, and in a powerfully creative way – producing a sweeping landscape of sound. Ballamy’s tenor and soprano saxophones drifted as softly as clouds, creating an extraordinary atmosphere, sometimes darkly brooding, and with the tonal landscape created by Strønen being punctured from time to time by brilliant shafts of sunlight from the reed instruments. The effect created a marvellous musical drama, which engaged the listener in an extraordinarily powerful way. Ballamy also used the EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument) in a very subtle way, feeding tones through a sound processor controlled from his laptop.
The moods may be powerful, but Food are not without humour. When Strønen introduced a work he simply called ‘The Gong Piece’, Ballamy quipped: “Gong with the wind?”
Percy Pursglove joined the group for the climax of the concert, and they created two lengthy pieces that were completely improvised. The first featured some spiky duetting between trumpet and soprano saxophone, with Pursglove at one point creating furiously fluttering tones as he rapidly bounced the valves. The second piece was extraordinarily beautiful, with long warm tones from the trumpet and harmonised mellow notes from Ballamy’s tenor, creating a strongly melodic, peaceful theme, as the percussionist gently brushed the snare. So strong was the structure that I asked Percy afterwards if any element of the piece had been decided on earlier in rehearsal. “No,” he said with a grin. “Completely improvised.”
Improvised, of course, by three master musicians.
Categories: Live review