It feels strange going to the Vortex in broad daylight and even stranger leaving with the sun still streaming through the windows. Gigs here don’t usually get started much before 9 pm (I’d always assumed that improvising musicians only came out at night) and darkness seems to lend itself to the free jazz atmosphere.
Still, the Vortex by day is not without its positives. I can see what I’m writing for starters and it’s much easier to doodle during the boring bits ;) The musicians look wide awake and the colourful characters nursing restorative cans of Special Brew on the benches in Gillett Square seem altogether less menacing. (They’re actually rather adorable when they’re blinking in the sunlight).
Besides, Freedom Festival, a new event curated by vibes player and electronicist Orphy Robinson and vocalist Cleveland Watkiss, is all about bringing improvised music out of the shadows and into the limelight – giving it the attention it deserves with two full days of workshops and performances designed to showcase new collaborations, build ensembles and inspire the next generation of improvisers. Perhaps daytime makes sense.
After appearances from Tony Kofi’s Sphinx Trio and Byron Wallen, on Saturday, it was down to the Freeform Improv Strings to kick start the final afternoon of the festival. A short improvisation from violinist Alison Blunt and cellist Kate Shortt incorporated beguiling snatches of dialogue along with scampering pizzicato lines and trembling melodies. James O’Sullivan prepared his guitar with spanners and plastic rods producing sudden pops and gargling distortion, and Theo Sinarkis reached for a broken bow, wrapping the limp horse hair around the strings of his bass to delicate, percussive effect.
The session ended with all of the strings on stage for a collective improvisation that opened with palm slaps and yelping guitar before settling into something softer and more mysterious, with special guest Steve Beresford’s piano lines insinuating themselves into the music like white hot nerve fibres.
Next up was flautist Rowland Sutherland and his new quartet, featuring Ansuman Biswas on percussion, Guillaume Viltard on bass and Steve Beresford on piano and electronics. Sutherland has recently returned from studying with shakuhachi masters in Japan and you could hear it in his playing – in the thumps of air that marked the beginnings of his phrases and in the haziness of his sound, uncannily like that of the Japanese wooden flute.
Bucolic melodies were a recurring feature in the set, which wove together renditions of “Desert Cry” and “Message from the Nile” by McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson’s “Earth” and Sutherland’s own “Gentle Euphoria”, along with passages of free improvisation. Viltard and Biswas orchestrated chugging, spontaneous grooves and Beresford swiped at the keyboard firing off scatterbrained lines that sank into silky chords of Bill Evans-like purity. There were wheezing riffs set up on bronchial alto flute and bursts of whistling, Clanger-like electronics, yet the development always felt organic. Never forced.
A set from Black Top was just as inspiring. Led by Orphy Robinson on xylosynth and electronics and Pat Thomas on keyboards, the group’s lineup is constantly in flux. Here they were joined by Cleveland Watkiss, saxophonist Rachel Musson, trumpeter Roland Ramanan, bassist Otto Williams and drummer Mark Mondesir, for a performance that was dizzyingly diverse in its references.
Robinson unleashed trippy electronics, dub effects and disorientating vocal samples (“many mumbling mice are making midnight music” was a personal favourite). Williams brought grungy basslines and juddering, stiff-limbed grooves. Watkiss offered poignant laments, soulful refrains and the skiffling sound of beatbox snare drum, and Ramanan and Musson locked horns, orchestrating passages of Brotzmann-like anarchy with Mondesir and Thomas churning away behind them.
There was so much going on I was still making sense of it all as I watched the festival’s closing amateur jam session with budding improvisers from Warriors International’s monthly Vortex ‘Loft Sessions’. It was 6.30 pm. I’d seen old masters and new recruits and the sun was still riding high over Dalston. Whichever way you look at it the future of British improv looks bright.
— Thomas Rees
— Photo credit: Black Top