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2004-08-25 - 3:53 p.m.

Thoughts on the Tanworth event down immediately after the event are (still) at the end of this entry. Tony Reif mailed about Tanworth and his CD derived from a similar event in Vancouver which is about to be released. This includes some freer interpretations of the ND oeuvre. In a British context these styles surfaced in the Little Theatre Club in St Martin’s Lane – a subject I am currently researching as background to the Lullabies event in St Martins on 27 November 2004.

The Little Theatre Club

The Little Theatre Club was founded by John Stevens (June 10, 1940 - September 13, 1994), a British drummer who was one of the most significant figures in early development of free improvisation in this country, and a founding member of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME).He was born in Brentford, the son of a tap dancer. He studied the drums at the Royal Airforce School of Music in Uxbridge, and while there met Trevor Watts and Paul Rutherford, two musicians who became close collaborators.

In the mid-1960s, Stevens began to play in London jazz groups alongside musicians like Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott – leading British jazz musicians who adopted the broad path mapped by Charlie Parker and his followers in the US. Stevens was influenced by the free jazz he was hearing coming out of the United States by players like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, and his style began to move away from be-bop in a more experimental direction.

In 1966, SME was formed with Watts and Rutherford and the group moved into the Little Theatre Club in St Martins Lane of London to develop their new music. In 1967 their first album, Challenge, was released. At about this time Stevens became interested in the music of Anton Webern, and the SME began to play generally very quiet music. Stevens also became interested in non-Western musics.

Paul Rutherford remembers: “We all came out of the bebop school, you know. But while we were in Germany (with the RAF) we started to buy these new Impulse and Atlantic’s, you know, Coltrane, Dolphy, and all the stuff that was coming out. So we started drifting to that newer stuff. When we came out of the Air Force, we kept our thing going. And the result was the Little Theater Club, which John Stevens found. The Little Theater Club on St. Martins lane, it was a tiny little place. And originally, as I said, it was John, Trevor, and myself, and also (bassist) Harry Miller used to play. He eventually played in Brotherhood of Breath. So that was the original band, and then people just started gravitating towards the theater club. Well, there were two places: the old place which was Ronnie Scott’s old club on Gerard street, and the Little Theater Club. So these were the places where all the younger musicians, say the second-generation players, were gravitating. And out of that area came the freer jazz, not so much the Michael Westbrook or Chris McGregor stuff. The guys that came strictly out of the Little Theater club formed the Musicians Cooperative. It was Evan Parker, Barry Guy, myself, Paul Lytton, Derek Bailey, Tony Oxley, Howard Riley… I think that was it.

Evan Parker described how he met Stevens in the mid 60s in an interview with Paul Rutherford:

“At that point it was still pretty rare to meet anybody who was enthusiastic in a musicianly way, if I can put it like that, about current developments in the front end of modern jazz. There was a feeling this (experimental jazz) has gone too far. That was the general feeling from what you could call the modern jazz establishment, not just in America but also here in a way. John was a pretty rare exception to that, so it was nice to talk to someone about Milford Graves and Sunny Murray, Edward Blackwell and Billy Higgins and their relative stylistic distinctive markings and this and that - blah blah blah - the way you do. John was always good at blah blah blah - excellent in fact - and he was also always very welcoming to new faces, which is also pretty rare in the scene. He said he was starting a club in the next few weeks, and that was the very beginning of the Little Theatre Club [in 1966]. Then I went down to sit in at the Little Theatre Club. John's original idea was that he could hook me up with a nice rhythm section of Chris Cambridge [bass] and Laurie Allen [drums] - a ready made group for me. It was fantastic and helpful, which I think he continued to be all the way through - he had huge amounts of energy for everything, anything connected with music, playing, other musicians”

John Stevens like Danny Thompson worked with John Martyn – one of the most experimental of the folk-blues guitar players who started out at Les Cousins scene in Greek Street – about five minutes away from St Martin’s Lane. In 1975, Danny Thompson and John Stevens - plus occasionally ex-Free guitarist Paul Kossoff were playing together. This is the ensemble (minus Kossoff, whose erratic playing had to be cut) were recorded Live At Leeds which was about as far out as Martyn ever went. Stevens also played on some of Martyn’s magnificent One World album.

Martyn says 'The things I learnt from John Stevens were things you wouldn't 'learn', as such,'. 'There were thousands of things you learnt with John Stevens. A complex character. I liked him because he had a spiritual thing about him. The last time I worked with him*), he said, 'We'll all sit down, and sing a note - the note that you're most comfortable with'. Some of us sang better than others .... And we came to this chord that we all liked. 'Right - that's the chord we're going to write the piece about. Could you all remember the note you played?' OK, write it down on the piano. Bang, bang, bang, and you're off. No emotional commitment! But there obviously is an emotional commitment, because you would be singing the note you were singing at the time; you must have a purpose. Do you feel like [he sings a high note], do you feel like [low note], do you feel [mid range]? I liked him for that. Spontaneity is what I learnt from John Stevens. Nice guy, sadly missed.

One important characteristic of the Little Theatre Club emerges from these quotations – an approach to music making that deliberately departed from the rather exclusive cliquey attitudes that tended to prevail on the modern jazz scene in London. In his recent biography of Derek Bailey, the avant garde jazz guitarist, Derek Watson records the following:

“I used to run Thursday at the Little Theatre and I’d play with absolutely anybody who’d turn up. I remember a violin player coming in and plugging into my amplifier. Afterwards the drummer, Tony Oxley, says “ He’s terrible. Why don’t you stop playing?” . My view is that if I go out to play, I stop playing too often. I think that there’s too much non-playing in one’s life.”

The emerging free jazz that the Little Theatre Club was a test-bed for how far the concept of free improvisation could be pushed within jazz. Gavin Bryars is now best known as a composer but in the 60s he played with Bailey and Oxley in the pioneering jazz ensemble, Joseph Holbrooke. Bryars is quoted by Watson as follows discussing the stylistic strains which sometimes emerged at the LTC.

“When I came back from Illinois having worked with John Cage, I’d been involved in some areas of improvisation but with composers – within the idiom of the classical avant garde. In late 68, early 69, John Tilbury (classical pianist) and I started doing things at the Little Theatre Company with a quintet including Jamie Muir and Derek Bailey. We used to play regularly at the Little Theatre in’68 and ’69. But there was a clear split between the two classical guys and the three that came from the post-jazz/free improvised world. I remember things used to break up and collapse because I would start fooling around. I’d do things like putting on gramophone records and turn on the radio. Derek couldn’t handle that because it was too referential, you’re bringing in another world, it wants to be sparking off between us. “

Bryars now sees that he was bringing ideas from a different tradition into jazz:

“I was something of an anarchist. I was certainly behaving in an anarchic way, and a an anti-social way. Being anti-social in an improvisation is the antithesis of the free-improvisation situation where you have to co-operate.”

There were plenty of “negotiations” along these lines as the boundaries within jazz were explored at the LTC. John Russell, the guitarist told the Wire in 1997:

“I’d do things on keyboards, on toy instruments, collections of instruments, odd bits of electronics, and so on. We did that for a year regularly at the Little Theatre. There was an aspect of improvisation, but I was also aware of the post-Cage musical world, Fluxus and things of that kind where you could get an anarchic element involved. You would also get the early La Monte Young territory of undifferentiated activity for very long periods. I saw that area of composed music as also being part of improvised music and vice versa.”


Laurence mailed about the concert – how much he had enjoyed it – and the unique character of the event. He said he had particularly enjoyed Mark Pavey’s version of Black Eyed Dog which he thought had got to the meat of the matter. I mentioned the BEDs when I wrote Robin F to thank her for the use of her Smokin Too Long loop and to give an impression of how Angel Cover Me had gone.

Claudio from the German TV company had asked me why it was that young people today fastened onto the ND oeuvre. I said it wasn’t an easy question to answer but it got me thinking and I tried some of the thoughts out on Robin. Andrew and I had noted that the programme was heavily weighted towards early and late songs – indeed I asked Robin where she thought the “middle” of the oeuvre might lie.

The first reason for this weighting away from the middle is that these songs are the ones which were originally played with just guitar accompaniment – so they obvious targets for people who want to get into the guitar proficiency and beyond. This aspect of the work is very rich and young guitarists can dig down into it – the way that my generation tried to get our fingers round Jansch and Renbourn. Even Paul Simon mastered the Davy Graham classic Angie.

But I also thought there was another angle. As far as the late songs are concerned – where Nick veered towards expressionism – then – as Mark and Otto showed – this is an aspect which matches people’s experience of “things today”. In culture generally there is a lot of background expressionism – one could start with the popularity of Van Gogh and take it on from there. There are various points where expressionism surfaces in music eg the songs Stravinsky wrote during the First World War which are quite easy to link through to Nick’s work. Some of Pink Moon sounds like it comes after those Stravinsky songs – whether he heard them or not.

Arguably “things today” show similarity with the experience that drove expressionism particularly in Germany in the 1900s where there was an explicit programme linked to “modernism”. The theory of the movement was that there was inner truth in experience which tended to isolate the artist from society. The pressure and discontinuity in lived experience today gets channelled to some degree into expressionist models. And so the late songs get played – and indeed the MDK version songs and the Steve Wilkinson treatment of HJ1 showed an expressionist aesthetic working its way back earlier material – reminding me of how the expressionist Cale/Reed aesthetic attacked song – within a locale that put high value on abstract expressionism.

The other vector is jejeune lyricism for want of a better expression which is in the early songs – I think some people call them the Princess songs. Pamela Wyn Shannon mentioned this when I tackled her on Magic (I think she felt tackled). Magic is simply a song of lost innocence – of negative realisation – and its probably the first point at which major/minor polarisation surfaces in Nick’s work. PWS said a few more things that I heard as a reflection of something I call “creation spirituality” – a term I learned from Regan von Schweitzer with whom I did a fair amount of Tanworth like musical endeavour in the last decade. Some people might call it new age or neo-paganism. PWS juxtaposed Magic with a song of her own about seasonal transition which is a classic neop perspective – and indeed you could see the major/minor transition as underlying the lyric thrust of that piece.

The area that really interests me – and PWS mentioned this – is that as far as things today are concerned there is a juxtaposition between lyric/magic/neo paganism – often but not exclusively rooted in childhood (cf H Potter) and the whole expressionist bundle of “modern life” – Jackson Pollock writ small. This helps explain why you get interpretations of Magic which (for example) focus on child abuse which is a very direct fracturing of magic wholeness trust etc.

Ashley Hutchings opened the 2nd half with a specially written song about that episode at the Round House – during which it occurred to me that he and I have been playing on the same bill for thirty seven years on and off. It’s like Round the Horn isn’t it – and it is more than thirty five years that I’ve been bumping into Robert Kirby at peculiar gigs. My Dear Killer did Milk and Honey – I was tempted to say to them the last time I played that song was at the Albert Hall in 1968 where it was part of the emerging folk rock movement with Al Stewart and other Cousins luminaries on the bill. But I thought that was too pretentious even by my standards.

The MDK version wasn’t folk-rock but I can hear now that it related quite strongly to episodes in New York a couple of years earlier. Theirs was a Cale-Reed derived approach to the music which you can piece together from listening to the Ludlow St demos and Chelsea Girls.

Talking of Cale, Peter Michaels played the piano part to Northern Sky a long while Tom McNevin sang and played guitar, I have never heard that piano part before but he had it down very well – even though it was played on the “found” upright in St Mary Magdalene and it very well. In fact I am not sure I have heard ND played on guitar and piano as a duo.

Peter accompanied Denise on the Robin Frederick song – Angel Cover Me – which I have only heard on disc performed by the writer. This was the penultimate song of the evening. Peter had done a fine job in transferring Robin’s synth part to guitar. He has a small Guild which everyone agreed sounded such that it must have been the same model that ND used on a lot of recordings. Denise’s reading was about 80% pretty faithful to the original and then at the climax of the verse went her own way.

Andrew and I last did one of these celebrations in Leyland five years ago and we were thinking about the differences . One similarity is that at that even someone had gone to the trouble of transcribing the Cale viola line off Fly – which was fascinating to both listen to and read – and like Peter’s piano part on Northern Sky made you hear the original in a new way.

Peter also gave her heroic versions of Cello Song and Road. I never really like the former on the record. But as when Ken Nichol played it with Keeling ensemble at Leyland, Peter went at the opening passage furiously and the song took on a much more muscular demeanour.

Cameron Devlin like Peter chose a fairly forensic approach to the original guitar parts – in this case on River Man and Voice from the Mountain – but both played in such a way that you could hear voicings or transitions that aren’t easily evident in the original.

I talked to Tom McN and it turned out that he is a GP who studied at Manchester in the late 1980s – he said that he had first come across ND there, when he had a folkband. Apparently there was a thriving folk scene in the middle of Madchester. We talked about tunings and I explained that the whole tuning business had been invented by Davy Graham as he explored Indian and Turkish music and began to integrate it with traditional English music.

Mark Atherton played Blossom and I chatted to Robert K about the mysterious episode with Beth Orton at the Skin Too Few premier in Amsterdam. Robert had an arrangement and it was rehearsed in the afternoon with BO, but when it came to the evening all the parts had disappeared so it couldn’t be performed. This led onto a conversation about her writing and performing method and the degree to which it may have been influenced by the Chemical Brothers. Mark played one of his songs and as was the case with several performances you could hear how their interpretation of the ND song and their own music were part of a stylistic unity.

This was very true of Bruno D who is a very powerful performer – I talked to him a bit about the country element in his approach and how his take on that seemed to have common elements with Leonard Cohen’s. He did Time and Has Told Me with very very powerful punctuation. Andrew and I agreed that it reminded us of the Mike Chapman version at Leyland. For his second song he performed with Martijn B who lives in Bussum near Denise. I have to say that the one song of his own that Martin performed struck me as the most original bit of non-ND writing performed on the programme. To find equivalents and linkages I had to go back to Song To A Seagull especially in an approach to the guitar that is truly orchestral in its range.

Towards the end of the evening – the event started at 5pm and didn’t finish until nearly 9pm – I was reminded of Cousins – a sequence of different performers – strong but not exclusive emphasis on guitar picking and a lot of different approaches to tradition. In that sense it was also like the Knitting Factory in NYC which is an odd think to say about an Early English church in South Warwickshire. In fact I told BBC Birmingham as much – don’t imagine this stuff is just about sort of English pastoralness!

Bruno’s manager is organising a tribute tour in Holland and Belgium which begins shortly and which I believe Gilbert Isbin is playing. We talked quite about Gilbert’s Group’s new CD and what a fantastic thing it is. Apparently it was only force of circumstances that prevented Gilbert from showing up.

I took Gilbert’s name in vane by using in him in a rhetorical link I put into a letter which Denise let me insert into the programme. The letter said:

“I hope you enjoy this evening’s concert in St Mary Magdalene – it’s a fantastic venue for an event of this kind with its own unique atmosphere.I would like to invite you to a related concert in another marvellous venue – St Martins in the Fields in Trafalgar Square - a concert of Lullabies on 27 November 2004 - to mark World AIDS Day 2004.

You may have heard of some of the performers. Gilbert Isbin, the Belgian guitar virtuoso and celebrated interpreter of Nick Drake’s songs, will be performing a specially written lullaby as will Paul Wheeler, a close friend of Nick’s. I hope that Andrew Keeling will be writing something as well. Robin Frederick and I have each written lullabies which will be appearing on the CD linked to this event.

Other performers include Simon Prager, one of the original UK blues pioneers from the Streatham scene which hosted the first bluesmen to tour the UK like Leadbelly and Sonny Boy Williamson in the late 50s/early 60s. Simon’s style is based on Reverend Gary Davis – the blues guitar virtuoso who influenced a whole generation of British acoustic players. His friend, Charlie Alexander, founder of Jazzwise, is also performing a specially written lullaby - Charlie wrote and presented the Radio 3 series on the history of the jazz guitar a few years back and was a close associate of Steve Pheasant founder of HORN.

Cathy Bell who has just finished her studies at Caius College with the poetic visionary J H Prynne will be singing Lullabies by Schubert and Barber. (Wheeler, Pheasant and Kirby were all members of Caius).

I am also looking forward to the lullaby from Meridian which includes Richard Jones (Principal Edwards Magic Theatre, Climax Blues Band) and features the fabulous vocals of Anna Tabbush – very remiscent of Sandy Denny.

I think the Lullabies concert will be an outstanding event in a wonderful location. You can find out more about it at: http://www.kwase-kwaza.org/lullabies.htm/. While you are have a look around – you can download Paul Wheeler’s new CD Red Blues and hear some of the strange things Gilbert and I have got up to. Sooner or later we will be putting up the recording of Gilbert Isbin’s radio concert of Nick’s tunes. You can also find out how the projects fit together with the South African scene particularly the Highveld area to the east of Johannesburg – also at http://www.bstrust.org./

I hope to see you at St Martins in the Fields on the evening of 27 November.”

Andrew and I enjoyed performing the opening stuff so much that I think we are going be doing a Lullaby together.

Obviously I wrote this before the event – but I was on target about the building. Next Sunday I am going to be doing something at St Mary’s Guildford which has Saxon parts and where Lewis Carroll preached . Last Summer someone put on a concert where I did Debussy’s En Bateau and the building showed this amazing power to encompass and enhance the various contributions. It was the same when I did Blink Music Beyond Belief there earlier this year. St Mary Magdalene had the same power . I talked to Peter who is married to the Church Warden at MM about this – he said his son worked just round the corner from St Martins. Peter and his wife had worked amazingly hard to get the show on the road – just for its own sake.

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