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CCA, Friday 10th and Saturday 11th December 2010

GIO Festival flierI made it along to hear a couple of the Saturday evening performances at this year’s Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra Festival (previewed in the Herald). I don’t listen to much free improvisation, so I’m never quite sure what I should be listening for, or what distinguishes a good improv set from a poor one. But approaching it with open ears, here’s what I made of it.

Small Group Improvisations

First up was a set of three small group performances, billed as being by three duos, but on the night performed by two duos and a quartet.

The first pairing was saxophonist John Butcher and percussionist Fritz Welch. It opened with Welch playing musical saw, and Butcher producing sounds from his soprano a bit like static on a badly-tuned radio. As their set progressed, Butcher continued to explore the outer limits of the sounds you can get from a saxophone, often at a barely-audible volume, while Welch accompanied him on a deconstructed drum set, using it to produce colouristic sounds rather than to lay down a beat.

Next up was a quartet of two double basses (Dominic Lash and Armin Sturm), flute (Emma Roche) and voice (Maggie Nicols). This was a bit more conventional. Quite a lot of the time, one bass player would be playing pizzicato, and the other arco, with singer and flautist responding to what they were playing and to one another.

The third small group set was a guitar duo of George Burt and John Russell, Burt playing acoustic and Russell a lightly-amplified electric guitar. Much of their set was devoted to an exploration of the different sounds which could be produced by strumming or plucking the guitar at different points: at the normal place, high up the neck, below the bridge or between the left hand and the top of the neck. They threw out a lot of good ideas, but I felt they never really took the time to develop any of them properly.

The Edge: Ken Hyder, Raymond MacDonald and Maggie Nicols

After an interval of about an hour, Edge, a trio made up of Ken Hyder, Raymond Macdonald and Maggie Nicols came on to play an intense and inventive forty-five minute set, which mixed elements of free jazz and Scottish folk music. It started off with a bleak aural soundscape out of which ghostly whisps of melody condensed only to evaporate again, before various songs – including Ae Fond Kiss, Ye Banks and Braes, McCrimmon’s Lament and Gaelic mouth music – emerged then eventually disappeared back into the sonic mist. Hyder sang a lot as well as playing drums, and Maggie Nicol played piano for part of the set as well as singing. The piece ended with what was quite possibly the first ever free jazz version of a Harry Lauder song: a Nicols and Hyder duet on Keep Right on to the End of the Road which gave the song an air of grim perseverance rather than optimistic anticipation. It gave the impression that whatever was at the end of the road wasn’t necessarily pleasant, but there was no alternative to trudging on towards it. The trio’s set wasn’t an easy listen, but was engrossing from start to finish. I hope they continue to work together: I’d definitely like to hear them again.

The evening ended with a performance by the full Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra and their guests, but because it was getting late and some of the pavements out my way were still dangerously icy I decided not to stay for it.