Freedom of the City

As the first performer of the 2010 Freedom of the City Festival at London’s Conway Hall, the American trumpeter Peter Evans’ swirling reveille announced proceedings with unabashed drama and poise. A swirling, metallic loop of sound was introduced without preface, immediately swilling around the space as if the listener had always been in the middle of it. Tones began peeling off from one another, reverberating through the curves and lintels of the hall, just as they furred and buzzed the knot of the inner ear. Evans’ technique being so impressive, the level of drama that he embodied and played up to seemed of interest, especially in comparison with the performer who would take to the stage later in the festival, Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith. Performing in a trio with the fine drummers Steve Noble and Louis Moholo-Moholo, Smith characterised another kind of dramatic presence altogether, tapped into a powerful charisma in a way independent of the qualities of the music being produced. And let’s be clear – the music produced by both Evans and the trumpet and drums trio was remarkable. Having immediately embarked on his crackling loop of sound, squeezed and swerved by the swallows of circular breathing, Evans marshalled his trumpet like a high-pressure hose – occasionally (and quite ‘dramatically’) letting his lips breaking their seal and flare out a blast of air, as if some release were necessary for the ongoing movement to continue. This relentless stream of modulated forms was soon broken, however, and with an inevitable loss of the elasticated tension that had been slowly constructed, the performance moving into a series of tight note clusters, raced through and repeated in a way reminiscent of clawhammer guitar picking. The overlapping patterns were occasionally interrupted – when Evans carefully switched to piccolo trumpet – and there was a sensation that these interruptions were not engaged with as musical material as much as they might’ve been, with the effect that, when they did occur, they were more like strange, unwelcome intrusions – necessary gaps (as if to ‘change reels’ or some other mundane, technical task) that nevertheless could have been exploited as a sonic territory on its own terms. It may be that this is more difficult when playing solo (even though there is less chance of silence in groups), and that the articulation between silence and sound get relegated behind other more pressing concerns. Yet Evans clearly has a keen sense of structure and has the ability to constantly revise the trajectory of his material in a very effective way. His use of amplification was perfectly judged, bringing the volume up just short of a distracting distortion in order to deliver low noises of such physical power that they induced visions of an amplified grain silo which was slowly filling up around the audience. The tiniest movements of the mouth were routed through the amp and projected over the space as if magnified – which in turn added strange folds to the texture of the sound, occasionally suggesting the hidden presence of choral voices in the wings, providing a staggered harmonic accompaniment. Later, when Evans played in a trio with Evan Parker and Okkyung Lee, this strange ventriloquism was such that it was as if another valve or opening had been commandeered at the musicians’ backs. While there was less of the extended techniques in the playing of Wadada Leo Smith (although he could fray a beam of sound for fun), such was the drama and poise of his performance with Noble and Moholo, he managed to transport the simplest sequence of tones into a form of significance and gravitas. The rhythmic washes provided by these two drummers set up Smith’s playing in a compelling way – condensed snatches of rhythmic grooves wouldn’t come full-blooded, but instead emerged augmented or half-eaten, always at a slant, levered into the territories of the other musicians like laden trays. Across these sliding pulses – most often syncopated and retracted by Noble, slurred then simplified by Moholo – Smith occasionally cut through with tender, even melancholy phrases, dotted with nervous pitching. A lengthy passage came about where even the musicians seemed somewhat stunned by the charged space they had conjured and became oddly reticent, before being chanted back into movement. Smith, having squatted out of sight for a few moments, rose vertically into the frame and proposed a series of phrases, as Noble dragged wet digits around the drum skins, slipping a bulbous squeal underneath them. The drama of the set was calmly unravelled, without bombast, in a way that made it seem like it had ended that night of the festival, even though a number of groups had yet to take the stage. For me, however, the subtle nature of the drama addressed here was evidence when Smith attached the mute, slipping the range of his sound right into the heart of what had already been established, as if part of a vanishing trick, and the delicacy of his attack began to suggest “something to make the stars go to sleep” – a phrase intoned to introduce the trio’s closing piece.