Tuesday, 10 June 2008

'On The Outside' Festival: John Tchicai, Aki Takase, Joe McPhee...

For one weekend the North East of England became the centre of the world for fans of improvised music and free-jazz. Legends John Tchicai and Joe McPhee were joined by estimable figures such as Cooper-Moore, Sabir Mateen, Aki Takase, Wilbert de Joode and a handpicked selection of UK musicians (including Steve Noble, John Edwards, Alex Ward, Tony Levin and Maggie Nichols).

Adopting a ‘Company Week’ type approach, the idea was to put together musicians who in some cases hadn’t even heard of each other, let alone met, and then see what happened. My main gripe with improv is that it carries with it a high risk of artistic failure, but the process its self continues to fascinate many listeners regardless of the outcomes. Normally I wouldn’t be too excited by such an event, for exactly those reasons, but there were enough musicians I respect on the roster to guarantee at least some satisfaction.

I left the world of concert promotion around 5 years ago, tired of poor audience figures, under-funding and political resistance from musically conservative corners. Jazz North East – the organisation promoting the ‘On The Outside’ festival – used to be able to claim me as its ‘chairman’, but when I stood down I suddenly felt a weight lift from my shoulders. Voluntary work such as this can be very rewarding, but by and large it’s a thankless task, and I was ready to hand over the baton.

Leaving was made easier knowing that Paul Bream, now the main man in the region for cutting edge jazz, was just about to retire from full-time work and keen to take up the mantle. Since I left giant steps have been made, and Paul’s energy and commitment to this challenging music far outweighs anything I ever did. I’m proud to have promoted gigs by the likes of Sunny Murray, Peter Br√∂tzmann, Ken Vandermark, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Jemeel Moondoc and Andrew Cyrille. The last gig I put together was, symmetrically enough, a duo of Joe McPhee and Paul Hession, but a festival on this scale would have given me the jitters. Paul hasn't just done 'On the Outside' once, he's now done it four times!

When Paul asked me to have some involvement in this year’s festival, I was more than happy to oblige. I’d had my break and actually looked forward to having some involvement once again. Initially I just helped to programme the various combinations of musicians with Paul over a few beers, and many of the ideas we threw out left me excited, but glad that Paul was handling the risk (and most of the hard work).

With just over a week before the start of the festival, the first major problem arose. The venue that was due to host the event went into liquidation and ceased trading. Paul worked a few contacts and Gateshead Borough Council offered up the Old Town Hall, a historic building full of character and with a ready made performance area and natural acoustics. A lucky break perhaps in hindsight, given that the new venue was almost perfect?

My involvement during the event was loosely defined as ‘artist liaison’, covering everything from making sure the artists were fed to running them to and from the airport and hotel. When I got a call on my mobile from John Tchicai last Friday afternoon asking me what time he needed to be at the venue, I realised how badly prepared I was to offer much in the way of helpful liaison (not knowing the answer!). Things got worse - the curtain going up on the festival's opening set some 30 minutes late because of delays in getting food to all of the performers on time. We all know who to blame for that, don't we?


As the weekend progressed it got easier. Louise came along on all three days and kept me organised, chasing up errant take-away orders and looking after the delightful Aki like a personal chaperone. The weather was also perfect, and we spent a lot of the time between meals sitting outside chatting to Wilbert (about stroopwafel, amongst other things), John Edwards and Steve Noble, and watching Sabir sleep. The saxophonist seemed to wake only when he had to be on stage or when he felt hungry and needed to eat, attacking both activities with equal energy before slipping back under the veil.

We caught a fair bit of music, but inevitably with so much to do behind the scenes it was sporadic and selective. Aki’s amazing solo set drew the best audience response, but we missed the other much talked about festival highlight of Joe McPhee & Tony Levin, which clashed with the very late arrival of Aki’s flight. Both performances were so well received perhaps because of the relatively high levels level of musical structure they offered - not really a proud boast for a festival of improvised music!!

Steve Noble was as sensational as ever, and we caught him both with his NEW trio (with Edwards & Ward, playing everything from metal through surf, to jazz), and powering a hard blowing trio with McPhee and Edwards. Everything I said about him when I reviewed the Tim Berne gig last October stands, and I rate him as one of the best and most versatile drummers on the international scene. The last event we caught during the final session and was one of the most intense - Takase, Mateen, Edwards, Noble taking the music to the brink and beyond. A fitting way to end the weekend, and although I’m sure the next three sets offered up some jewels, sometimes it’s best to quit when you’re ahead.

The problem with festivals like this, which concentrate so much detailed and challenging music into such a short space of time, is that it’s easy to quickly become sated. Being selective actually worked in our favour, and although we only caught about a quarter of the music over the weekend, it was possible to enjoy it to its best advantage. Taking in the atmosphere and enjoying the company of so many special characters ‘behind the scenes’ left an impression that we’ll both find hard to erase. Like a good freshly ground espresso, the impact of this music is greater the smaller the dose. Other than hatching the idea that we'd do all of the catering ourselves next year, that was the main lesson of the weekend.

Fred Grand