Audience Perspective

by Andrew Shone

..these developments came about mainly through private, daytime, playing and also at a weekly lunchtime concert we organized throughout that two and a half year period in a small upstairs room over a pub. During that time we collected a small audience that attended these performances with astonishing regularity and faithfulness....

from 'Joseph Holbrooke' in 'Improvisation: Its nature and practice in Music'

During the '63-'66 existence of Joseph Holbrooke, its worth recalling that the general cultural milieu was in a state of high activity. The rock scene boomed, mainly British led, and the mid-century assumption that everything American was up-to-date, in both low and high art, started to come under question. The swinging sixties. For many jazz listeners this was a conundrum.

Just as, a decade earlier, there had been the 'mouldy figs' and the 'boppers' so, by the early sixties, there were the 'modernists' and the 'new thingsters'. To a small section of this audience, however, the kaleidoscopic variety of music available, mainly stemming from the black American tradition, gave rise to a surprising openmindedness. It was both possible and desirable to sample as much and as widely as possible. Sometimes all in one day. It was all part of the spectrum of a whole area which was different from other musics. It contained two elements which didn't seem to occur in classical or rock: a fluid rhythmic pulse and a spontaneity of sound. What one could hear in the Coltrane quartet, then at its zenith, was clearly the descendent of Joe 'King' Oliver et. al. There was so much intuitive enthusiasm in musicians and audience alike that there was little time or need for intellectualization.

For example, two or three of us were playing in an appalling though exuberant 'trad' band in the upstairs room at the Grapes pub in Trippett Lane, Sheffield, on Friday nights and forming part of the audience for Joseph Holbrooke, in the same room, the following lunchtime.

To go along and hear guys playing tunes which were constantly on your or your friends turntables, from Horace Silver through Bill Evans to Eric Dolphy, was pretty exciting. The way in which this material was reinterpreted by these three individualistic, highly gifted musicians, was a revelation. The overlap was working. We could relate by tune, time and feel.

People listened hard.

"I was spellbound every time I listened to the Trio", John Capes recalled recently.

That was the first set. After a break, Derek, Gavin and Tony would reassemble and launch into a freer mode, and now we were into new territory where tune statement became an irrelevance, metric timekeeping was abandoned and only feel remained in the same reference frame. John Capes again: " It was very, very exciting and like nothing I could listen to at home, or anywhere else for that matter. Comparable to the excitement I'd felt previously on listening to 'Giant Steps' or an Ornette album. Only this time, all the normal springboards of melody, chords and regular time were being dispensed with."

Initially, to me, it was the percussion which provided the continuity of feel. Tony Oxley's conventional drumming was, even playing 4/4, already expressing stated time in a different way ( using triplets and effectively 18 beats to the bar) to that with which we were familiar. This sensation of floating over stated time carried over into the more experimental music, where one continued to float, albeit on unstated time.

Particular recollections for me: the impact of Derek's feedback raising the pulse rate; the fly screen on the wall vent resonating with Tony's kit; Gavin's completion of his solo before having the opportunity to wipe his nose, by which time the mucal extrusion he had produced was oscillating around the end of his fingerboard; Sheffield's zeroish temperatures. Capes recalls: The way Tony would play off the kit, like on the windowsill or dado rail; the sense of anticipation of what was to happen next at any point."

This awareness of the unexpected enabled the listener to hear the instruments as sounds in their own right, less dependant on what roles they would be expected to fulfil in a more conventional situation.

Derek Bailey's already radically angular guitar playing moved into a setting where his provocative and widely ranging ideas had the space to be fully articulated. Similarly, Gavin Bryars' bass could be heard as having an interchangeability with Derek's guitar.

I knew this was the avant garde, before my very ears, and it seemed to me, as an architecture student, part of a wider movement which included Buckminster Fuller and all the formal and social possibilities open to post Corbusian modernism. Music, however exists almost wholly in a fourth dimension, and would appear to be a polar opposite of the spatial organisation of canvas and building site. But, both activities have the commonalities of structure, rhythm, size and strength, as well as the secondary attributes of texture of surface and interior, light and shade, and even decoration. What was happening during the existence of Joseph Holbrooke, and was apparent to the interested observer, was a reappraisal of the musical elements as applied to improvised music: deconstruction of the known jazz syntax. And it worked.

Andrew Shone

February 1999