Joseph Holbrooke in rehearsal 1965
Joseph Holbrooke in rehearsal 1965 | 1999
Incus CD Single 01
rehearsal extract 10 min 26
Tracks:Miles' Mode (J Coltrane)
Performers:Tony Oxley (drums)
Derek Bailey (guitar)
Gavin Bryars (bass)
Cover Notes by Gavin Bryars
This short piece was recorded in rehearsal in the front room of my ground floor flat at 329 Crooksmoor Road, Sheffield some time in 1965. It was a medium-size living room, carpeted and with an open fireplace, and was just big enough for the three of us to have sufficient space to play. I had lived in the upstairs flat during my last two years as a philosophy student, a period when, in reality, I was spending more time working virtually as a professional musician even before I graduated in 1964.
I met Derek and Tony for the first time when I had been invited to play with them, and pianist Gerry Rollinson. The student trio that I led, with guitarist Eddie Speight, had played during the interval of one of their quartet performances in a pub on Eccleshall Road.
When I came back to work in Sheffield towards the end of 1964 I managed to rent the lower floor flat, which was more practical for a bassist. Throughout the time that I lived there, until the end of the summer of 1966, the three of us would rehearse frequently and try out ideas. Sometimes just Tony and I would practice together, working on complex approaches to pulsed time, especially in order for the trio to become familiar with Tony's increasing interest in subdivisions of triplets (even when we were still playing relatively conventional jazz compositions) . At other times the three of us would rehearse, basically testing possible procedures in our transition from jazz to free playing. We would perform regularly in public, playing each Saturday lunchtime in an upstairs room in The Grapes, Trippet Lane.
When we had been playing jazz, the last recordings of the Bill Evans trio - with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian - were a useful example of one way in which the concept of a hierarchy of roles could be undermined. Examples of the kinds of ideas we used in the process of evolving from harmonic jazz to free playing are described in Derek's book. A quite early device was to play modally but at the same time not impose any limit on the amount of time that a player might spend improvising. That is, not to proscribe, for example, the number of "choruses" and even to move away from the very idea of "chorus" length in relation to the thematic material (here Miles' Mode) . Even when working with modal material we established very quickly the practice of moving outside the mode established by the theme once we were improvising, effectively negating the very concept of modal playing.
This rehearsal tape starts with a couple of minutes where we work out informally how the theme itself is played. When we begin to play the piece there is always an unmeasured, but quite long, pause after the theme's first phrase before moving on. ( In another recorded rehearsal of the same piece, probably done much earlier, this does not happen and, in that version, the bass and guitar play the theme in unison). For what could be termed the bridge section of the theme there is an improvised bass solo, accompanied only by drums. The improvisation proper begins as if it is going to be a guitar solo, accompanied by bass and drums, but it is apparent almost immediately that this is effectively a collective improvisation which becomes increasingly free, and has little dependence on the source material i.e. the theme and its modality. Occasionally the guitar quotes elements of the theme in a fragmentary way, almost as a parody of how it was being demonstrated in the pre-performance attempts to play the tune!
From time to time the bass moves to arco, playing long sustained notes, slow repeated phrases, playing out of time and independent of the fast rhythmic interplay between guitar and drums. When the bass solo begins (pizzicato) it is completely unaccompanied for a while and indeed long solos of this kind eventually became the norm in the actual performance at our regular venue. Here, however, the other instruments gradually begin to act as a kind of support until the solo becomes a double improvisation for the bass and drums, with discrete touches from guitar. A very slow arco, rhapsodic and out of time, attempted statement of the opening
of the theme appears. This hints at the use of varied tempi that was also developed more thoroughly in the later free playing.
The bass carries on further with its solo playing pizzicato and eventually states the theme giving a new, and different, impetus to the music leading to a drum solo, initially as a duo with the bass. Something which was very particular to Tony's playing at this time, and which can be heard here, is the extreme care with which he would tune his drums - the bass drum, various tom-toms and snare ( with the snares in their "off " position throughout this solo) giving his solos great tonal, almost melodic, variety. Derek begins to restate the theme over Tony's solo and it is interesting that Tony maintains exactly what he was already doing - quiet rolled figures on the higher tom-toms- throughout this initial statement and only plays thematically after the long pause in the statement. Many drummers would have immediately switched to thematic playing as soon as the tune reappeared.
Although this rehearsal performance is based on an extant piece, there is some evidence here of the group's transition towards a form of free playing.
The recorded legacy of Joseph Holbrooke from the 1960s is almost non-existent. Most of the material is located in rehearsal tapes and there are no recordings of the free playing to the best of my knowledge. There are tapes of our playing with Lee Konitz, which are hardly representative of our work, when he toured the north of England in the mid-60s. One of these, recorded at a club in Manchester, appears in the published discography of Lee Konitz where the players are listed as guitar (Derek Bailey), drums (Tony Oxley), bass player (unknown)..
Gavin Bryars, January 1999
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.
On the other hand...by Derek Bailey
There were other views. Andrew Shone and John Capes were part of an homogenous group of young people, fellow students, mostly, of Gavin Bryars, and they formed the bulk of our audience. Their enthusiasm and perception and continuity provided the 'climate' in which we played: very encouraging. But, although predominant, it would be inaccurate to represent theirs' as the only view of our activities.
A certain amount of grumpiness from any of the local musicians who occasionally chanced their arm at sitting in with us, invariably with unhappy results, wouldn't have been surprising, but I wasn't aware of any. Dissatisfaction of a more significant kind, for me, usually manifested itself on the rare occasions that one of my earlier musical associates would turn up in the audience. Their attitude was perhaps best expressed by George Paxton.
George and I had worked together in a band in Edinburgh some years previously. He was, in my estimation, a brilliant pianist and our association had been very beneficial for me. I hadn't seen him since that time but one Saturday, touring, George arrived at the Grapes. He came during the first set and I didn't get to speak to him until the break.
George's objections were of a theoretical nature. 'What the fuck do you think you are doing?' were his first words. This was not a question I was in a position to answer at that time but, knowing there was one area in which we had always agreed, I bought us a drink. The rest of our conversation consisted of George asking questions to which he didn't really want answers and me happily not supplying them. But, it was amicable enough and, before returning to play the second set and aware of the likely developments coming up, I suggested George might like to cut his losses and leave now. In fact, he didn't. He stayed to the end. But, leaving, he gave me what I think is described as a 'quizzical' look.
A couple of weeks later, back in Kilmarnock after his tour, George got in touch again. He sent me a 'Get Well Soon' card.