Cafe Oto launching its own record label, OtoRoku, has proved to be a masterstroke, but then many of us could have predicted that. Confirming all expectations, the London venue’s curators have slowly been releasing – or plan to release – a wondrous trickle of albums that represent the best snapshots of London’s internationally-flavoured, and, dare this local say it, excellent free-jazz and improv scene. Last year, we were treated to the remarkable …The Worse the Better by the Brötzmann/Edwards/Noble trio, and OtoRoku have followed that up with this notably different, but no less wonderful, release that sees drummer Steve Noble and bassist John Edwards’ Decoy trio (completed by Alexander Hawkins on Hammond Organ) augmented by the considerable presence of American horn giant Joe McPhee.
Spontaneous Combustion is made of a single track, but it could just as easily have been divided into several (and yes, I’m aware that would have defeated the point of the whole improvisation thing), because the quartet slip and slide spontaneously around different motifs and styles with almost telepathic ease. As often with this sort of improvised live performance, it starts off very tentatively, even quietly, with a few dislocated pocket trumpet notes bouncing off random skits and scrapes from Noble and Edwards. In an interview I once did with Steve Noble, the drummer described improvisation as “a conversation” between the musicians” and in many ways, this extended introductory passage is like a form of small talk or preliminary chit-chat: abstract, yet testing, the foursome figuring out where they can go together by lightly going over the basics. It’s the musical equivalent of chatting about the weather.
Either through inspiration or impatience, the rhythm duo then grab the bull by the proverbials and canter forcefully into a rambunctious funk/jazz/rock shuffle that briefly leaves McPhee in its wake, as if he’s content just to watch and admire rather than get involved. With Hawkins’ organ shimmering away like it’s been beamed in from the late sixties, the piece takes on a pleasingly retro turn, somewhere between Herbie Hancock’s celestial jazz fusion and the wildest days of early Santana, back when they were good. The audience’s response, a series of delighted whoops and cheers, is part of the thrill, and prompts Joe McPhee to dash back into the fray with a swooping solo. His tone is hard to pin down, as he deftly avoids the squalling Coltrane-isms of most free jazz luminaries, but, equally, it’s too powerful and impassioned to not be part of the free jazz continuum, much in the same manner as Don Cherry. Anyone who’s heard his landmark Nation Time album from 1971 will already know just how unique and soulful his playing is. Almost as remarkable is how he manages to channel some of this American free soul style into this set with three Britons, a testament to the open-mindedness of all involved.
The second side of Spontaneous Combustion ups the ante over the first in some style. The trio of duos that centre around the interactions between Edwards, Noble and McPhee are key to the record’s entire 37 minutes, and they really come to the fore in the latter half. When McPhee descends into quirky abstract flutters and squalls, he is joined by Edwards alone, who responds, almost call-and-response style, with moody bow scrapes. At other times, it’s Noble who takes over to jostle playfully with the horn player, either building up rolls on the toms, or mirroring McPhee’s bleats and hard-bop solos with tight shuffles and the occasional discordant clatter. When the two supposed “leaders” (although I doubt either McPhee or Hawkins would label themselves as such) pull back to let the spotlight shine fully on the rhythm section, you can hear why Noble and Edwards play together so often: their interactions fit together smoothly, even at their most free-form, like a multitude of hands with corresponding gloves. Of the four players, Hawkins is perhaps the most discreet (a Hammond B3 can be an overbearing beast), but his nicely psychedelic flourishes contribute to the overall mood, which is one where fun and experimentation go hand-in-hand, perhaps best exemplified when Joe McPhee puts his horn to one side and launches into a surreal series of guttural howls.
The pleasure one derives from Spontaneous Combustion will be simple: for those of us who weren’t there when this fine quartet delivered this equally fine set, it’s a chance to get a taste of the night’s delights. For those who were, well now you’re doubly fortunate. Cafe Oto is a lovely venue, and I’m glad that more of its gigs will soon be available to hear after the fact.