This album’s curious title gives a perfect hint of the music contained within the abstract cover and indeed of the sound of UK improv overall. The key of the whole genre is in the way its performers balance the freedom to follow their individual muses as improvisers with enough form and structure to keep the music from collapsing into shapeless mulch. Even when I don’t quite like the results, I can only marvel at the intuitive way the best of these musicians (Steve Noble, Roger Turner, Evan Parker, Steve Beresford, John Butcher, to name a few) navigate this perilous equilibrium.
Bassist John Edwards is currently one of the London scene’s most important figures, a huge presence in bands like N.E.W. and Bruise. He has accumulated an eclectic array of collaborations with artists including Peter Brötzmann to Otomo Yoshihide, Roscoe Mitchell to Okkyung Lee. Unlike many older improvisers, Edwards has followed the lead of Derek Bailey in embracing music beyond improv’s roots in free jazz (he even featured in Justin K Broadrick and Kevin Martin’s God!), and his bass style is one of the most distinct you will find in the European and British improvisation scenes. Drummer Mark Sanders, meanwhile, is almost as experienced, having performed and recorded with the likes of Gail Brand, Howard Riley and Evan Parker. As for John Tilbury, he’s a pianist who should need no introduction, with a career that stretches back nearly 50 years. He has proved to be one of his instrument’s most distinguished players of that time.
It’s to his credit that, at the age of 78 and with a background mostly in the traditionally more rigid world of minimalist and avant-garde composition (he’s performed works by Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff and Cornelius Cardew in particular, even writing a definitive book on the latter), Tilbury seems to feel no reticence at playing with these young bucks. The album’s title implies a certain tension between the players, and it certainly kicks off with a subdued, almost brooding atmosphere, with a pall of near-silence barely troubled by moody scrapes from Edwards, Tilbury’s intermittent notes and mild interjections on cymbals and rims by Sanders. Tilbury’s experience in minimalism dominates, and the album correspondingly moves at a slow pace at relatively low volume throughout, with Edwards weaving grinding notes around the pianist’s sporadic tinkles, thunderous drives and passages performed inside the piano. Indeed, at times, A field perpetually at the edge of disorder feels closer tomusique concrète and the works of Stockhausen or Cage than to anything anchored in the jazz tradition.
Sanders is the most constant presence, whether cracking out clusters of percussion or gently patting his cymbals, and his warm, enthusiastic presence, along with the odd moment of playfulness from Tilbury (he somehow makes the sound of toy whistles seem logical in the context of the album), means that A field perpetually at the edge of disorder is rarely dry or impenetrably austere. Mind you, it’s certainly aimed at a very specific audience, and its complex rhythmic shifts and slack pace will not be for all, but as a document of three top class musicians coming together and managing to build something unique despite wide-ranging backgrounds, it’s very much worth taking the time to explore.