The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Subscriber Area

Organic Intelligence XXII: Scottish Avant-Jazz and Improvised Music
Stewart Smith , July 14th, 2023 11:03

In this month's antidote to the algorithm, Stewart Smith introduces us to the wildly diverse world of Scottish free jazz and improv, from a 70s Peel Session to the present day via Bill Wells (pictured above) and the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra

There’s a buzz around Scottish jazz right now, with Fergus McCreadie picking up a Mercury Prize nomination and the Scottish Album of the Year Award for 2022’s Forest Floor. The pianist, who also plays with Graham Costello’s post-rock influenced Strata and Liam Shorthall’s contemporary fusion outfit corto.alto, is among a generation of musicians to have emerged from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s jazz programme, founded by saxophonist Tommy Smith in 2009. Over time, a local gigging infrastructure has emerged, with Glasgow venues like 78 and the sadly defunct Blue Arrow hosting regular sessions. This has inevitably led to a crossover with the wider music scene, the jazzers jamming with folk, indie and electronic musicians.

But as healthy as all this activity is, I’ve yet to hear anything particularly adventurous or original from the new wave. Whereas mainstream jazz in Europe and the US has made some accommodation with the avant-garde, Scottish jazz largely operates within the reference points laid down by Smith’s generation - Wynton Marsalis style jazz classicism, slick ECM Eurojazz, polished Scottish folk music - with younger musicians taking on contemporary crossover influences. The conservatoire focus on immaculate musicianship of a particular kind means there’s not much room for maverick approaches. Improvisation takes place within broadly conventional structures. There’s not much fire or grit. Post-AACM innovations in composition are barely touched upon. Not everything has to be avant-garde, but even within the parameters of the mainstream, it all feels a bit polite and a little dated.

My hope is that more conservatoire jazzers will come over to the dark side and start jamming with members of Glasgow’s thriving improvised and experimental music scenes. There’s plenty of live action to get involved with, from the GIO Dynamics open sessions to Tony Bevan’s Help Me I’m Melting, 1.5 Months and Baked Beans On The Doorstep. The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra’s recent Where Rivers Meet, a programme of compositions by Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Anthony Braxton and Dewey Redman, might seem like a step in the right direction, but in treating their music as historical repertoire, removed from the wider contexts of experimental music and the black radical tradition, it underlines the problem. The project could have been a great opportunity to bring in practicing free jazz musicians from Scotland, but instead, it’s as if such figures simply don’t exist. Several improvisers have told me that the gatekeepers of Scottish jazz simply don’t view what they do as legitimate. Whatever it is, it isn’t jazz.

That narrative is reinforced in a recent Jazzwise feature on Scottish jazz, which doesn’t even mention Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, active since the early 2000s and crucial in creating a space where jazzers, free improvisers, classical musicians, folkies, punks, electronic musicians, visual artists, dancers and poets can get creative. In addition to nurturing curious young musicians, GIO has also provided a home for veteran improvisers like the late, great George Lyle, the bassist at the heart of Scotland’s progressive jazz scene since the late 1960s. Back in the day, Lyle and his peers backed visiting luminaries like Kenny Wheeler, Lol Coxhill and Trevor Watts, yet have largely been written out of the official Scottish jazz narrative. Many young musicians simply aren’t aware of them, which isn’t their fault, but rather underlines the need for proper documentation of their work, something I attempted to address with my Jazz At The Third Eye project. There’s a host of exciting music out there, past and present, so here are five entry points to Scottish avant-jazz and improvised music.

Listen to the playlists for this edition of Organic Intelligence on Spotify, TIDA and Apple Music.

Talisker – John Peel February 24, 1976

Like many a promising Scottish jazz musician in the 1960s, Dundonian drummer Ken Hyder had to move south to make it. Active in London’s progressive jazz and improvised music scene, Hyder returned to his Scottish roots with Talikser. Inspired by Albert Ayler’s use of folk themes, Hyder hit on the inspired idea of combining free jazz with traditional Scottish material - pibroch, Gaelic psalms, strathspeys, reels, pipe band marches - releasing a series of albums beginning with 1975’s Dreaming Of Glen Isla. They’re all worth tracking down, not least Land of Stone, which features glorious vocal contributions from Maggie Nicols and Phil Minton, but nothing captures the band’s energy quite like this 1976 Peel session. Lightyears away from the smooth and airy folk fusions which have characterised recent Scottish jazz - a style I call Celtic mist - Talisker are wild, ragged and lyrical. John Rangecroft and Davie Webster’s saxophones squabble and jig over Hyder’s multi-directional drumming, while the twin basses of Lindsay L. Cooper and Marc Meggido weave propulsive free runs into bagpipe-like drones. Hyder’s occasional vocal interjections - “Good and nasty, waggle your bottoms!” – whip the free jazz ceilidh into a beautiful frenzy.

Bill Wells Trio – ‘Also In White’

A composer with a rare melodic gift and a playful, yet deep, sense of experimentation, Bill Wells is the closest thing we’ve got to the great Carla Bley. On his early big band recordings, released on his own Loathsome Reels label, Wells leads a motley crew of Scottish jazz mavericks like saxophonist John Longbotham and bassist/tubaist Lindsay L Cooper through a book of tunes that join the dots between Sun Ra, Burt Bacharach and John Barry, the warmly wonky arrangements anticipating his later work with Maher Shalal Hash Baz. Wonderful music, but the Scottish jazz establishment wanted nothing to do with it, leading Wells to make fruitful contact with improvisers like Lol Coxhill, Pat Thomas and Annie Whitehead, and leftfield Glasgow pop internationalists The Pastels and Future Pilot AKA. Also In White, released on The Pastels’ Geographic imprint, brings Scotland’s jazz and indie worlds together beautifully. The trio of Wells, Belle & Sebastian’s Stevie Jackson and trumpeter Robert Henderson, is joined by members of The Pastels and Wells’ Octet. I could have chosen any of the tunes from this gorgeous album, but the title track, with its wistful Midnight Cowboy harmonica, dreamy Rhodes and muted trumpet, is magical.

Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra with Maggie Nicols – ‘Listen’
(FMR Records)

Founded in 2002, Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra has played a crucial role in developing and sustaining improvised music in Scotland, exploring various approaches to spontaneous composition, from gestural conduction to graphic scores. It’s arguably stronger than ever, thanks to its embrace of Zoom improvisation during Covid and its community building efforts through the weekly GIODynamics sessions. Heavyweight collaborators include Evan Parker, Keith Tippett, George E. Lewis, Marilyn Crispell, Corey Mwamba and Maggie Nicols. The great vocal improviser, pianist and dancer is now a permanent member of the band. Her composition Energy Being setting of a prose poem by fellow Scot Lindsay L. Cooper, the bassist and tubaist who played with everyone from Mike Oldfield to Bill Wells.

The musicians read from or respond to the Zen-like text, with Nicols weaving in her own memories of Cooper from the 1960s, as well as notated jazz irruptions for the horns. The piece starts meditatively, with sustained saxophone tones, percussive acoustic guitar and breath sounds, before Cooper’s direction to “turn energy into matter” encourages wild bouts of free playing. A fitting tribute to Cooper’s free-wheeling spirit and a wonderful example of Nicol’s inspirational presence in GIO. Other notable releases featuring GIO members include albums on Iorram and Scatter Archive by Una McGlone, Jim McEwan, George Burt, Neil Davidson, Jer Reid, and cellist Semay Wu, and saxophonist Raymond MacDonald’s recent throwdown with the legendary drummer Gunter “Baby” Sommer on Clean Feed.

George Lyle & Fritz Welch – Untitled (bass and percussion #3)

George Lyle is the figure who connects Glasgow’s free music scene of the 1970s to 21st century improvisation. In the 1960s, he lived for a spell in London, sharing a house with Maggie Nicols and Linsday L. Cooper, and witnessing concerts at the Little Theatre Club, the crucible of free improvisation. Upon returning to Glasgow in the 1970s, he hooked up with poet, playwright and jazz pianist Tom McGrath and drummer Nick Weston to play their own take on free music, gradually bringing younger players like Tony Gorman, Jim Vincent and John Longbotham into the fold. In the 1990s, Lyle fell in with a younger generation, leading to his membership of GIO, where he struck up a friendship with percussionist, vocalist and visual artist Fritz Welch. Emerging from their weekly jam sessions in Lyle’s flat, Fortified Echo is testament to both musicians’ open-hearted creativity. Totally free yet deeply focussed, these improvisations for voice, bass, piano and percussion are shot through with absurdist humour and emotional vulnerability.

Usurper - Fishing For Tripe
(Chocolate Monk)

So far, much of the focus has been on Glasgow, but Edinburgh too has its own small improv/weirdo scene, centred around Usurper’s Ali Robertson and Malcy Duff, their label Giant Tank and promotions arm (with Firas Khnaisser) TFEH. Offering a distinctly Scottish answer to the absurdist improv of London’s Bohman Brothers and the US tape underground, Usurper are best experienced live, where their tabletop jumble and faltering dialogues can be seen in all their Beckett-via-Bud-Neill glory. But their recorded output is well worth investigating too. Envisioned as a wholesome document of domestic life, Fishing For Tripe throws in the amplified gurgling of the kitchen sink, alongside vocal contributions from the duo’s partners Louise and Collette. The overlapping voices of “Part 5” sit somewhere between a Robert Ashley opera and Ivor Cutler’s Life In A Scotch Sitting Room. Usurper are also involved with inclusive music group Sonic Bothy, whose 2019 album Fields is a gem.