Once upon a time, The Wire (a fantastic magazine I’ve been contributing to for, holy shit, a dozen years) capitalized genre designations, so reviews would be full of references to “Country” or “Metal” or “Improv,” short for improvised music. (N.B.: Not jazz, where segments of improvisation are bracketed by pre-determined structures, but total improvisation—starting from nothing, and seeing where you end up. A lot of improv people view jazz as a dead form. They’re wrong, of course.) Over time, The Wire stopped capitalizing genres, but there are people who you can tell still put an imaginary capital letter at the beginning of the word “improv,” because they think of it as innately superior to all other forms of music. These are the same people who will be found referring to improvised music as “creative music”—and sure, they’ll tell you they don’t mean to imply that anything else is uncreative, but you can see it in their eyes…they do.
Anyhow, in the world of improv-with-an-imaginary-capital-I, pianist John Tilbury is a titan. Since 1980, Tilbury has been a member of the improv group AMM—at present, he and percussionist Eddie Prévost are the only members left. But he’s also a trained classical pianist (he studied at the UK’s Royal College of Music, and won the Dutch Gaudeamus competition in 1968), long associated with Cornelius Cardew and highly regarded as an interpreter of Morton Feldman. In 2000, he released the four-CD box Feldman: All Piano, which included brilliant versions of Triadic Memories and For Bunita Marcus, in addition to an entire disc of early short pieces.
A field perpetually at the edge of disorder (the lack of capitalization is presumably to honor its origins as a phrase from a text; specifically, Martha Rosler‘s book Culture Class) documents the first-ever live performance by the trio of Tilbury, bassist John Edwards and drummer Mark Sanders, at London’s Cafe Oto in June 2013. (Buy it from the label.) Both these players have long and storied histories of their own. Among many projects of note, Edwards is a member of the free organ trio Decoy, who’ve recorded several kick-ass discs of their own and a couple with saxophonist Joe McPhee guesting; Sanders, meanwhile, has been a sideman of choice since the mid ’90s, playing with virtually everyone of importance on the UK jazz and improv scenes; and the two men have worked together for about 15 years now, notably backing saxophonist Evan Parker on 2000’s two-CD set The Two Seasons.
The most impressive characteristic of A field perpetually at the edge of disorder, on first listen, is how un-improvised it seems. There’s none of the feeling-each-other-out you sometimes get with recordings of first encounters, probably because of the lengthy relationship Edwards and Sanders have, combined with Tilbury’s essential up-for-anythingness. For the first six minutes, the three men conjure a slowly congealing mood that could score a horror film—close your eyes, and it’s easy to imagine a group of three or four teenagers, one flashlight between them, exploring a half-collapsed old house. Tilbury’s hitting massive, ominous notes with what seem like whole minutes of space between them; Edwards’ bass is bowed to sound like a creaking door, or someone dragging a metal box across linoleum; Edwards hits the toms here and there, but also makes clattering sounds like a rat weaving between glasses in a closed cabinet. Around the 10-minute mark, they start to sound a little bit more like a “piano trio,” but the music is still extremely sparse, and far better suited to headphones than speakers. By the halfway point of the first, 38-minute segment, the three men have created a viable language and are communicating in it in a way that is both compelling and coherent. Repeated piano phrases are answered by appropriate—not disruptive, or antagonistic—sounds from both bass and drums. It sounds like music.
The second, half-hour segment of the performance launches instantly; there’s none of the slow build heard in the first half. At times, Tilbury’s lyrical and melodic playing, backed by Edwards’ bowing and Sanders’ sharp, tom-focused mini-barrages, brings to mind Cecil Taylor‘s Feel Trio (with William Parker on bass and Tony Oxley on drums) at their most meditative. The music feels even more composed, or at least thought-through, than in the first segment. Clearly, a collective mood has overtaken these three men, and the drive toward experimentation—which can occasionally go awry, as it does in the first piece, when one player picks up a bird call and tootles annoyingly for nearly a minute—is almost entirely obviated. Indeed, as the performance reaches its final stretches, the music no longer comes close to living up to its title. Rather than being “at the edge of disorder,” it is in fact very close to having evolved a structure, as if a hedge had spontaneously assumed a topiary-like shape without the interference of the gardener’s hand. If the principles and political philosophies behind improv-with-a-capital-I make you wary of approaching an album like this one, make the exception, because this one-off encounter is truly an exceptional listening experience.
Stream an excerpt: