by Phil Freeman
The improvised music scene in 1970s England is a very interesting subject for a book. It’s got lots of dramatic elements: a new form of music emerging, greeted by a mix of enthusiasm, derision, and bafflement; a few dominant personalities, some of whom came into very public conflict with each other; regional scenes battling for recognition in the shadow of a larger central cultural hub; and more. And author Trevor Barre is in a great position to write a book about 1970s English improv, having been an early and apparently quite devoted fan of the music. He bought the records, he was at the gigs, he read the small magazines the musicians founded to document their work.
Convergences, Divergences & Affinities: The Second Wave of Free Improvisation in England, 1973-1979 (buy the Kindle edition, or get the physical book straight from the author) is a sequel to his previous book Beyond Jazz: Plink, Plonk & Scratch: The Golden Age of Free Music in London 1966-1972, which I have not read. This book is unlike any other music history I’ve read—the closest analogue might be Joe Carducci‘s Rock and the Pop Narcotic, not because Barre has an overriding Grand Theory as Carducci does but because the perspective is relentlessly first-person. Barre is constantly interrupting lengthy quotations with parenthetical asides, usually to disagree with the writer about some minor point. He also provides a lot of eyewitness testimony, either about albums (he’s heard ’em), venues (he was there) or events (likewise). And many interesting quotes from high-profile improv musicians like Evan Parker come from personal communications with Barre. But he’s also done a ton of research, likely by wandering out to his garage and opening old cardboard boxes. The book is full of quotes from articles in tiny independent journals that were covering the improv scene, like Musics, Microphone and Resonance.
The biggest problem with C, D & A is the prose. The subject matter is interesting, and Barre has some solid insights into the difference between players like Parker and Derek Bailey and those who came only a few years after them like Steve Beresford, Lol Coxhill and Terry Day, whose approach to improvisation was completely different and could even be said to approach “anti-music” at times. I know if I was at a gig where a dude was blowing a bamboo flute into a bucket of water for a half hour, or playing tiny toy instruments, I’d be pretty irate, and there’s some intriguing discussion of how this approach was decidedly not welcomed by visiting American free jazz players like Wadada Leo Smith and Anthony Braxton.
But Barre’s a highly idiosyncratic writer. His sentences wind all over the place, and he constantly interrupts himself with parenthetical asides, rhetorical questions, and the kind of puns and nudging wordplay that pass for humor in England. He also tosses in political digressions—about Brexit and Donald Trump—that seem tangential to his point, at best. So pulling valuable information (and there’s a lot, from discographical trivia to chronicles of gigs, the histories of small regional arts collectives, and more) out of each of the book’s sections can be a trying task. His habit of citing sources parenthetically in mid-sentence, derived from academia I guess, rather than through footnotes or endnotes, is annoying and disruptive, too. But if you have an interest in this type of music, you know these were the glory years, when the form was defining itself and making albums that still stand up as listening experiences, however ironic that may seem. And Barre has a lot of knowledge to share, including a guide to various record labels and what they released, histories of what the people outside of London were doing, and a thorough analysis of every issue of Musics, which was clearly the defining journal of the improv scene. The book also includes an extensive bibliography and discography. So ultimately this is a flawed but invaluable guide to a scene that needs one—if you read only one book about UK improv, Convergences, Divergences & Affinities should be it.