I‘m not going to lie to you. I don’t know the first thing about free jazz. I barely know anything about jazz at all beyond what I can remember from one module in college and whatever I’ve gleaned from Sunday mornings listening to Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck on Spotify. Once we get to the heavy stuff I’ve got little more the recent issue of the Wire with Peter Brotzmann on the cover to guide me. I am generally without reference points when I’m listening to this stuff and I’m certainly unlikely to offer anything new to the established conversation that may be happening around the genre. In short, I’m afloat on a sea of noises I do not have the vocabulary to understand.
So, where does that leave this review? Well, a friend and I recently visited a contemporary art gallery in town. My friend made the comment that she didn’t really know how to criticise what she was looking at, which at the time happened to be a piece of black plastic laid over a rug on the ground, covering all but the tassels around the edge of the rug. How does one say whether this piece of black plastic covering a rug was good art or not? I just said you generally try to figure out how it makes you feel, what it makes you think about and go from there. If it doesn’t induce any kind of feeling or thought in you, then it’s definitely not good art and so the question is answered anyway. All that matters really is what you’re getting from it. Context is great when you have it and something that should be taken into as full an account as possible, but if you don’t have it, carry on anyway. What else can you do? You’ll probably change your mind later anyway.
How does it make you feel? The first word that comes to mind with Spontaneous Combustion is “excitement”. It’s a live recording, from Cafe Oto in London, and it feels performed and performative from the beginning. It starts out quite dramatic, a lot of quiet moments, sounds disappearing into the ether. Joe McPhee’s trumpet rises out of the silence with wobbly melodies while percussion patters away behind it, like a pair of drunks on the boardwalk in moonlight, before it gets proper quiet for a while. Then, out of the blue, Alexander Hawkins’ insistent Hammond organ begins to drone, the rhythm section grows agitated and everything starts to spin. Twelve minutes in and we’re away, a bustling rush led by that freaky organ. It sounds unlike anything I’ve heard before, an almost psychedelic new texture that breathes life into the crashing drums that tumble us all the way down into the end of Side A.
Side B opens with some more prominent, poignant trumpet from McPhee, dynamic and restrained to begin with. Sliding languorously from note to note, he twists and turns and ties knots of ribbon melody. Silence again falls and the path to the mountain top is plotted. This time however, they fall short, pacing upwards but reaching a plateau after some jagged ground. A pause and a reconsideration. The trumpet squiggles again, the drums shout back, the hammond whispers to itself. Hawkins and bassist John Edwards soon find the way forward and Steve Noble isn’t far behind on the drums. They jump nimbly into a light groove and McPhee runs out in front again, leading them to the inevitable, pumping close.
So what does it make you think about? A trip with friends mostly, a night-time jaunt with no set destination. It feels fresh and unencumbered, perhaps because I know nothing about it. But the crowd are enjoying it, you can hear them whooping on the record. They’re into it. It feels like the band are having fun. I’m having fun following along. I can’t tell you it sounds like this or is referencing that, I don’t have those words. But one of the best things about improvisation is you get to make it up as you go along, the noise you’re making at this second only really makes sense in relation to the second just passed. When the conversation stops, you’ll have to come up with a whole new language to start it again. It’s here and now and that’s the beauty of it. Spontaneous Combustion, as perhaps hinted at in the title, seems to be just fine with that.