We Cantaloupe

Exceptional record by Seymour Wright and Paul Abbott appearing here as the team-up of XT. Palina’tufa (EMPTY EDITIONS EE004) was made during a residency in Hong Kong and features the saxophone work of Wright and the drumming of Abbott. I’m not as familiar with these players as I should be, and this is not to my credit. We did hear Wright briefly in a group setting on the album Front and Above with John Chantler. A glance at Wright’s discography (from 2001 onwards) reveals he’s been released on some heavy-duty improv labels, such as Matchless and Another Timbre, and also veered towards labels associated with extreme experimentation, such as Winds Measure Recordings and TwoThousandAnd, plus he’s played with Keith Rowe, Eddie Prevost, Nate Wooley and Evan Parker.

I mention all this because it seems that XT the duo in general, and this Palina’tufa in particular, are trying to challenge a lot of the basic assumptions about “free improvisation”, its traditions and styles, perhaps even the audience expectations too. On this record, one way they have gone about doing it is to attempt a bold fusion of free playing with elements of dance music, specifically its “recursive formal structures”. They make good on this claim – and I don’t say that lightly. Many new bands, projects and solo turns are always saying they’re going to produce an exciting new stylistic hybrid of some sort, and quite often they fail miserably – or the results are unlistenable…one canard I will bring before the jury is that regrettable drum’n’bass record of Derek Bailey’s; many claims were made for it, as though it represented some axiomatic statement about a meeting of two completely different forms of music, when it was nothing of the sort.

I can’t really point out how or where this Palina’tufa record is “doing” anything that remotely resembles dance music, with the possible exception of the use of repetition (which is present, but done in a baffling way) but it sounds amazing anyway. The drumming isn’t “techno” drumming at all, but you can tell Paul Abbott has had his head jammed in his share of vibrating bass bins. This music has the kind of messy, impolite energy that has been lacking from free improvisation for a very long time now (we haven’t really heard this kind of rawness on record since the late 1960s or early 1970s, possibly not since Bailey with Han Bennink). There’s a refreshing embrace of “noise”, whatever that term may mean in this context, rather than the usual emphasis on extended technique or whatever they’re calling it these days. Certainly we have here a record that’s not afraid to sound weird, trade in bizarre sounds and near-obnoxious emissions. Yet everything seems natural and free, unforced.

Having mentioned the “energy” thing, this is also quite unlike the so-called “energy jazz” tag that’s been applied to sax-and-drum free jazz duets numerous times in print (and indeed some of them are listed on the press notes here), again suggesting that this in another overdone trope in music that is in need of revision. I personally regret the trend that’s been happening in Norwegian free jazz lately, where the sole aim seems to be to represent a charging rhinoceros on stage, abandoning any pretence at nuance or light and shade. Which brings me to another good thing about Palina’tufa – its bizarre dynamics. It’s really hard to figure out where this music is going; it makes even the most open-minded free playing seem rather linear in comparison. XT don’t appear to be doing anything very contrived – as noted, all feels v. natural – yet somehow they’re managing to deflect a lot of the normal expectations we might have of this genre of music, while avoiding just about every one of the pitfalls and man-traps that await the incautious tootler and thumper. This might be down to the emulate-dance-music strategy, but a lot of is down to sheer talent and intuition of this talented duo.

It seems then XT are able to remain true to the traditions (if that’s the right way to think about it) of everyone from AMM to SME and Company Week, while simultaneously able to call that history into question, and posit new ways of free playing that are evidently highly successful. Amazing, impressive record…have the feeling this could be a very significant achievement. Investigate forthwith. From 28 May 2019.

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