Oxley’s Paper Chase

More than welcome reissue of February Papers (DISCUS MUSIC DISCUS 99CD), an astonishing record by Tony Oxley originally released on the Incus label in 1977. I personally never heard this one before (the original issue is scarce and a high-priced collector’s item) which makes it all the more timely.

The reissue has been a personal project of Discus boss Martin Archer, who also gave us the superb¬† reissue of Keith Tippett’s The Unlonely Raindancer in 2019, another masterpiece of British jazz at risk of being overlooked. Oxley was one of the co-founders of the Incus label (along with Bailey and Parker), but one feels that from the start he was intent on following his own very strong ideas about music, which might not have aligned completely with the unwritten Incus rulebook. In the early 1970s, he managed to get major label releases for his 4 Compositions for Sextet (on CBS) and Ichnos (on RCA), both radical and daring publications; on the CBS LP, he was joined by the Incus major players, but they were performing Oxley’s compositions, and the result was quite unlike “ordinary” improvised music. On the RCA LP we see the first inklings of Oxley’s approach to amplified percussion, which seems to have been a thing he pursued according to his own lights, and which continues to some extent on February Papers – except by now he’s experimenting with live electronics as well.

Joining him on this record, and helping him to realise these seven compositions, are Philipp Wachsmann the violinist, often heard to great effect on the Bead label (a kind of second-division UK improv label, if you regard Incus as Premier League), David Bourne on violin, Barry Guy the bassist, and Ian Brighton on electric guitar. They play in quartet and trio configurations as needed. It’s these groupings, especially the quartets, that produce this dense and tangled music, with lots of divergent lives of activity pulling in all directions, creating a powerful feeling of energy and movement. I have to assume this movement is being directed by Oxley, and the free playing and improvisation is happening in real time inside this disciplined framework; it’s lean and punchy, without the wasted effort of an over-long free-for-all improvised session, and with average duration times of 6 to 7 minutes, these compositions make their stated points with concision and import.

There’s also the very odd sound of the record. I think this is due to the combinations of the instruments, and the way that they’re playing together; there isn’t really a great deal of “transformation”, which is something the EAI players would sometimes over-indulge in with their digital effects and mixing boards, some 25 years after this. Only Oxley’s electronic interventions produce unnatural noises, and even so he uses it very sparingly, for instance on the excellent ‘Sounds Of The Soil’. Oxley tends to treat the violin, electric guitar and bass as if they were percussion instruments, perhaps unsurprisingly for a drummer, and emphasises short plucks, strums, scrapes, tinkles and other effects, for instance on ‘Chant-Quartet’. On these two, and on ‘Combination’, Oxley comes very close to reproducing the processes of Xenakis (and his angry, splintered shards of music) in miniature; certainly the whole album more resembles 20th-century classical avant composition than it does free jazz or free improvisation. The unusual sound is, I think, entirely due to Oxley’s genius in understanding the voicings of the chosen instruments, and deploying them with the skill of an orchestrator, with much forward planning. Nowadays, everyone (improvisers and electronic artists alike) seems hell-bent on changing their natural sound, whether that’s by “extended technique”, with a mixing desk, or by using too many effects pedals; but here, on this record, Oxley shows a better way to do it, by brave experimentation. composition, and musicianly skills.

The other thing that occurred to me was to look at what else was released in the Incus catalogue in the year 1977; I find we have the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, we have a Barry Guy solo LP on the bass, but we also have the first four Company LPs. These are Derek Bailey playing his guitar alongside various woodwinds and stringed instruments – mostly acoustic, unless you count Bailey’s use of the electric guitar. All great records for sure, but I make this unfair comparison to indicate that Oxley was evidently heading in a quite different direction. The few other times we heard live electronics on an Incus LP include 1972, when Paul Lytton played with Evan Parker; and 1976, when Bailey dabbled with the Waisvich crackle box. February Papers is arguably a landmark record in the fields of UK improvisation and jazz, signposting many possible ways forward which have not yet been understood, and its potential has yet not been fully explored. Far from being a piece of nostalgia from the good old days of improv, this release is like a gauntlet thrown down as a challenge, its rigour, its ideas, and its compositional strengths showing up the weaknesses of much contemporary ineffectual and insipid improvised music. An essential purchase. From 10th September 2020.

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