Whirled Galaxy

The great Martin Archer released Blue Meat, Black Diesel & Engine Room Favourites in 2013, a terrific album reckoned by Steve Pescott to be a “deep dive into the world of the AACM-influenced, multi-directional jazz blowout”. This trend continues with a seemingly unstoppable flow of energy on Bad Tidings From Slackwater Drag (DISCUS 50CD), which offers an entire double CD set of such music, and Archer is now so assured of his theme that he recycles the name – and credits the work to Martin Archer & Engine Room Favourites. The huge-scaled ambitious sound of this album is what first grabs the listener, after which one reads the printed credits and does a double-take to find that only 11 musicians are making this sweeping, grandiose, orchestral noise. Robin Downe is the technician credited with capturing the superb sound from this live recording, although Archer added some overdubs in his studio; long-time collaborator Hervé Perez is co-producer, and did the mastering. On today’s spin, I am convinced I am personally fed up with minimal and inaudible improv, no matter how advanced or modern it may be; maximal, juicy, skillful playing is the way for me.

Archer admits the strongest influence on this avant big-band jazz project is his personal love of the Chicago school called The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and he singles out the music of Art Ensemble of Chicago, Leo Smith and Anthony Braxton (we could also have included Leroy Jenkins, Henry Threadgill, Jack DeJohnette and many others). Specifically, he likes the deep blues roots which fuelled many of the players’ exploits in Chicago, even when the music became incredibly far-out and abstract. Improvisation remained at the core, and Archer loves the possibilities offered by the “considered, spacious and open” nature of your basic AACM framework. It’s worth remembering that AACM musicians exerted themselves and found their own way out of several free jazz dead-ends, for instance by the practice of blending “music, geometry, painting, and ciphers” (according to Wikipedia) in their works. If Archer is claiming AACM as somehow overlooked or under-valued heroes in the culture and history of free improvisation, I’m 100% on his side.

As to the music on Bad Tidings, the team of Archer, Mick Beck, Graham Clark, Laura Cole, Corey Mwamba, and Seth Bennett create astonishing abstract-art canvasses of rich music, on a bed of percussive effects and exciting cross-rhythms supplied by the team of of Peter Fairclough, Walt Shaw, Johnny Hunter and Steve Dinsdale. Yes, you heard right…four drummers / percussionists…only by thinking on the scale of a contemporary Hollywood soundtrack composer can Archer realise his ambitions, and propel his music into the freedom of the open skies. In terms of drummer head-counts, he’s even gone one better than the Bitches Brew sessions. When it lifts off, the music here just floats; yet it also creates the impression of a huge Noah’s Ark filled with living creatures, teeming with energy. Did I use the word maximal yet? See above. Today’s sentiment still applies.

Stylistically, listeners will in places be reminded of Alice Coltrane’s fabulous orchestral works such as 1972’s World Galaxy, an influence to which Archer freely owns in the title to the first track ‘Song For Alice Coltrane’. The first disc alternates rich, melodic, uplifting and complex interlocking improvisations that swing beautifully, with the slightly more dissonant and uncertain avant-garde explorations of abstract space, such as the album title track – a percussion-heavy journey into the improvisational heart of darkness, where lone instruments like saxophone or violin are left to issue their lonely plaints against very spartan backdrops of abstract noise. On the second disc, the album-length ‘You Will Never Know Me’ (36 minutes!) expands into a showcase for everything this exceptional combo are capable of playing, moving from quiet, posed dynamics, to loud free-for-all blasts; the whole pathway explored with assurance and vigour and a confident swagger, with no apparent conductor in sight.

The compositions are credited to all the players; their teamwork, rapport and telepathy must guide the shape of each piece. Frank Zappa (whose music some of this material might be said to resemble) could only get to the same place by force of his own will, producing complex compositions in isolation, and then bullying the players into obedience through his narrow insistence on perfect sight-reading. The sheer social power of Martin Archer’s projects beats that hands down; Engine Room Favourites do it through friendship, collaboration, respect; ten seconds of their improvisation beats 20 minutes of post-serial composition; and the energy and warmth is passed directly into the music. The final track ‘The Hard Blues’ ends the release on a high note, paying tribute not to Chicago or the AACM, but to Texas-born Julius Hemphill who composed the original. (He did work with Braxton though, for trainspotters who want to keep the purity of the theme). Once again this is an exceptional piece of excellent British jazz / improvisation; it remains a mystery to me why Archer is not better known across the whole UK. From 23 February 2015.