London Improvisors Orchestra

Emanem / 4201

Chris Burn, Matt Davis, Roland Ramanan, Ian Smith / trumpets, Gail Brand, Alan Tomlison / trombones, Neil Metcalfe / flute, Terry Day / bamboo pipes, Harrison Smith, Alex Ward / clarinets, John Butcher, Tom Chant, Lol Coxhill, Caroline Kraabel, Adrian Northover, Evan Parker / saxophones, Nigel Coombes, Mee, Joe Townsend / violins, Philipp Wachsmann / viola, Nikos Veliotis/ cello, John Edwards, Simon H Fell / double basses, Rhodri Davies / harp, John Bisset / guitar, Steve Beresford / piano, Ansuman Biswas, Steve Noble, Mark Sanders / percussion, Adam Bohman, Kaffe Matthews / electronics

The 31-strong London Improvisers Orchestra (note the lack of apostrophe, like “Finnegans Wake”) started life as Butch Morris’s London Skyscraper, and the group has been playing together, with various personnel changes, for the last few years, looking for ways to make free improv work in a big group.

The pieces are nominally “composed” or conducted by one group-member, although the focus is, as might be expected, on improvisation, notwithstanding the fact that, like its close relative the London Jazz Composers’ Orchestra, one could take theoretical issue with every word of its title. The composers on this two-CD set are Steve Beresford, Kaffe Matthews, Evan Parker, Dave Tucker, Caroline Kraabel, Simon H Fell, Phillip Wachsmann, Rhodri Davies, Chris Burn and Adam Bohman.

There are enormous dangers attached to getting involved with something like this, of course. For a start, large-group improv rarely works, for reasons anyone with any common sense can work out. Secondly, an “all-star” group like this one is bound to be a forest of egos treacherous to navigate, and who needs that kind of hassle? So it’s maybe a pointer towards how important this project must have been — at least to someone — that it continued to run, and has now produced a recording.

It’s a shame it isn’t a better recording, really. Much of this music is murky and ill-defined in a way it’s creators rarely are when in smaller groups. It’s virtually impossible to tell the differences between pieces except by the crude mechanism of the “featured soloist”. One is left thinking of the worst excesses of Third Stream pretentiousness, and shuddering.

Of course, this kind of work is well worth doing. Finding ways to make improv work in large groups is a challenge we rise to the way some people want to climb mountains or land on Mars. And some of the results are promising: Rhodri Davies’s quiet “Wstrws” is a fine example. His notes make something clear before the track begins: there are no wailing sax sections here, and indeed the piece kicks against the tendency of this and most large groups towards big, muddy noises full of sound and fury but signifying precious little. His choice of the trumpets of Chris Burn and Matt Davis — the latter rather a young lion of the scene, as it where — as lead voices is inspired; both are quiet players, serious players, players who think while they blow and stop when their thoughts run dry. The rest of the group thrive within the discipline which this arrangement throws up.

Why don’t more of the “composers” use tricks like this? Certainly, the noise of the band must be a powerful aphrodisiac, but sadly that great blaring sound is rather muted on CD, revealing the musical shortcomings of many of these tracks. Take Parker’s conduction featuring Kaffe Matthews: the latter plays some cool enough sample-based stuff, but she doesn’t need 30 other people wailing away intermittently; they just get in the way.

Maybe it’s a good thing that big orchestras are expensive and small, intimate gigs aren’t. It’s hard to see how improvised music would ever have got off the ground if the economics of scale had been reversed. Many good people are involved with this project, and good things will surely come of it, or one like it, but these results are mixed in the extreme. Approach with caution. Richard Cochrane