Journalists often make the brief history of Free Improvisation conform to the idea that the history of music is a nice straight line from past to present: Beethoven… Brahms… Boulez. Thus Derek Bailey, Evan Parker and John Stevens — together with Brötzmann and co across the Channel — were the trailblazing ‘first generation’, forging a wholly new language alongside contemporary avant-garde and free jazz. Figures like Toshinori Kondo and David Toop, willing as they were to incorporate snippets of all kinds of music, were the pesky ‘second generation’, happily cocking a snook at the ‘ideological purity’ of Bailey’s non-idiomatic improvisation.
‘Company 1981’ shows up the foolishness — the wrongness — of such storylines. Check the eclectic collection of guests Bailey invited to Company Weeks over the years. He had clear ideas about the music, but he was no ideological purist.
One of the founders of Fluxus, Charlie Morrow injects blasts of Cageian fun into half the recordings here, whether blurting military fanfares from his trumpet, or intoning far-flung scraps of speech. Cellist Tristan Honsinger and vocalist Christine Jeffrey join in the joyful glossolalia, while Bailey, Toop and Kondo contribute delicious, delicate, hooligan arabesques, by turns.
The remainder are performed by a different ensemble: Bailey, bassist Maarten Altena, former Henry Cow members Georgie Born and Lindsay Cooper on cello and bassoon, the insanely inventive Jamie Muir on percussion, and trombonist Radu Malfatti, showing his mastery of extended technique. Were that not enough, there’s the inimitable purity of Steve Lacy’s soprano ringing high and clear above the melee. Glorious!
There’s always been this idea that Free Improvisation is somehow Difficult Listening, but when the doors of perception are thrown open and prejudice cast aside, you realise that it’s not difficult at all. “Is it that easy?” chirps Morrow, at one point. Indeed it is.