The last time I wrote about Daniel Thompson’s work, I rather rashly spoke of his involvement with ‘unconventional’ group configurations, especially with regard to this trio with viola player Benedict Taylor and clarinettist Tom Jackson. In doing so, I had, obviously, ignored the rich history of percussion-free groups such as Iskra 1903 Mark 1 and the John Butcher, Phil Durrant and John Russell trio, a tradition to which Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg draws attention in his sleeve notes for this rather fab recording. Jackson, Taylor and Thompson nestle snugly within this veritable lineage, although they’re a lot more than a heritage act.
On Hunt at the Brook, their sound is subtly, but unmistakably, different from their sonic ancestors. This is, in part, due to the different musical backgrounds of the three players. Taylor and Jackson are active in the modern classical field as well as being talented improvisers, while Thompson’s CV is more directly aligned to the London free improv scene. It’s a combination of skill sets which means there are fewer of the quirky tussles of extended technique that characterise so much free improv, replaced by daring glissando and mischievous juxtapositions of melody and dissonance (although Thompson does bring his full repertoire of scrapes and clangs for anyone concerned about the absence of the good old insect music on the disc). Check out the majestic Overgrown Paths for the trio in full flight. Taylor channels some kind of Xenakis-style robo-intricacy in his viola playing, while Jackson’s clarinet beats the scruffy corpse of Aker Bilk to a pulp and Thompson’s guitar fires deadly, diamond sharp needles of sound through the scree.
Also, I think, there’s a kind of embedded difference in this group’s output, which springs from the generational gap between them and their forerunners. The sound-making practices reflect the cultural and political preoccupations of the times. The deliberately non-hierarchical give-and-take of those early free improv trios reflected their utopian ideas, of creating new ways of music making but also of new, egalitarian ways of living in the world.
Jackson, Taylor and Thompson’s playing bears some of these positive vibes in their dedication to listening and exploratory playing. But we’re living in age of total connectivity, of data saturation – and one where those rivers of bits and bytes flowing from screens to brains are mirrored by flows of capital, the desire lines of global power, supranational, post-political. Somehow, the trio’s 21st century improvisations reflect this data-centric culture, embodying in the hectic maximal assault of tracks like Decaying Brickwork, with clarinet, guitar and viola generating seemingly endless clusters of intertwining notes, almost too many to comprehend.
At times like these they remind me of the work of the visual artist Louise Hopkins, whose near obsessive envisioning of maps and other information-heavy documents seems to be intoxicated with the possibilities of information abundance – the opportunity to reshape the world with knowledge, perhaps – but filled also with anxiety about what this plentitude could mean. Overload, surveillance, ecological disaster.
It may seem somewhat counterintuitive to make these claims for this music, so organic in its sound sources and humanistic in its execution – far better to focus on the Matrix-rave oscillations of artists like Autechre, for example. And that’s probably right, kind of. But then, about two minutes into Burning Fern, the trio let rip with dissonant tumult of deep viola stabs, harsh clarinet parps and jagged, steely guitar runs, warping the whole surface of the track and threatening to dissolve it into pure sound-noise, and I’m thrown into a sonic landscape that’s less the pastoral scene painted by the album’s title and more the algorithmic squall of the Googleplex.
Of course, the other resonance of the title is more prosaic, referring both to the site of recording (Stamford Brook) and to its producer (Dave Hunt). Fair enough. This is a fantastic sounding album, with every tumbling sequence and metallic scrape rendered in glorious hi-fidelity. Recorded back in 2014, the trio’s soundwerk has moved on since then. But Hunt at the Brook is still a fascinating, must-hear recording.