Dunning / Underwood / Webster: Bleed (Adaadat CD);
David Birchall / Andrew Cheetham / Colin Webster / Otto Wilberg: Night Streets of Madness (Tombed Visions cassette and download);
John Dikeman / Dirk Serries / Andrew Lisle / Colin Webster: Live at Café Oto (Raw Tonk CD and download).
These three new recordings featuring saxophonist Colin Webster are testament to his versatility and depth as a musician, and to the talent of the collaborators with which he surrounds himself. After all, part of the measure of an artist is the company they keep. Talented players need talented collaborators, to keep them on their toes if nothing else. This is true more than ever in the flat structures of contemporary free improvisational groupings, which are as far from the old-style star vehicles of jazz history as our green world is from Alpha Centuri.
Webster, I suspect, knows this very well. He has an instinctive gift for hooking up with sound-makers of all stripes, his questing drive to produce far-out sounds balanced only by the generosity and egalitarianism of his own musical practices. You could say that he plays ‘in the pocket’ – a strange term to use for a horn player, yet it reflects Webster’s ability to lock into a groups’ dynamic, neither dominating it with his contributions nor becoming submerged.
One of the interesting things about Webster is the way in which he can adapt sympathetically to the styles of his collaborators, without diluting his individuality. Listen to his long-running duo with turntablist Graham Dunning – last year’s Estigate is a perfect example – in which the spare huffs and clicks of his extended techniques merge with Dunning’s blunt thumps, crackly hisses and ghostly dubplate fragments. At times the duo seem to become a single entity, their work conjuring images of disused factories nestling in the edgelands, wind whipping through broken windows as weeds peek from cracked concrete and feral cats hunt rodents down empty corridors.
Compare this to Webster’s ongoing contribution to Dutch punk jazz duo Dead Neanderthals, where the ecstatic blast of his baritone tussles with the howling sax of Otto Kokke and boiling drum rushes of Rene Aquarius. Records such as the 40-minute Prime are part playground scrap, part rowdy hymnal and are the mirror image of Estigate’s enigmatic cool. I could go on. Webster’s duo with Led Bib drummer Mark Holub – another long-running pairing – is different again, a squealing and funky beast where reeds and drums knock seven bells out of each other in a seemingly inexhaustible pugilistic outpouring.
But to return to the matter in hand. Bleed expands the trusty Webster-Dunning line-up by adding tuba player Sam Underwood to the mix. There’s always a risk that adding a third variable to a setup that’s already working well will unbalance it, but here Underwood’s deep, sonorous tones broaden the duo’s crepuscular sound without breaking it, and adding a low-end, almost featureless drone that suits the aesthetic down to the ground.
In places, Bleed sounds like a Webster-Dead Neanderthals joint, slowed right down to an elephantine stomp. Tracks like Mootmiasmablast see Underwood and Webster trading long, mournful cries like two vast cephalopods sharing lamentations across the deep.
With all this brass and reed drone chaos, it’s initially easy to overlook Dunning’s interventions. Occasionally they’re subtle, like in Tinyskeindot, where his papery scrunches add a disembodied layer of grit to the horn and tuba jousts. But more often than not, they’re essential, twisting the sonic field into a whole new landscape like some super-powerful computer modelling software. In Grapefleckservant, for example, Dunning generates oddly shaped clouds of abstract noise that seem to swarm around and inside the fluttering parps of Underwood’s tuba and hoarse screeches of Webster’s saxophone, prompting them to buck and protest as if stung with tiny needles.
Like Bleed, Night Streets of Madness also has an immensity about it, albeit a slightly different flavour thereof. Created at Salford’s Islington Mill by a manic quartet of guitarist David Birchall, drummer Andrew Cheetham and bassist Otto Wilberg, with Webster on tenor and baritone saxes, it marries skin-flaying abrasiveness with eyeball-melting intensity. The result is a sprawling, multitudinous beast with the bloody-minded attitude of a bag of hammers on shore leave.
Webster makes his presence felt early, with feverish, high-pitched whistles at the start of Scene In A Tent Outside The Cotton Fields Of Bakersfield that soon drop down into full-throated blasts, as the other three create a joyful noise overture. It’s great stuff, although my fave bit is right at the end, when Cheetham knocks out an almost robo-funk groove, prompting Birchall to force all sorts of weird droid sounds out of his axe and Webster spews out layer on layer of reedy torrents.
The other side is even better, all four players getting down and getting involved in the good-natured sparring. There’s a lovely blowout section near the end of Ask A Clown Or The First Face You See That Day, where Webster’s sax and Wilberg’s bass engage in a low end scrap, growling at each other like two pit bulls, before the sax rises up to a pained avian screech, leaving the bass grumbling and growling below, while the other two try and calm things down by spraying them with all sorts of sticky, percussive noise.
Live at Café Oto is another lively racket, this time pitting John Dikeman’s tenor against Webster’s baritone gurgle, Dirk Serries’ white-hot guitar fuzz and Andrew Lisle’s clattering row. It’s by far the most ‘jazz’ of the records under review here, although by ‘jazz’ I mean the freest, most far out grooves you could hope to wander across.
Dikeman’s Coltrane-in-Ethiopia cry at the start sets the tone for what follows, and his tenor gives the quartet’s two-horn attack a punchy sound that contrasts with gluey scuff of Night Streets of Madness and the stretched dronescapes of Bleed. As is usual with Webster, the overall tone is egalitarian, with all four players surging forward, the assault of their individual sonics knotting together like some horde of berserkers charging over the hill.
I’m always a sucker for the moodier sequences of pieces like this, however, and there’s a fantastic long stretch in the second half where the quartet deconstruct their own playing, breaking their yowls and scratches down into their molecular elements, before building them back up again in discreet chunks of flutter and crash. At around 18:00 things get kind of shadowy and beautiful, various moans and rustles turning into a sax duet, Webster’s baritone blasting out pitted bass tones as Dikeman’s horn bellows over the top.
Serries’ guitar, meanwhile, lurks around the edges, its abstract clouds thickening the sound palette and occasionally creeping into the spaces left by the other three, like some ghostly vapour seeping underneath the door. At about 14:00, however, he lets rip with a series of fuzzy blasts that take things, momentarily, into some weird digital-metal arena. Even better, his riffs are accompanied by grunted vocal yelps, as if James Brown were urging Tony Iommi to take it to an incredibly heavy wrought iron bridge. Whether that’s Serries himself venting or one of his colleagues encouraging him, I don’t know. But it’s a thrilling a moment in a high-octane performance. Tough and uncompromising, Live at Café Oto is a stirring listen and another great addition to Webster’s discography.