Improvisi – Live at the Hope and Anchor (2015)

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Improvisi are a London-based combo featuring Thomas Tronich on alto sax and vocals, Tom Bush on bass clarinet and soprano sax, Carlos Ferrao on guitar, Ignacio Urrutia Gamper (Ignacious) on bass guitar and Simon Gajewski on drums and theremin. As their name suggests, they are improvisers. They were formed in 2012 by Tronich and Gajewski, and advertised and held jams to attract more musicians. Now, they sponsor open jams and a floating membership of around 10 or so musicians. They hold regular public jams and also perform short sets at gigs.

Live at the Hope and Anchor documents one of these, held at the Hope and Anchor, Islington — a venue famous for its support of new artists of all music genres. Simon told me, “sometimes a performance will be a three piece, sometimes 8. We’ll play a set anywhere we can — so that is toilet venues, art things, jazz clubs and we put on our own players-welcome events, where anyone can come and play with us and there are no rules. These nights are like jams rather than set line ups, and anyone is welcome. The main idea is to play free and influences can vary, depending on who is playing and we go from playing incredibly quietly and calmly to extremely loud, wild and aggressive. Although each performance is different, there is always an underlying sort of trademark sound in my opinion, and I think it is a unique Improvisi sound.”

The idea of playing completely free and holding open sessions is reminiscent of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble of the UK in the 1960s, founded by John Stevens and including improvisational music and varying line-ups, from which developed much of our free form scene. It is good to see younger musicians following this idea.

Live at the Hope and Anchor is presented simply as Side A and Side B, with no titles, no track numbers, just two sets of improvised and deliciously spontaneous music production. Side A opens with a terrific blast involving the entire ensemble and with sax, bass clarinet, a bass, guitar and drums, this is some noise. The set then evolves, building first around the guitar of Carlos Ferrao and leading to a bonkers build up of raucosity! A new word, but it serves well to describe the noise created by this ensemble. Kept in order only by the throbbing drum of Simon Gajewski, each musician takes a turn at fronting the sound line, throwing up sounds, ideas and riffs which the other musicians take up and play with. It is loud, proud and very distinctive.

Some screeching vocals are thrown in at one point for good measure, suggesting some Nordic dark rock backed by a massive drone on guitar and drums. This does not make for relaxing listening, but is energetic, driving, thumping, joyous noise. Ferrao on guitar offers a solo which is quieter, before the sax and drums take up the theme and roll it up and up — until it evolves into a dazzling dialogue between sax and clarinet. After a few minutes of somewhat tuneful playing, each player slowly develops and adds to the dialogue leading to an ultra-fast lick on the drums topped with over blown sax. From there, the wall of noise thickens and climbs ever higher, the ensemble tightly tuned, creating a hypnotic blend of rhythms, licks and riffs.

Side B starts with a repeated voice, thanking people for queuing again. That paves the way for the instruments to delve in, one by one, at last congealing into a tuneful mass and what sounds like the longest introduction ever working towards a beautiful theme on sax. Then it all gets a bit ethereal with gongs, drums, bells and sax, electronic backdrops interspersed with cymbals and soprano sax before the noise builds again and Improvisi do what they do best: Take the theme and improvise around it.

The bass introduces a foot-tapping rhythm which is picked up by the rest of the band and they run with it for several minutes before dropping into a deep, grinding rhythm led by Ignacious on bass with guitar playing lightly over the top. There’s a pause, before Improvisi set off again with a counterpointed rhythmic section, finally evolving into a delightful cacophony of sounds — though Gajewski’s theremin can be distinctly heard. That’s usually an annoying instrument (in my opinion) but, in the hands of Gajewski, it fits the theme perfectly and is used to create some eerie but incredibly individual touches, overlying the deconstruction of the rest of the band. After a couple of minutes, however, the theremin loses its novelty, and Simon switches back to drums. The band come together to create one final blast of sheer noise on Live at the Hope and Anchor.

It is difficult not to catch the infectious delight the musicians take in creating sounds which conflict, blend and surprise. Simon said he felt that even with a rolling number of musicians there was a distinctive Improvisi sound. He is right: It is absolutely wonderful, indescribable and the only way to really get the sense of Improvisi is to go and listen.

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