Lol Coxhill,
Toverbal Sweet ... Plus
(Mushroom, 1971;
See for Miles, 1997)

Lol Coxhill, adenoidal soprano saxist and the very personification of struggle and integrity in the UK's early improvised music scene, was blowing up a storm in 1971, when this album was first released. Within a few minutes he has reminded us how beautifully he can play, and also how weirdly and with what ferocity and slapstick self-deflation, and how he was doing all of this 25 years ago as he continues to do today.

The recording is from a gig in Holland. Production values are negligible -- whether you find stereo panning tricks irritating or charming is largely a matter of inscrutable taste, like beetroot -- and reissuing on CD, as is so often the case, makes little sense except economically. The "...Plus" is a 20-minute, multitracked piece by Coxhill alone, created to beef up the reissue for CD and veritably dripping audiophile quality by comparison.

The new solo piece works well. He recorded the parts while listening to the original album, presumably to give some consistency to the music, but what you hear is a different man. His tone is warmer and more assured, his melodic sense crafted and less likely to spiral into chromatic patterns than in 1971. He has realised the counterpoint with care, something which multitracked improvisations often fall foul of, and still uses few of the techniques normally associated with "improv." Musical progress is more than apparent, but the two Coxhills are equally likeable, the earlier version more than making up for a lack of sophistication with virtuosic technique, gritty emotivity and a perverse sense of direction which often seems to raise a smile from pianist Jasper Van't Hof.

The latter is a fine pianist, and should be better-known, doubtless a victim of jazz snobbery about electronic keyboards. On this session, he spends a lot of time playing with left hand only, a clunking bass line which buoys up Coxhill's furious imagination. Drummer Pierre Courbois keeps up admirably without stretching beyond the familiar, and remains a pretty anonymous presence in such estimable company. But this is the horn player's album (coy remarks about a "combined effort" notwithstanding) and Coxhill acquits himself remarkably.

What is strange, hearing him now, is how little jazz there is in his playing, even in such company as this. In 1971, there was no defined "improv scene" as there was ten years later; this was a music that was being born, and its gene pool in those days owed a great deal to the New Thing. There is almost nothing to connect this recording with the heaven-threatening jazz coming from the other side of the Atlantic, however -- perhaps a pinch of 'Trane, but it's the big man's Indian affiliations, not his hard bop roots, which seem to touch Coxhill. Sourly linear, this is more influenced by European folk, and it is easier on the evidence of this album alone to place Coxhill alongside Surman and Garbarek than Brštzmann or Evan Parker. Still, there is an abstract glint in his eye and, with the benefit of hindsight, his future direction can certainly be heard here.

[ by Richard Cochrane ]



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