invenio ergo sum
In 1619, a young French scientist and mathematician was serving with Maurice of Nassau’s army at Ulm on the Danube. By his own account, he passed a particularly cold morning sitting in an oven or stove – more likely in a room heated by a stove – and, while his mind was momentarily taken off the discomforts of soldiering came up with what has become one of the foundational ideas of Western philosophy, and one of its most problematic. Almost everyone knows the phrase cogito ergo sum – it has the same iconic, unexamined quality as E=mc2 – and generations of philosophy students have battled with what it actually means. ‘I think, therefore I am’ has a silly obviousness when taken out of context – generations of philosophy students have enjoyed silly jokes like ‘I’m pink, therefore I’m Spam’ – and the absence of context tends to blur potential objections to the confident declaration that what defines us and underwrites our existence is thought: nothing else.
There have been many and predictable objections to this. First of all, there’s a logical objection that points out a missing element in the apparent syllogism, which seems to need some statement that thinking is a guarantee of existence. The British philosopher Bernard Williams suggests that introspection isn’t a good way of reaching any third-personal fact which would need some proof beyond the working of an individual mind. Others more straightforwardly suggest that the Latin original needs a fuller, in fact, mouth-filling translation like ‘I am thinking, on account of being’ or ‘There is a thought now, therefore I must exist’.
And so it goes on. Hair is split. Logic is chopped. In practical terms, we accept the cogito much as we accept gravity or the hardness of large rocks Even in vacant moments, gazing blankly out at the rain or at a pile of paperwork that hasn’t been done, we don’t forget that we exist; we just momentarily wish we didn’t.
Perhaps the simple answer is to find a less tendentiously empty verb to spark off or confirm our self-awareness. Is it thinking that allows us to believe we exist, or is it making? Or communicating with others? Or discovering? Or creating?
Invenio ergo sum. There’s a formulation that takes us briskly on to third-personal facts, or – as on this CD – three persons whose reciprocal existence is a process of discovery and learning: a heuristic process, in Eddie Prévost’s favoured term. It’s a process that can only be enacted in what Prévost has called the ‘extra-personal life of community’, by which he means not just the ‘collective’ but also the communities-at-large that define us as social as well as thinking animals. As an improviser with deep roots in jazz and other musics, Prévost has always been acutely conscious of a perceived tension between the apparently radical individualism of the ‘free’ improviser, who can seem bound up in sober introspection, and the philosophical fake-book of styles, genres, repertoire, a canon. He calls for resistance to any process which threatens to ossify rules of conduct into ‘self-deceiving patterns of conceit’. Anyone with even a vague grounding in Descartes will jump on one word there. ‘Deceiving’ is a strong echo – conscious or otherwise – of Descartes’ starting point, the possibility that God is a Great Deceiver and what we call reality a treacherous slide-show of substanceless images, the propaganda of non-entity. Cartesian doubt relieves itself by reminding itself that it’s thinking and therefore all’s well. Eddie Prévost’s music, whether as a founding member of AMM or as leader of other, more obviously jazz-inflected projects, is always in some sense communitarian in spirit – that is what most aligns it to jazz of the classic period – and egoless in approach. It is never conversational or phatic, rarely confrontational in the slacker construction of that word, which implies hostility, and never so obsessed with novelty that it loses sight of a lengthening tradition of discourse.
Arguably, Prévost’s most important work of recent years has been his weekly workshop in London, now in place for almost a decade and with a remarkable 250-plus musicians on its past and present roll. The present project sees him working with two of its alumni, now unquestionably claiming postgraduate status. Saxophonist Seymour Wright has emerged as the most important saxophonist of his generation. It’s tempting to suggest that he stands as successor/rival to Evan Parker and John Butcher, but it’s more accurate to suggest that in his recent practice and in his unfashionable insistence that what he plays is jazz, rather than ‘free music’ or any other niche definition, he represents an alternative to those senior Englishmen, whose respectively evolving languages perhaps dominate our sense of what creative saxophone playing sounds like. In his still thinly documented work – on the Matchless Hornbill set, on his own Seymour Wright of Derby and in collaboration with pianist+ Sebastian Lexer on blasen – Wright shows a command of the saxophone which in contrast to most ‘non-idiomatic’ playing – cynically translated as ‘make your saxophone sound like anything other than a saxophone’ – has deep roots in a tradition of playing that goes back to Frankie Trumbauer, Coleman Hawkins and Willie Smith. It’s quite possible that in a gaggle of younger players, Wright would be the only one to namecheck the first and last of these. As his SUM colleage Ross Lambert puts it, Wright is the encyclopaedist, historically astute, connected and engaged.
Lambert is from Ballygawley, a corner of Northern Ireland that, as he explains, offered few opportunities to hear jazz on any regular basis. While Wright certainly doesn’t sound like a man who carries his record collection on his back, Lambert is that rare individual these days, a jazz musician who doesn’t necessarily have any formal founding in the tradition. He admits to listening only to important records and then rarely, and considers a focus on the politics and practice of experimental music more important than documenting his work. If all this, and the fact that he plays guitar, which has often been a fifth column instrument in jazz, smuggling in energies from other forms, suggests a man who has declared his own Year Zero and separated himself from any existing performance practice, the impression is faulty and incomplete. Whatever its source, Lambert’s music belongs in a long community of practice on this hearing.
Some fifteen years ago, in his book No Sound Is Innocent, Prévost wrote that ‘Definition of self can only occur within voluntary limitations of activity and expression.’ For this project, those willed demarcations may seem like a step back towards what some might regard as ‘standards’ or ‘repertory’ playing. This isn’t in itself unusual. After a lifetime bleaching his music of metre, harmonic hierarchy or obvious melody, guitarist Derek Bailey returned late in life to standards and ballads, albeit played in a sufficiently jag-toothed manner to reassure his admirers that he wasn’t ‘doing a George Benson’. What was striking about the critical reaction to these late projects was the failure to recognise that just underneath Bailey’s lifelong practice was a tradition of playing that embraced Teddy Bunn and the Spirits of Rhythm, Charlie Christian and a thousand nameless bluesmen and music-hall accompanists. His ‘switch’ of style was no more than the merest change of angle, revealing a facet that had hitherto been in shadow, but which had never been absent. In the same way, one shouldn’t approach this record under the influence of an ‘AMM MAN PLAYS STANDARDS’ headline. There’s no headline, just a continuation of a long and thoughtful story whose chief premise is the denial of the single expressive self – though Prévost’s unaccompanied performances, like the solo tam-tam record Entelechy, are fascinating documents – in favour of a collective exploration that changes the case of cogito (or invenio) ergo sum to the plural. You don’t need to sit in a super-heated room to enjoy this epiphany. It comes out here, cool and alert, thinking music that relies on unspoken understandings and a shared commitment to jazz music as a moral and social imperative, not a branch of entertainment. None of these players would claim to be making a historic document, and one senses in them different kinds of diffidence to the act of making a record in the first place, but in its (mostly) quiet way the record you are holding, and one hopes listening to as well, marks a modest epoch in the evolution of a great music. It neither denies the past nor confers it with undue significance. It affirms freedom, but within consensual bounds. It comes out of, and returns to, a community of interest which does not pander to the lowest common denominator and in failing to do so, elevates us all to a position of aesthetic privilege. They create, therefore we are . . .
What's going on here? As AMM drummer Eddie Prévost deals up backbeats and grooves – albeit grooves conversant in Elvin Jones, Sunny Murray and Louis Moholo – and guitarist Ross Lambert oscillates around alarmingly basic melodic intervals, is that really the sound of Seymour Wright's alto saxophone playing the devotional chant from John Coltrane's A Love Supreme? It looks like it might be – further down the line Wright starts on “Giant Steps”, twisting Coltrane's harmonic axis out of alignment, and defying purist free Improv's most sacred commands: thou shalt not quote, nor take thy instrumental idiom in vain.
Recorded before a paying audience at Cafe Oto in February 2009, Sum emerged from the Friday night improvisation workshops that, for the past ten years, Prévost has led in South London. As Brian Morton's booklet notes suggest, Wright and Lambert have now graduated with first class honours, although that workshop spirit – like Mingus advocated when he labelled groups as workshops to reflect his openended negotiation between composition and improvisation – remains, asserting a powerful presence in music that only adds itself up during performance.
So those Coltrane references aren't a problem – far from it, in fact, as Wright drips them into the discussion like relics plucked from jazz history. Lambert, too, evokes a history of jazz guitar. Rockist undertones suggest James 'Blood' Ulmer's harmelodic funk, while fragmenting stride guitar patterns hover perilously close to 1920s models like Eddie Lang or Lonnie Johnson. But unlike postmodern hokum, this trio don't expect feeding off borrowed evergreens will hand them a sense of purpose – rather, these historical references float into view and are grabbed, then dropped like a canary down a mineshaft to see if they can breathe in the structural labyrinth surrounding them. During the first set, Wright heralds a change of gear with an out-of-body high note that bleats incessantly, shifting the improvisational ground fundamentally. The energy harvested by those earlier stylistic discontinuities endures, but is now focused internally: nuances of texture and transforming hybrids of instrumental timbre leave specifics of idiom and style behind as a distant memory.
Philip Clark — Wire January 2010
Eddie Prévost is best known for his 44-year membership in AMM, the British improvising ensemble that has pioneered substantial areas of layered, timbral and long-form free improvisation and in which Prévost has become the defining presence. Even within AMM he has covered an array of percussion approaches, but he has also had a significant if less conspicuous presence as a free-jazz drummer, working in bands that work with more traditional values of rhythm and dialogue. Also a frequent leader of improvisation workshops, Prévost is wearing many of his musical hats here, including record producer, on Sum’s debut. Guitarist Ross Lambert and saxophonist Seymour Wright are among the younger improvisers that Prévost has mentored and championed for more than a decade. Given the previous credits of Lambert and Wright, it will likely come as a surprise that Sum’s two-CD set, recorded on a February day in 2008 at London’s Cafe Oto, comes not from the more abstract and timeless side of Prévost’s improvising but from the very core of his free-jazz playing. It’s undoubtedly a “jazz” record and, given the better-documented predilections of the participants (Wright is capable of sitting with an alto saxophone in his lap, playing it by moving a microphone over the sound-holes, a position as radical as, and directly reminiscent of, Joseph Beuys cradling a rabbit’s corpse for the performance piece, “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare”), at times surprisingly gentle and tonal.
The group possesses tremendous fluidity, Prévost creating dense and mobile rhythmic fields against which Wright and Lambert move in and out of tonal episodes, ranging freely from honking (if somehow minimalist) intensity to truncated lyricism. Wright covers a surprising range of traditional alto sonorities, while Lambert develops his fundamental tone from the lightly amplified sound of ’50s jazz guitar. On the first disc, called “Invenio,” melodies first emerge as a surprise – “Stella by Starlight,” “Giant Steps” – but one gradually senses these are forms that are constantly available here, multiple patterns (topics) moving in and out of focus with the shifting dialogue. There is a long stretch at the beginning of the second disc, “Ergo,” that suggests what might happen if Lee Konitz’s Motion (his 1961 masterpiece with Elvin Jones and Sonny Dallas) were beamed out into space, picked up 25 light years away, its messages interpreted, commented upon and reconstituted, and the results returned at the same velocity with striking audio presence. This is jazz clarified to the purest event and exchange, possessed of an inevitability that includes both the pleasure of the momentary dialogue and a consciousness of the complex status of its rhetoric and its historical position.
Point of Departure — an on line music journal. Issue 27. February 2010.
Invenio Ergo documents two sets that SUM – drummer Eddie Prévost, guitarist Ross Lambert, and alto saxophonist Seymour Wright – performed at London's Café Oto in February 2009. Lambert and Wright are long-time participants in the weekly workshop that Prévost has run over the last decade, and based on that and GAMUT, his duo with Wright from last year, listeners may come to this one expecting rigorous timbral abstractions. And that's how things seem to start out, with Wright's alto pecking across the drummer's restive patterns. Then Lambert's jazz inflections comes in, Prévost kicks in to a free shuffle, Wright starts introducing melodic kernels and slowly, an oblique take on the language of jazz begins to emerge. Eddie Prévost is adamant about not buying in to non-idiomatic dogma when approaching his music, but there is an apparent bifurcation between his jazz-based work (the trio with Tom Chant and John Edwards, or the Free Jazz Quartet) and, to coin a term he used in his notes to GAMUT, his "experimental improvisation practice" (AMM, his solo work on rototoms and tam tam). SUM grapples with the intersection of these strategies head-on. Prévost's roots certainly go back to bebop, Lambert's resonant tone and clear attack align to jazz voicings, and Wright has happily acknowledged an allegiance to the vocabulary of jazz (though, based on what I've heard, you certainly wouldn't think of him as a strong jazz stylist). But we're not talking about Braxton's ongoing forays in to the jazz repertoire or Rova's reorchestrations of Coltrane's Ascension; the strategy here is about addressing not the forms of post bop and free jazz, but the contextualization of jazz language, a collective take on the patterns and rules of canonical playing. Melodic threads are morphed through refractions of free bop phrasing, a connection driven home on "Invenio" when Wright floats in "Stella by Starlight" and "Giant Steps." He toys with melodic fragments, twisting and exploding them as he moves freely between gruff edginess and textural deconstruction, while Lambert cuts across his trajectory with warm chords and splayed lines and Prévost feints and weaves around both of them with a dazzling sense of abstracted swing. "Ergo," which takes up the entire second CD, is a study in the collective deconstruction of Oscar Pettiford's "Tricotism." Over the course of 40 minutes, the theme is introduced, teased apart, dissolved, and reconstituted with gripping collective focus.
Michael Rosenstein PARIS Transatlantic Magazine February 2010