Both musicians know this stuff backwards, and although at times it may sound like...
Peter Marsh 2002-11-20
There can't be many musicians who can claim to have played with Tommy Cooper, The Damned and Anthony Braxton, but Lol Coxhill can. For a good few decades his unmistakeable soprano saxopone has appeared in the unlikeliest places, but whether busking under Hungerford Bridge or playing the Purcell Rooms, he's consistently tapped into the sound of surprise with good humour and an admirable lack of pretension.
Digswell Duets (reissued by Martin Davidson's estimable Emanem label) is a pretty good example of Mr Coxhill's art. Recorded (murkily at times) at artists commune Digswell House in 1978, the first half of this album features the electroacoustics of Simon Emmerson, who treats and loops Coxhill's improvisations in real time. Preceding Slow Music, Coxhill's proto ambient tapeloop driven collaboration with Morgan Fisher by a couple of years, this is delightful, sensual musicmaking. On "First Encounter Part One" and the sourly celestial "Additional Ending", Emmerson creates luxurious floatscapes as the curling lines of the soprano are looped and repeated into increasingly blurred drones. Though similar to Terry Riley's Poppy Nogood and Fripp and Eno's Revox excursions in its immersive beauty, Coxhill's questing ear and tireless invention resists the urge to play it safe. Elsewhere, Emmerson subjects the saxophone to extreme filtering , ring modulation and all manner of jiggery pokery; clouds of bats, foghorns and distressed owls are conjured up in quick succession. Occasionally Coxhill cocks an ear, listens, then moves on. You can almost hear him raise his eyebrows. Heady, beautiful stuff and historically important too; though the notion of live improvisation and treatments is pretty old hat these days, it certainly wasn't in 1978.
The second half of the CD documents one of Coxhill's first sessions with pianist Veryan Weston. Jazzier pleasures are on offer here. Weston's knotty chords are a perfect foil for Coxhill and their interpretations of "Embraceable You" and "I Can't Get Started" are wonderful; the duo gently deconstruct but avoid pastiche (no easy feat). On the latter track Coxhill balances long, affectingly melodic arcs with sardonic mutterings as Weston's piano dips in and out of the song's changes. Both musicians know this stuff backwards, and although at times it may sound like they're even playing it backwards, there's a deep awareness and respect for jazz tradition here coupled with a playful sense of discovery. Lovely.