Clear Frame
Clear Frame

(Continuity... records)

For this writer, the album titled Numero D'Vol was the one most deserving the title "Surprise Album of the Year" of 2007. For two main reasons: first, for demonstrating that an idiom that by now is considered to be tired and beyond any hope of rejuvenation - not to mention any hope of sounding fresh again - could still be able to appeal to (and emotionally connect with) listeners who didn't necessarily regard the idiom in question with blind faith; then (but this is something that obviously comes first), for featuring a brand-new quartet where Hugh Hopper (bass), Simon Picard (saxophone), Steve Franklin (keyboards) and Charles Hayward (drums) had "sailed though different genres" while skillfully using the studio; i.e., a mixture of "played" and "artificial" music that I really hoped to catch live, the group's rhythm section - Hopper/Hayward - being totally new to me.

(What's this idiom I'm talking about? Well, Numero D'Vol speaks an instrumental-only dialect that's part of the glorious language called Canterburian. What Canterburian means, and whether it really exists, is something that will be discussed at another time.)

So it's only logical that Clear Frame faced an uphill battle with this writer: first, due to a recorded sound that - though good enough, and obviously capable of showing what was essential for the music - when compared to the clear sound of Numero D'Vol appeared a bit too much on the cloudy side, though never devoid of coherence when considered as a whole; and also for the approach chosen here, of the "improvised" kind (but where "styles" and "tonal centers" are always in full view) with a quartet playing "in real time".

Starting from the end, let's say that it's quite easy to define Clear Frame as a good album with even higher peaks. An album that, in my opinion, grows with each listening session (I have to say that it greatly benefited from a playing volume that was a bit higher than what's usual for me, in order to reveal its many qualities). (Though I have to admit that it's quite easy for me to paint a picture of a type of listener that will like Clear Frame a lot more than Numero D'Vol.)

The musicians are well-known. Hugh Hopper is on bass, Charles Hayward on drums and some sort of keyboards. From his playing on albums by Kevin Ayers to his quite original solo improvisations, what's easier to recognize than Lol Coxill's soprano sax? Alas, reality being quite different, though he's had quite a long and varied career, Coxill's is far from being a household name. I really hope that Clear Frame could turn to be a first step towards a wider appreciation. I'm a bit ashamed to admit that I've never heard of Orphy Robinson, who on this album plays vibraphone, steel pan, percussion, and... FX.

There's also Robert Wyatt on cornet. It's without a doubt a "jazzy" cornet (something which was not too difficult to imagine), when a "softness" that's quite similar to Miles Davis's in his "acoustic" period gives place to a more rhythmic "jumpy" approach not too far from Don Cherry's; sometimes his mumblings in the lower register reminded me of Roswell Rudd's trombone.

The album has a nice start with Clean Slate: Davis-like cornet, steel pan, relaxed tempo, drums (wide in the stereo spectrum) played using brushes, clean, deep electric bass, a soprano sax that reminded me quite a bit of (the late) Elton Dean's saxello... Well, the whole reminded me a lot of Side One of Fifth by Soft Machine, the one where Phil Howard's on drums, but this didn't rub me the wrong way at all; six minutes later, Wyatt's cornet brings the track to its close. It's a very fine piece, and though - as elsewhere on the album - Coxill sounds a bit more "Dean-like" than his usual, I think it can be said to be due to the surrounding framework.

A quarter of an hour long, Tin Plate never bores the listener: "funky" drums and a highly-processed bass guitar start the piece, then we have percussion, soprano sax and some keyboards "from space"; at about 6'30" the vibes make their entrance, being played by... Bobby Hutcherson! It's Orphy Robinson, really, playing well all over this album: agile percussion, Trinidad-like steel pans, "cool" vibes. At about 11' a nice bass motive by Hopper takes the piece to its close: fast, resembling Soft Machine quite a bit.

Some keyboards that reminded me of Joseph Zawinul appear on Noise Gate. Void Crate is a brief intermezzo which gives the listener time to breathe. Both High Rate and Better Late are in medium tempo, the latter again featuring the vibes, and with "Free" phrasing by Wyatt's cornet.

Paperweight really made me think of Out To Lunch by Eric Dolphy: It starts with a quite easy-to-get opening statement by Coxill, then vibes, and bass and drums playing swing! Cornet in the low register. A very nice piece.

Processed bass, synthesizer, soprano sax and a meditative cornet are the main characters in the closing track, Figure Eight.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2008 | Jan. 27, 2008