Hugh Hopper/Simon Picard/Steve Franklin/Charles Hayward
Numero D'Vol


Sometimes, once in a while, I still think about the old "Canterbury sound": not the clearest possible definition of a musical "genre", I know, though I happen to know quite a few people who proudly say "I recognize it as soon as I hear it". A very communicative sound, and in its own particular way, quite "popular", though liked only by some "happy few", obviously. A sound experience which can still enrapture both teens and twenty-somethings (I've got proof). Here I'm only talking about the old albums, obviously - very often, those trying to take the story into the present have made for very embarrassing listening moments. Hence, while looking at the "cast of characters" my curiosity has often turned into apprehension.

Hugh Hopper's name needs no introduction. Not as familiar to this writer, Simon Picard (on tenor sax) and Steve Franklin (on keyboards) I had met some time ago on a CD by Hopper (Picard is also a member of Phil Miller's group). The name that looks like it almost "doesn't belong" here is Charles Hayward: what is he doing here?

Hayward is known by most for his having been a part of This Heat. I got to know his playing - his prodigious skills as an "assertive timekeeper with a high colour intensity" in the group Quiet Sun, led by Phil Manzanera. Then, I greatly appreciated him in the quite different music of Camberwell Now. A solo album of songs - Survive The Gesture -, then a collaboration with a group led by Fred Frith, Keep The Dog. Then, again with Frith - and also Bill Laswell - in the second line-up of the trio Massacre. Though not too closely, I've always kept in touch with Hayward's career, convinced as I am - then, and now - that the "total improvising" context is not really the one the suits him best; though I'm well aware of the fact that a group "like in the old times" - with a recognizable sound, a personality as a whole, and a very close rapport between its members - is today a financial impossibility.

Charles Hayward: what is he doing here? Then I remembered that Hayward (just like Chris Cutler) had been a part - with Hugh Hopper - of the Oh Moscow project, by Lindsay Cooper, though there is no official trace of this (on the Oh Moscow album, released in 1991, Marilyn Mazur is on drums). A recent investigation revealed the existence of a group called Clear Frame, where Hopper and Hayward play with Lol Coxhil and Orphy Robinson.

The start of Numero D'Vol - it's the number that gives the album its name - sounded really unexpected to me: some blowing into a tenor sax, piano, synthesizer, a slow pulse on drums (it sounds like a bass drum to me), a "pedal" on the synth, a colloquial tenor; then cymbals, and the bass, to fragment the electronic element, then a dialogue of sax and piano. It sounds like the tenor sax - at times, a sound like a "strangled" reed reminded me very much of Gary Windo - chooses a tonal area inside which it walks with no trace of ever being in a hurry - but not relaxed. We have a coda by the piano, cymbals and snare drum, and strong "hits" by Hopper. Beautiful and strange, and totally unexpected.

On The Spot follows: we have a bass played with fuzz, drums, synth. Gruppettos of notes on the piano, travelling from one channel to the other, reminded me for a moment of the piece Drop, by Soft Machine. A strict tempo, then bass and drums accelerating, nice phrasing by the tenor sax... like a jazz solo with a backing by the rhythmic section of Can!

Then we have Earwigs Enter: a "clangorous" rhythmic section, sounding almost like techno, a synth, tenor saxophone (again in its "Gary Windo" mode), a menacing descending figure that's played on the synth, then groove.

Let's try to give readers a hint of what's happening here. An "artificial-sounding" rhythmic section of "wrong" proportions, changing planes, roles and volumes that change continuously, the act of confounding one's expectations the causes great enthusiasm. The drums - really wide in the stereo field, with a lot of different timbres - work as a "canvas" where saxophone, piano and synth are placed; the (high) volume of cymbals and drums makes it possible for Hopper - who is obviously always ready to create riffs and rhythmic "pivot points" any time this is appropriate - to greatly explore a new role, creating colours and so offering shades that at times sound quite new. There is the lesson of techno, there in the background, and of all the music created "in the box", with plug-ins and the strong modification of what has been recorded. But it's at our own peril that we forget of the lesson of the "artificial" work of Teo Macero with the "electric Miles" (Davis).

Free Bee has a sax and a piano sounding quite "classic", but given a new light by the accents from bass and drums, here playing at a very high volume. Nice piano solo.

The hi-hat gives propulsion to Get That Tap, where the drums sound quite "tribal", with a touch of phasing, a meditative sax and (at exactly 5') a synth straight off Soon Over Babaluma.

There's a nice one called Bootz, while Shovelfeet greatly benefits from the mobile pulse of the rhythmic section; at the end there's a frenetic piano, with accelerating rhythm.

Bees Knees Man has an hypnotic bass figure, some swing on snare drum/hi-hat, then a very beautiful "organ" solo, with appropriate backing by bass and drums. A very elegant "cool" ending, too, with the snare audible in the snare drum, and nice brushes.

A nice start with a bass that's almost "flamenco", and a "lyrical" tenor, on Straight Away, with a nice instrumental dialogue. A nice piano solo (which sounds "pasted" to me) on Twilight. Some Other Time is a beautiful and quite appropriate close.

What can I add here? Well, hands down, for me it's the "surprise album of the year". A surprise I tried to investigate well beyond my "critical duties" by listening to the album in the course of ten days, just to make sure. An album that still managed to surprise me after ten (very attentive) listening sessions.

Hopper - here also working as a producer, well assisted by engineer Julian Whitfield at Delta Studio in Canterbury - has really hit the bull's eye with this album. I only hope that promoters are as intelligent as I hope they are, and that the group has a budget that's high enough to replicate on the bandstand all the "wrong" proportions they achieved in the studio.

In closing, I sincerely wish thirty years of bad luck to all those who will download this CD for free.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2007 | Sept. 18, 2007