Delta Saxophone Quartet
Centro Zo, Catania, Italy
Jan. 19, 2007

If I'm not mistaken, the UK line-up called Delta Saxophone Quartet had already played in my town (at least) a couple of times, but for one reason or another I had never had the opportunity to catch them live. And so I decide that the time is right to see the group. Just when I'm about to buy my ticket (sitting accommodation, one can reserve one's seat) chance gives me a nice surprise: one of my favourite musicians ever, Hugh Hopper, will be the very special guest at the concert. Wow!

A flyer I will only read at the end of the concert says that a new CD by the Delta Saxophone Quartet playing music by Soft Machine (the historic, innovative UK line-up of which Hugh Hopper was one of the most representative members) will be released soon; side-by-side with new arrangements of some of the group's classic compositions, some music by contemporary European composers. The flyer also informs us that during the summer of 1984, while the last line-up of Soft Machine was splitting up, the Delta Saxophone Quartet played music by "experimental composers" such as David Bedford, Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars and Terry Riley.

The concert program confirms Hopper's presence, and also adds the name of Steve Martland. Which Soft Machine compositions will be performed it's not said, and the same is true for the names of the "contemporary European composers" whose compositions the Delta Saxophone Quartet will perform, but just a little while later Hopper will considerably cool my enthusiasm for the fact that I'll be able to see him play live by telling me that he'll only play on Facelift, the number that will be performed last; from Soft Machine's better days, Kings And Queens and Mousetrap will be performed. Since the Delta Saxophone Quartet have just completed a workshop at the local music school, a few pieces featuring some musicians who have attended said workshop will be performed (in fact, among the people who are crowding the hall to its maximum capacity (= about 250) I see their friends and parents). While walking near the stage, trying to read the brand of the fuzz pedal Hopper will use on Facelift, I pass in front of some sheet music bearing the title Minuetto della tosse (The Coughing Minuet, more or less).

After the introduction, it's a local line-up - called Glogassonic Band - that starts the concert, performing a composition by Joe Schittino called... Minuetto della tosse. The group is well coordinated, and quite professional sounding, but the "idea" of the piece (minuet + coughing) gets tired real soon, leaving me with a sense of puzzlement. Provided I understood correctly, the minuet is followed by another composition by the same author: performed by the Delta Saxophone Quartet, with Martland as a speaking voice, we have Adventures In Quartet. The composition has a very simple, almost didactic, development; the main point being that, every few bars, the music alternates with spoken interludes by Martland, who slowly narrates in good Italian a weird story whose culminating point sounds like this: "un maggo chièsse a la raggaza se pre-fferiva 1) ritrovvare i'suo fi-ddanzato opure 2) trovvare l'uòmmo con l'ucèlo più grosso de'mondo; la raggaza scesse la seconda senn-za esitazzione" (it's just a double entendre which uses the italian word "uccello" in its similarity of meaning with "cock" as - ahem... - comic material). I look down at my shoes, trying in vain to find the answer to the multitude of questions crowding my mind. Provided I understood correctly, the last piece of the first part is Freedom by Anzalone: a strange sort of "conducted jam" for many instrumentalists, with no personality nor direction.

Then we have the second part of the concert. The performance of the highly celebrated Kings And Queens is a good example of what's wrong with the whole thing: we have only a tiny trace of the original piece, with only that famous bass part reminding us of the composition; from an instrumental point of view, the quartet works like a charm, but it's the arrangement (by...?) which adds useless stuff while masking what's essential. For the same reason, I feel let down by Mousetrap, while the later-period Floating World, composed by Karl Jenkins, is better. Other pieces are performed; among them, a composition by a German musician whose name I didn't catch is quite good from a performing point of view, with an agile soprano sax and an intelligent and versatile baritone sax, but the piece sounds like a regurgitation of some of the more rhythmic climates Anthony Braxton performed with his quartet (at least) twenty years ago.

The concert goes on without presenting something of real interest up to the point when Hopper straps on his electric bass to perform Facelift. It sounds like the room is about to explode, while the enthusiasm on the part of the audience (enthusiasm? well, it's more like a sense of amazement and wonder) is there to see. "What the heck!" - I feel like saying - "why not have him play all night instead of having those horrors and that lukewarm, insipid stuff?" It's not that I believe Hopper's compositions necessarily need his instrumental presence in order to work, but tonight it's like this. I wonder about the CD (but after attending this concert, listening to it will be quite low on my list of priorities). We have an encore: they play again the theme to Facelift, with a brief, concentrated solo by Hopper. Then it's time to go home.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2007 | Feb. 12, 2007