Sunday, March 28, 1982
The smooth ones
It was raining as Dad gave me a lift into Easterby at six and I found Grant waiting, huddled in the doorway of British Home Stores. We walked up to the Poly through streets and pavements awash with water.
Quite a few people were there already and I managed to exchange my J-row ticket with a middle-aged bearded man for a V-row one, right at the back, so I could sit with Grant.
The Bobby Wellins quartet opened. Wellins is small, with greying hair and a Sam McCloud moustache, and he played the sax unobtrusively, occasionally wandering towards the edge of the stage and quietly watching while the others soloed. Their longest piece was a Wellins composition called “Endangered Species": each instrument took the part of a bird (the sax a nightjar, the piano a Golden Oriole, etc.) which was excellent, long solos, the piano almost classical, a whispering drum solo, ending with repetitive echoing piano notes. . . .
We struggled through a seething mass of people of all different ages and styles into the other room to the bar and Grant bought a half-lager before heading back into the hall where there was now a real atmosphere developing, a sense of expectancy in the air, as if everyone appreciated that something very special was about to happen. The hall was packed to overflowing, people standing clustered behind us.
The stage was packed with glittering colourful instruments: gongs, a frame hung with pots and cooking vessels, bongos, a drum kit, triangles, various brass instruments on their stands (a big bass sax) and at the back a large tapestry banner proclaiming, in greens, oranges and browns, Art Ensemble of Chicago AACM.
On they came, Lester Bowie in his white lab coat, three of the band in tribal garb with painted faces, carrying fly whisks. A loud fire siren started the set off and I soon realised that this was going to be amazing. The heavy percussive rhythms sent everyone into a jigging, swaying frenzy and occasionally, from out of the improvised swirl of noise, a fragmentary harmony emerged, a connection somewhere between notes and rhythms and a tune grew and grew into a 'forties swing number, Lester Bowie like a mad professor bending and dipping backwards, whipping his trumpet in savage slashes back and up, sometimes emitting shrieks of sound, sometimes deep throaty burbles.
Drummer Famadou Don Moye was using everything to clack, ting and blat a rhythm, Roscoe Mitchell and Joe Jarman grunting and snorting on saxophones or banging on the pot-frame and, for one memorable moment, rapidly jerking small red and white semaphore flags in time to the beat. Spontaneous amusement from the audience, almost as if they really didn’t know quite what to do or how to take it, but realised they liked it anyway. . . .
Most of the time the sound was formless, just a series of squawks, squeaks, shrieks, clicks, taps, and tinkles, Bowie swaying wildly, talking over the roar with a megaphone or interjecting a little discordant song, or provoking laughter with little visual jokes. Towards the end the bass sax blurted out a riff that became a flowing rhythm that was echoed by the others and had everyone shaking in their seats; a young girl in green and blue boiler suit down front broke away and leaped about, followed by another girl in pale red. . . .
All too soon it was over, the ecstatic reception, incredible, everyone on their feet now, clapping and cheering, an ovation that turned into a thudding roar for “More” that was rewarded by a Lester Bowie trumpet scccrawwhhh and then they were really done, bowing and exit stage right. . . . “Thanks, we appreciate your warm reception and hope to return next year!”
Grant and I left feeling high, so much so that this was all we talked about on the way home, Grant telling me this was definitely the best thing he’s ever seen, me thinking the same. I wanted to tell everyone on the bus how amazing it all was - music, living, the whole thing, but felt sorry that they hadn’t and wouldn’t hear the music at all.
Torrential rain as I splashed through dark suburban streets.