Perfect Sound Forever


by Daniel Varela
(June 2012)

British free jazz achieved its own distinctive voice since its beginnings: the first generation started with the non-idiomatic improvisation of Derek Bailey and "insect music" performed by John Stevens and his Spontaneous Music Ensemble during the sixties. A second generation arrived later, around mid-seventies, with Bead Records and other musicians more interested in the subtleness of restricted/improvised sound, making it thirty years before the successful scene of reductionism. But Paul Dunmall's music has nothing to do with restriction and reduction. His playing inherits in some manner of Evan Parker's legacy- just to mention Britian's most famous free tenor sax player– but John Coltrane's legacy is an obvious and positive shade in his playing at the same time, along with less evident phrasing techniques that resemble some great masters like Dexter Gordon and Charlie Parker, all references that Dunmall accept in open way.

Dunmall's career started in the eighties, linked to important British improvisers like sax player Elton Dean and Barry Guy's London Jazz Composers Orchestra. After some time, his tenure with the Mujcian quartet- led by remarkable pianist Keith Tippett- start to show a more mature Dunmall. Under Tippett and his large resource of playing techniques that came from contemporary music, jazz and experimental rock (remember King Crimson Lizard and Islands albums which feature him and also Canterbury scene projects), Mujician achieved a very distinctive identity in which high energy sections could derive in subtle timbre research and contemporary music. The role of Dunmall's playing in Mujician is very important, alternating dissonant and fragmentary phrases with more melodic– almost conventional, lyrica - sections in which short and restricted moments of cool jazz, bebop and blues could be heard, always in an intense way.

Mujician's total abstraction and energy found equilibrium thanks to the empathy and listening capabilities of its four players (drummer Tony Levin and double bass player Paul Rogers with his impressive seven string bass), a very special character that the group has displayed since its first release in 1990 through the American label Cuneiform. Dunmall and Mujician's style could evoke the fast gusts of notes form Charlie Parker as quickly as John Coltrane- like pedal points and raga effects derived from his influence between his My Favorite Things/A Love Supreme period until his leap of faith exhibited on his Impressions and Ascension albums. Dunmall usually plays fast up and down chromatic passages with a deep interplay with his colleagues at the point to reach a sort of "sheets of sound" textures, a jazz-theory term used to describe the quality of Coltrane's sound in his association with Eric Dolphy and later with Pharoah Sanders.

In a recent interview, Dunmall spoke about his influences as such:

"For me, Coltrane is the greatest saxophone player of all time. There are many ,many great saxophone players but this man has everything. I have loved every note he has played so it is very difficult for me to pick out my favorites, but if pushed to say what recordings had the most impact on me it would be "A Love Supreme" and "Sun Ship." As far as influence on me, no one has inspired me more, and he still does to this day. I will say though that I have never learned any of his saxophone lines or transcribed any of his solos (which all students seem to do these days). His tone on the saxophone has certainly been attractive to me, but again, I've never consciously tried to copy it. I wanted to copy the emotional impact he had- that's what I have tried to learn from him."

The "textile" effect made by Levin and Rogers in Mujician generates a pan-rythmic complexity at the same time as Tippett's broad expressive range of colors with inside-piano playing give a special flavor to group's music. Energy bursts into delicate melodic fragments, quickly disappearing. In this context, Dunmall's improvisational language could vary, depending on each project- sometimes with common aspects based on long phrases with short legato notes and not so much of a preference for multi-phonic or timbral explorations. As he explains:

"I play the way I feel without thinking about it. Of course, you must play with the sounds you hear from the other musicians. I think if I tried to analyze my own playing, it would come from the tradition of the great tenor players in Jazz. Those are my fundamental roots, but I am also interested in exploring some of the extremes techniques of saxophone playing. But I do love to hear a great orthodox tone on the tenor, and that is a lifetime's work as it is. I do believe that Pharaoh Sanders is still looking for different mouthpieces to improve his tone to this day and he has one of the greatest tones in the history of the tenor saxophone so it is never ending the search. I think my approach to playing is using notes of tension and release. Each note you play, in my opinion, causes a vibration that affects you. For instance, if you play a note a semitone above the tonic, this causes a tension but as soon as you resolve the tension by going to the tonic, there is a feeling of release or relief even. Now if you take this idea, the whole way you could play notes of tension all night without resolving them, of course, this sounds like you're in total control of the music, but in reality, you can't control the music like that. But if you try to cause tension and release during your performance, I think that is what makes a great musician and makes great music but you can't force it- you must surrender yourself to music. You practice your instrument to get some sort of control over it but when you play for real, I think you must loose yourself and let the music come out, then it becomes a spiritual thing. That is what I always strive for."

This kind of playing and sensitivity for the instrument crosses through different Dunmall projects, from solo and duo performances to greater scale ones. "I think I learned a lot by being in Barry Guy's London Jazz Composers Orchestra and Keith Tippett's large groups and I've listened to other European and American big bands. I think my big band has probably got a little of all these influences which added together makes my big band have its own unique qualities. Hopefully, if I get to do more with the Moksha big band, we shall see how it develops. I must say I am very happy with this first recording."

With Moksha Big Band– named after the Hinduism term for spiritual liberation- Dunmall revisits the free jazz big band concept learned from his experiences with Guy in which the different parts shows an intuitive balance between open sections and more precise gestures. Even more, in the opening section of the I Wish You Peace CD (from 2003), it is possible to find some of Coltrane's shades related to the kind of "hymns" in his period of work with his wife Alice.

"I had been thinking about getting a big band together for many years but as usual, getting the money to fund it is very difficult, so thanks to the BBC for helping me. This piece for the big band was a vehicle for me to improvise over. I used different areas of music to work with such as the Indian drone which starts the piece and gives the music a good solid foundation and something very fundamental. Also, of course, I wanted to get the high energy of powerful free jazz and straight time jazz in the piece. Having a big horn section and two drummers gives you a powerful sound and of course the great drumming of Tony Levin and Mark Sanders really moves things along. Also, I wanted abstractions in the music to take it away from the usual jazz big band, by using two guitars and having free improvisers like Paul Rutherford, Paul Rogers, Phil Gibbs and Hilary Jeffery and the melodic free playing of Keith Tippett. I think picking the right musicians is very important and to use them so that they feel comfortable in what they're doing makes for a good atmosphere which of course helps the music to be stronger. Everybody in the band is a fine soloist also. I divided the piece into three sections to give different feels and that would hopefully help the listener. Each section finishes with an energetic climax and each new section starts quietly and gently, which gives the listener and musicians a chance to relax and start again and of course, this gives color to the music, which for me is important. It's like the waves of the ocean rising and falling- it makes it beautiful and this does build the intensity so at the very end of the piece, it is at its most intense. Hopefully, this rising and falling helps to bring out the spiritualty of the music, so you feel the emotions of beauty and awesome power."

But maybe one of the most distinctive aspects of Dunmall's work is his interest in bagpipes. It's a remarkable instrument coming from very different cultures with extremely organic sound character, capable of the most radical forms of ur-folklore as much as new contextual ways of playing in free jazz or total improvisation settings. In this way, Dunmall take part of a very exclusive group of players (Albert Ayler, Dewey Redman, Peter Bennink, Rufus Harley, Dave Brooks, Matthew Welch and David Watson) that during the last 45 years have made investigations into the potential of this instrument. The strong referential sound of bagpipes is powerful enough that Dunmall is able to achieve his own sound. You can hear resemblances of John Coltrane's most radical modal playing, trying to emulate character of Indian Shenai or Nagaswaram double reeds. At the same time though, the obvious primal Celtic sound with omnipresent drone is revisited by Dunmall, exploring multiphonic and grasping textures. All sorts of melismatic and modal gestures, vocal-like ornaments and mantra repetitions converge in an adventurous music experience.

"I have always been interested in bagpipes and in fact, all ethnic folk instruments that I could find. But the bagpipes have something very primeval about them. The constant drone does something to your head which I love- (it's) kind of like the Indian music drone. Then playing the melody over the top makes it a complete music. I particularly like the Irish pipes but I like every kind of bagpipe and I'm always trying to add to my collection. I mostly use the Border pipes in G and low C but I do use Northumberland pipes and Bulgarian Gaida and recently have got a French pipe called a Cabrette. I have made 3 solo pipe CD's and hopefully, I will do a fourth using the cabrette. When I started I learned traditional tunes on the pipes to get an understanding of the instrument but I knew that wasn't the music I would eventually play on them. Soon, I found cross fingerings and half and false fingerings that produced interesting sounds. I usually use a very high pressure in the bag to get split notes but I also found that hardly any air in the bagpipe produced some interesting effects (too). Also, I turn the drones off from time to time, which really opens up the possibilities to play abstract music. The pipes can sometimes be a bit limiting because the dynamics aren't that easy to control but I believe there is some wonderful music to be found on the bagpipes and I know there are a lot of incredible traditional pipers of all piping traditions around, but there are not so many pipers exploring new music. It is an unexplored field at the moment."

An unexplored field plenty of new possibilities, just like Paul Dunmall's honest and strong playing.

Also see Dunmall's website

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