North Atlantic Drift

Antwerp 1988 - Suite for Johnny Mbizo Dyani

Calling Signals

[Loose Torque Records,]

Bassist/composer Nick Stephens has been an active member of the music community for the last three decades. Rather quietly, he has mined at the well of improvised music. Working with luminaries such as Dudu Pukwana, John Stevens, Louis Moholo, Frode Gjerstad, Annie Whitehead, Evan Parker and Harry Beckett, he's developed a catalogue of recordings that is as varied as it is rich. His own Loose Torque imprint presents a multitude of examples of work he'd recorded over the years.

"North Atlantic Drift" is a case where Nick Stephens pulled Frode Gjerstad into a recording session in Norway in March 1997. The stretched out pieces are rather dense and haunting. It's Nick that sets the pace on most of these pieces. "High, Southern Norway" begins with Nick attacking matters at hand with an elongated arco passage, while Frode adapts quite quickly with some swirling alto lines that seem to swerve around the bass, rather then swallowing it up whole. Near the end of the piece, all hell breaks loose, as Frode sticks to the upper register, while Nick is madly picking away at his bass. The recording is crisp, dividing each player to their respective channel. Frode has had a tendency to blow way over the top, but here, [maybe under the influence of Nick's more subtle plucking] he sounds like a new man - someone who is adjusting to the situation at hand. It's great to hear just how both of these musicians truly complement each other's playing. While one slows down, the other one adjust his tempo as well. Whether it's karma or the result of two decades of serious duo improvisation, this record comes off as a snap-shot of two master improvisers doing what they do best - communicating.

A year later, John Stevens assembled Fast Colour - an all-star cast that paid their dues to the late, great South African multi-instrumentalist Johnny Mbizo Dyani. "Antwerp 1988" is in fact the first time this ensemble has been heard on record. This one is a real treasure, if only to hear such a cast of musicians all performing on one stage. Along with bassist Nick Stephens, we hear percussionist John Stevens, trombonist Annie Whitehead, trumpeter Harry Beckett, saxophonists Dudu Pukwana and Evan Parker and Pinise Saul on vocals. Starting off with a dual vocal chorus of Pinise Saul and Annie Whitehead on "Now Time", where we're being told "no time for reunification…no time for liberation". This suite is pure magic, full of wonder and awe with every single step. John Stevens [who composed the suite] is heard playing in time and to his own beat, which in a way describes the music. It is composed but still remains free. It is free but weirdly it feels loosely structured. Written passages don't intrude on the brilliant solos [there are plenty here - tremendous sections from trombonist Annie Whitehead, along with Harry Beckett's screeching trumpet calls] which are what makes this record so great. When things get really chaotic - as they do near the end of "Way It Goes", the walls are shaking, while the foundation remains in tact. Considering this is a tribute to Johnny Dyani, "John Dyani's Gone" is a fitting funeral march in his honour. While Pinise Saul cries out a mournful cluttering of words about Johnny's passing, saxophonist Dudu Pukwana and Evan Parker solo in unison, while Harry Beckett plays down-to-earth mournful lines. Searching through all the tension and despair, despite all this, "Antwerp 1988" has to be one of the most joyous tributes I recall hearing. Everyone seems truly entwined in this music and nobody sounds as if they're actually mourning. Rather, this is a celebration of the life of a great musical figure. Worth the price of admission alone if only to hear everyone here play so beautifully together. Moreover, this is another perfect [all too rare] opportunity to hear the passion and the conflict of John Stevens as an arranger.

Quartet that makes up "Calling Signals" was put together to celebrate the life and music of the late, great John Stevens. Recorded in London in November 1996, it features a stellar line up of percussionist Louis Moholo, guitarist Hasse Poulson, saxophonist Frode Gjerstad and bassist Nick Stephens. Leaving karma aside, once again, perfect group harmony is in place. Recorded at Richie Stevens's studio [Richie is the son of John Stevens], the band was surrounded by John's entire record collection [where it was being temporarily stored]. The music from the past propelled and inspired them to make the music of the present. The most grabbing axis in the quartet is one of guitar madness of Hasse Poulson and percussion wizardry of Louis Moholo. Coming off as a blend of a more nonchalant Derek Bailey and a less bluesy James Blood Ulmer, Hasse propels the session forward by bringing minor and major points of abrasion into the context. His meandering lines sit well with Louis's light as feather percussive work. Often contemplative and rather subtle, with history as rich as his, Louis Moholo is the perfect percussionist for the session. Elsewhere, Frode Gjerstad battles for his own piece of audio territory as his swirling alto lines complement Nick Stephen's aggressive bass soloing. This isn't merely a dog-eat-dog session. Players do get some room to solo and manoeuvre on their own. Louis Moholo takes a gong-heavy solo in the middle of "Unanticipated Turns", which is then followed by a subtle but imaginative bass solo by Nick Stephens. Often wild, sometimes subtle but always free, this is a perfect example of four creative minds taking their art form to the edge and back.

- Tom Sekowski

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