A mac in awe

Martin Longley caught the first in a new series of jazz improvisation gigs at the mac’s Hexagon Theatre.

Amok Amor
November 17th

Jazz adventuring on an international level, Amok Amor boasts a volatile membership of bassist Petter Eldh (Sweden), alto saxophonist Wanja Slavin, drummer Christian Lillinger (Germans both), and trumpeter Peter Evans (imported from NYC).

Their European tour took in three German dates, one night apiece in Austria and Italy, and a pair of gigs in England, the London jazzfest first, followed by an intimate set in Birmingham. They played in the mac’s Hexagon Theatre, which adopts the classic Colosseum model, but on a tiny scale, with steeply tiered seats looking down on a flat performance space. In such a room, there was no chance of escaping this combo’s aggressive assault. The usher even locked the door…

The show marked the debut of a new promoting partnership. Firstly, the Fizzle collective, those long-running hosts for Birmingham’s regular free improvisation sessions in The Lamp Tavern, and secondly, Tony Dudley-Evans, taking a break from his duties with the Jazzlines organisation, housed at Symphony Hall. Their manifesto appears to be a merging of Fizzle’s mostly hardcore freedom bias and TDE’s championing of abstraction-with-occasional-structure.

Amok Amor were perfectly suited to this outlook, given their overall Ornette Coleman aura, infected by ample outbreaks of scattershot, virtuoso diversions from the theme at hand. Even if extremely wayward, a solo, or simultaneous multi-player ‘solo’, would crack back into the tune with an unholy precision. These four have a.) been rehearsing prodigiously, b.) were tour-honed into brilliance and/or c.) have an innate rapport.

Well, what a lovely racket they made, even playing almost all-acoustically, with just Eldh’s upright bass given a modest amplifier-tweak. Leaping right in, the horners took extensive soloing time, not letting up on the high invention-flow for a second. Their object is to push themselves to the limit, testing breath capacity, fingering speed and idea-fishing to the maximum levels, as Lillinger threw drum-volleys across the already choppy surface. His collection of drumhead additions and tiny objects were impressively deployed, not only for small sounds, but also as part of a full, tonally-altered rotary rolling.

Besides the inescapable Ornette comparison, this bunch prompted memories of the John Stevens Freebop combo, in the way that they take bebop as a beginning, then pull out all its roots and re-plant in an unfamiliar, war-torn landscape. Fluidity was constant, but with jarring swerves in course, Evans bringing in some military bugling influences, then proceeding to drone without remission, facilitated by his circular breathing skills.

Such a layered plain came as quite a wide-vista surprise, placed in the midst of the majority Amok Amor sound of swinging skyscrapers, scurrying rodents, screaming motorists and deep subway rumbles. They are the proud possessors of an epic density, and a hyperactive dash, always highly detailed, as they blasted flat out, skating across a dangerous forest of miniature spikes and spines.

Photo by Lukas Haemmerle.