“Drawn by the call of bass, I’m chilling here – it’s cold inside the nave of this small church tucked away by Holloway Prison. Were he American, Steve Lawson would be filling Stateside theatres on the progressive-instrumental circuit. But he’s British, and aiming at a gap in the market that the industry’s done its best to squeeze shut (or suffocate with endless minor variations on “Tubular Bells”). And, consequently, he has to plan and implement his own events from the ground up and in out-of-the-way places.
At least St Lukes is a fine place tonight. Flickering tea-lights, sofas and chairs, lovely acoustics and clean tall white walls to carry the visual multi-media provided by the Sparks collective. Long shots of bus travel and busy campuses fill one wall, a cartoon tribute to Lawson’s trippy bass guitar music along another, and TV screens frame inert men lolling in armchairs. Negative homilies manifest quietly on walls – “Once bitten, unlikely to trust anyone ever again”; “Failure is inevitable, therefore I will never even try to begin anything”. Jolly animations of dancing subway signs and jostling cells inhabit one corner. From another a muted, indistinct babble of voices seeps out of three detuned radios to wind around our chair legs. Once again, I find myself part of an installation (tonight, Matthew, I’m the saggy off-colour bit up near the front).
By all appearances, Steve Lawson’s pretty much marked for bass guitar playing. He looks like a frighteningly convincing young Geddy Lee from a Rush tribute band, and he sounds much like Michael Manring – the clusters of ringing-bell harmonics, the use of E-Bow sustainer and the glutinous pining tone of his six-string fretless. But he’s very much his own musician, and one capable of taking on any of the American virtuosi on equal terms. A live shot of Steve Lawson (photo by Edward Eldon) His playing has elements of other remarkable bassists (Victor Wooten’s bubbling folk-song lines, the inevitable Pastorius, Eberhard Weber, the aforementioned Manring, plus every now and again a moment of cyclic Stuart Hamm tap-and-hold). His improvised melodies, though – allied to the upside/downside/back-to-front timbral inventions and the multi-layered looping fed through his small garrison of effects pedals – make for an assertive and individual new voice.
Lawson’s milieu is a translucent psychoactive landscape of sound that tugs at old memories of water, of night, of the hypnotic rapture of nature; as close to the ethereal electronic/acoustic embrace of Cipher or BJ Cole’s Transparent Music as it is to the inevitable Frippertronics. As he duets with himself on soprano-calling E-bowed lines, plucks crisp sophisticated little riffs, or feeds in a ribbon of backward-processed Chinese Opera or Turkish trumpet tones (which he’s quietly played and tweaked only moments before), it’s both captivating and enveloping. He makes unnerving harmonised passages of scrunched sound like a passing swarm of disgruntled operatic bats. Or manufactures and introduces his own complex thump of trance-techno beats on the spot, mixing them in carefully to evolve a questioning jazz solo into a dance-music leap. All part of a weave of rich underwater reverb and freeflowing textures (or, as the man himself puts it, “weird stuff”) which molds itself to the warming air in the church.
There’s always a sense of audience in this guy’s playing; always a feel for melody and placement, and – incredibly, for a loop gig – no straying into pretentious or tedious noodling. The continually morphing but almost hummable “Drifting”, in particular, seems to last for most of the evening, yet never once feels dull or overstretched. Everything is considered carefully as it’s played – you can see him thinking, nose wrinkled and fingers hovering – and if the improvising is slow, laid-back and eminently accessible, it’s also consistently inspired and knows where to move to. There’s humour here too – the string-click that turns into an amplified lipsmack, or the way Steve spends half a minute constructing a fresh set of rhythm, harmony, melody and texture loops almost from scratch to make a perfectly harmonised melodious group arrangement… and then casually strolls to the toilet for a few minutes, leaving a squad of virtual-bassists to calmly play on without him. Had you been looking down, you’d’ve have missed his absence entirely. A honeycombed version of an old standard (“Blue Moon” – warm, graceful and far from blue cheesiness) connects back to traditional jazziness, but Steve Lawson’s very much a modern player: a full-on ear-bather in love with the luxury of de-e-e-e-p sounds, but suspicious of waste, thank God.
For the second half, Lawson brings on Harry Napier (on elegantly melodic cello) and Mark Lloyd (on compact percussion rig), pulls himself out of the ultramarine and the innerspatial, and plonks himself down into a more mannered realm. Specifically, New Chamber Music: that tidy, definition-elusive, very white stream of fusion, factoring in classical, jazz and folk idioms, and best illustrated by Napier’s correct and serene improvisations over a little loop of Bach. Half of the mighty loop rig is switched off, to be replaced by group approaches and music overlapping into aspects of Windham Hill (the muso cleanliness of The Montreux Band) or ECM (the more melodious, commercial side of Oregon or Paul Winter). And as the trio course through versions of Pat Metheny/Charlie Haden’s “Spiritual” (written by Charlie’s son Josh, indie people – he of the noir-ish, string-laden Spain) and Bill Frisell’s “That Was Then”, you can tell that their spiritual home’s the panelled confines of the QEH or Carnegie rather than the Jazz Cafe or a proggie hangout. It sometimes edges too far in a polite direction, but for slow-cooking group playing it’s tough to fault.
In a less intimate setting, Andy Thornton would’ve looked like this… After this, former Big Sur songwriter Andy Thornton – over in the coffee lounge, in low light – is a fine comedown, and no let-down either. A camply mellow presence with a nice line in dry wit, working with strong roadstepping acoustic guitar and a voice that pitches a little lopsided but hits the emotional target dead on, his is the necessary music to complement the wordlessness of Lawson and co. Songs with soft sides and late wisdom about love and ageing, performed in a number of personas from the petulant (“She Won’t Talk To Me” – “once you say you love them, then you’re shown the door”) to the hyperreal. Fine-tuning his guitar, Thornton announces “this is about a random shepherd sitting on a hill, contemplating physics; and this is what he wrote” – and follows up with a spiralling love song full of dramatic metaphysical jumps of scale and perspective. Later, he’ll sing something with the same driven blend of voyeurism and thwarted intimacy as “If I Was Your Girlfriend”, giving us permission to laugh at the first line (“I wish I was a girl of 21″) but daring us to giggle at the sympathy and jealousy emerging from there on in. Another dark horse talent revealed. This church is broader than I thought.
– DANN CHINNby