AMM is the James Dean of music; though the revolving collective tries hard to lurk in the shadows of misunderstanding, their veiled ethos is one that critics, jazz historians and other musicians want to absorb. However, as Philip Clark wrote in his AMM Primer (The Wire 271), "If one could provide a key to unlock the (AMM) formula, there would be little point in listening" — hence the reason why we celebrate the mystery of the bad boy archetype. I digress.
Many look to AMM's past for clues of a tenor which, based on the group's intent to explore the future, is ironic: like a Fluxus poem, the history of AMM is right now, and the present is a curious one. Working for years as a duo, founder Eddie Prévost and John Tilbury (joined in 1980) augment this set with former (1968) member Christian Wolff on bass guitar, piano and melodica, cellist Ute Kanngiesser and John Butcher on sax. The results are terrific but understandably varied, the crew abstaining from abrasive angst in favor of mature methods of subversion during this 52-minute performance (recorded at the 2009 Freedom of the City Festival in London).
Tilbury begins with a red herring, the gesture resembling one of those "pensive" George Winston circa December pan-diatonic numbers that any novice with fingers on white keys could play to impress a cocktail party ("Hey ladies, I play the piano"). He quickly abandons the notion, but the shock is both a brilliant way to draw in a listener and set up a running theme of rattled expectations, the most important being that the "every man for himself" individuality is globally replaced by a complementary union; Butcher, known for his ability to turn an acoustic space into a roar of reed shrieking and wall-shaking feedback, lays low with subdued drones or acts as an adhesive to Prévost's bowed metals; Kanngiesser's pointillism, then fierce sul ponticello, and Wolff's sound board rubs rise with gradually agitating piano clusters and booming bass to the first breaking point (near the 20-minute mark). Though this observation may sound pedestrian and culturally naïve, this grounding in form-based "composition" (Wolff's influence?) is nice. That is, with a direction, the listener can not only marvel at the textural gymnastics and advanced sonic language but also revel in / cringe at the palpable tension.
But hold on.
From here the group suspends time in languid pauses and even less gradual movement, forms duos, trios, backs soloists and further smears their palettes (i.e. Wolff's sudden switches from melodica to bass guitar). With ten minutes left, they fake an ending — dizzily limping like a prize fighter with plenty of hidden energy to knock your block off — and soon you're aware of the allegory: this denouement just soared into vintage AMM counterpoint. A slight interruption of the Winston Chord, Butcher's staccato puffs and finger clacks, Prévost's faintly ringing cymbals, and you have another album to scratch your head over.
This is where you read a conclusive recapitulation that ties these words together. In the attitude of AMM...∞
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