The Day of the Dead Parts 1-8 1
Symphony of Scorpions 1-4
Forest Path to the Spring
John Carberry (narrator1)/band directed by Graham Collier
rec. 1976-78 [60:06 + 59:15]
Collier's recent death, and the almost simultaneous restoration of much of his back catalogue, has refocused attention onto these elemental and profoundly important works. They fuse the improvisational with the structured, the literary with the musical, and do so in a way that at its best yields an enhancement, not a diminution, of sonic intensity.
The inspiration for Collier was the writing of Malcolm Lowry, author of, most famously, Under the Volcano. In The Day of the Dead John Carberry narrates (excellently) passages from Lowry's novel whilst the instrumentalists improvise to it. One says `to it' but it is part of Collier's achievement somehow to ensure that they improvise `through' it, with the result that there is seamlessness, and an almost symbiotic relation, between words and music. The peaks and crests of the texts are faithfully reflected in the surging rise and fall of the music and with improvisers such as Alan Wakeman, Art Themen and Malcolm Griffiths on hand, the realisation of congruity is easily achieved. Sonorities are certainly free but when Lowry's elliptical, occasionally sodden romanticism emerges in parts 7 and 8, we hear a correspondence from the instrumentalists who present a wan, ornamented sentiment in coiling response. Typically we end with a Lowry throwaway; `He returned to the bar', which exemplifies the sixpence-turning determination of the imperious alcoholic.
Disc 2 also takes its theme and texts from Lowry; no narration here though, instead an all-instrumental contribution. Though much admired, a couple of these works seem to me to be somewhat less consistent in tone and approach than The Day of the Dead. At twenty-three minutes October Ferry is roughly as long as Parts 1 and 2 of The Day of the Dead but it does embody a different aesthetic. It opens with Roger Dean's jagged, unsettled piano, and then embraces a dramatic tenor solo from Themen. But at the three-quarter mark jazz-rock grooves are infiltrated and these take the music in another direction entirely. It's this that dates some of Collier's experiments, miring them within the confines of a stylistic imperative rather than allowing the music to reach its full implications independent of them.
Symphony of Scorpions is more widely admired in some circles than The Day of the Dead and there is certainly colouristic density, surging brass, wailing saxes, scuttling percussion and all the impedimenta of a full-on free blow. Yet for all the semi-humorous clicking and clucking of some saxophonic playing - Collier's equivalent of the 1920s slap tongue style, perhaps - the hokey, semi-sardonic Old Time spirit that emerges is followed, once again, by jazz-rock grooves that tend to submerge, and not elevate the music. Doubtless it would be denied by most, but elements of this piece remind one of the theatricality propounded by The Art Ensemble of Chicago, whose old time religion eruptions had a similarly startling effect but who never would have embraced the jazz-rock elements that so pervade some of Collier's work. Forest Path to the Spring, as if to turn this argument on its head, is just a reflective duo for sax and piano, refined, lyrical, and limpid.
Collier's back catalogue is emerging with creditable rapidity now. Long may that continue, as his music is indeed important and lasting. It's at its best when stylistically most seamless, and at its least successful when most pluralistic.