REVIEW: I Hold the Lion’s Paw – Abstract Playgrounds

As if primeval matter, inchoate, is ever-so-slowly coalescing into form.

Des Cowley

It seems too obvious, almost a cliche, to bring up Miles Davis when talking about a trumpeter’s music. What trumpeter on the planet hasn’t listened to Miles, or hasn’t been influenced by Miles? I’m not comfortable with the analogy at all, but that’s where I’ll begin.

When I was fifteen, I bought my first Miles Davis album. I’d never heard Miles’ music, didn’t know much about him, but I knew he was associated with the term ‘cool’, which was enough. The album was lacking its cover and came in an anonymous white sleeve, Great White Wonder-style, it was second-hand and cheap. The inner label bore no album title, just the names of the tracks, one per side. With some anticipation, I put it on the turntable, and what came out of the speakers was utterly alien, a heady mix of primeval sludge and soupy rhythms, foreign sounds (I’d never heard a sitar or tabla before), choppy guitar and long, slow-moving trumpet drones. For more than twenty minutes, the piece didn’t, to my ears, progress, didn’t do anything, except fail utterly to resemble anything I’d heard before. It looped incessantly, rarely changing tempo or register. The flip side was more of the same, or similar. I cast it aside. Miles would have to wait.

Some years later, I heard Kind of Blue, and I worked from the ground up, forward and backward, the classic sixties quintet, the classic fifties quintet, the glorious sides made with Gil. I circled Miles electric, In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, and Water Babies. I got my ear in, and the further I dove in, the more sense it made, there were whole worlds waiting there. Then, one day, I purchased the double albumBig Fun, one of the last of Miles’ recordings to become available on CD; and there, five seconds in, I recognised my mystery album or half of it [Great Expectations / Ife], which was all I owned at the time from all those years back. This time, the back story had changed, I had changed, I fucking loved it.

I heard something of Miles’ Big Funthe first time I played I Hold the Lion’s Paw’s Abstract Playgrounds.There, in the opening track ‘(outtakes from the)’ is that same soupy mix, the same muddy rhythms, as if primeval matter, inchoate, is ever-so-slowly coalescing into form. There is an urgency and drama inherent in that opener, as it carefully leads the listener in: what directions this music will take is a wide-open question.

When I tell Reuben Lewis, over coffee, that I hear Miles in the album’s opener and I recount, for possibly the first time, my ‘Big Fun’ story, I expect instant rebuttal. Like I said, it’s all too obvious. But instead, Reuben says: “I’m glad you picked up on that. I was listening to‘Live Evil’and ‘On the Corner’ when we made the album.”

Miles 1970-1975. There was a long-held belief that this music was the precursor to fusion. Forget it, it was a universe away. In the end, Miles himself chose silence. His vast body of music from that period, his radical innovations, went underground, like a subterranean stream. It took a generation to unpick the threads, to take it apart, and reassemble it and recast it anew. Like I said, there are worlds. Abstract Playgroundsis part of that process. It sounds nothing whatsoever like Miles’ On the Corner. While it’s somehow informed by it, it doesn’t emulate it one bit.

In the lead-up to recording On the Corner, Miles was turned on to Stockhausen by composer Paul Buckmaster. Miles played the German composer’s music continuously. Buckmaster was super-excited; Miles meets Karlheinz, what was that going to sound like? In the end, it sounded nothing like anything, it was one part James Brown, one part Ellington’s ‘jungle’ music, and as for the rest? It was all Miles, and like nothing we’d rhythmically heard before, so futuristic we’re still playing catch-up. But make no mistake; Karlheinz was in there, in the same way Miles is there, in Abstract Playgrounds.

But Miles is not alone. There are other voices in there too: we can hear Reuben’s first love, Tomasz Stańko. There’s Fela, there’s James Brown, there’s Prince, and there’s a whole lot more. There’s Reuben’s year living in Berlin, there’s European free jazz, there’s Axel Dorner; there are hard grooves overlaid onto ancient traditions; there’s even Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, dreaming music made up of free-floating lines wherein any point connects to any other point.

I Hold the Lion’s Paw is a loose-fitting ensemble made up of like-minded musicians, all bringing their combined experience and background playing improvised music to the project.

In concert, IHTLP generally play open-ended, uninterrupted, sixty-minute sets. These sets are constructed from a pool of compositions, with each musician free to switch, at any moment, from one composition to another, or alternatively to graft a new composition on to the one being played. There is an inherent freedom to this approach; there is a fluidity of connection being played out in real time, points are being plugged in and unplugged, or re-routed to new points. It is a compositional approach that emphasizes rapid-fire conversation. On a good night – and there have been plenty- this music veers wildly, unpredictably, between abstraction and solid grooves.

In the same way, there is fluidity to the band’s make-up, with players variously standing in or out. While, with Abstract Playgrounds, the music and musicians are fixed in time, I have variously seen, in performance, versions of IHTLP that included alto saxophonist Scott McConnachie, or trumpeter Miroslav Bukovsky. I’ve seen the band playing as an eight-piece, a five-piece, or a quartet. It is testament to Reuben Lewis’ compositions that they are flexible and adaptable enough to accommodate these fluctuating situations and environments. This is music that thrives on instability; these compositions are never fixed, but are endlessly mutating and evolving.

Abstract Playgroundsis conceived as a vinyl album, two twenty-minute sides, each with their own distinct character. The A-side, cut in the studio, contains all the elements of a live performance, an unedited take that captures the experimental and groove-laden strengths of the band. It begins with the musicians slowly circling one another, conversing in whispers, finding inroads, making feints, testing ideas. Bit by bit, a rhythmic pulse is improvised and mapped out, enriched by an ever-expanding array of tones and colours. The pay-off comes half-way though, with the track ‘Shithead’, ten exhilarating minutes of funk and groove, the horns locking in, bass and guitar meshing, the drums laying down perfect beats, it feels like it should go on forever.

The B-side is altogether different, comprising a reimagining of the sessions as electro-acoustic soundscapes, remixed by bassist Mark Shepherd: seven short tracks woven together to create a new version of this music. It was something Miles did – and I was sincerely hoping not to bring it around to Miles again by this point – with producer Teo Macero. I’d listened hundreds of times to ‘Shhh/Peaceful’ from ‘In a Silent Way’ before learning it was stitched together in the studio, and that its final six minutes were an exact repeat of the first six. I still don’t hear it; it is a perfect listening experience, unworthy of being broken down into its constituent elements. So too with Abstract Playgrounds’ B-side; there are references and repetitions, familiar echoes, ghosts, but, at heart, it is its own beast, testimony to the bold and original design of Reuben Lewis’ music.

There is a beautiful and uncommon symmetry, or mirroring, to the instrumentation – a near double-quartet – found on this album: two horns, two double basses, two electric instruments (guitar/bass), two drum sets: left channel and right channel. Consider the precedents: Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, or the transfigured variations found on Coltrane’s Ascensionor Peter Brotzmann’s Machine Gun. Just as with those works, Abstract Playgroundsconjures its own unique rhythmic universe, spurred on by an unfettered belief in improvisation and group dynamics. It’s a high-wire act, made possible by the fact that IHTLP is awash with first-rank improvisers. As a unit, they have developed an in-built elasticity, a capacity for moving in any direction, together or separately at will, but always in service to the music. Abstract Playgroundsshows off these strengths, functioning as a sound collage – half of it performed in real time, and the other half stitched together in post-production wherein the music morphs, shifts and mutates, constantly renewing itself. These are still early days, and this, after all, is a first album; time will tell which direction this music will go.