THE KITES OF TIANJIN
fortyfive downstairs, Flinders Lane
Thursday July 26, 2018
Adam Simmons and Wang Zheng-Ting
Finally, Adam Simmons and his Creatives have come to the end off their projected five events celebrating The Usefulness of Art; well, I say ‘the end’ but Simmons proposes that there are more avenues to explore in future years. Just as well if this utilitarian innovation has any sustaining force to run counter to any Wildean denial of aesthetic responsibility or purpose. Still, we could hope that any new manifestations of this creative drive might take an original path.
In the latest exploration, Simmons stuck to his by-now habitual practice of alternating improvisatory passages with through-composed blocks. On one side, he sat at the head of a quintet of saxophonist-flautists – Cara Taber, Gideon Brazil, Paul Simmons, Sam Boon – with a counterweight of trumpets (Gemma Horbury and Gavin Cornish), trombone (Bryn Hills) and guitar (David Brown). In a circular framework at the rear sat/stood Carmen Chan on marimba, double bass Howard Cairns, Niko Schauble and Nat Grant on drums with Pete Lawler manipulating a space drum.
At the centre of the ensemble sat guest Wang Zheng-Ting, this country’s leading expert on the sheng, the Chinese mouth-organ that looks like a cluster of pipes, looking for all the world like a rank neatly extracted from a pipe organ. This artist’s presence gave plenty of significance to the night’s title; both he and Simmons visited kite-maker Wei Guoqiu in Tianjin earlier this year and conceived of this collaboration as an illustration of the Simmons creed with a Chinese flavour.
The opening movement, Can you see the wind?, brought all flutes into play – concert, alto, piccolo, bass – concentrating on one note and the inevitable shifts in balance as players’ breath spans overlapped. With the entry of the sheng, prevailing dynamics required a move to saxophones because of the Chinese instrument’s penetrating timbre but a later duet for Chan’s marimba and Ting came about as close as this near-hour-long recital could to a persuasive fusion.
Each of the later stages of this seven-part suite had its own individual initial sound-colours: marimba and bass, marimba and Schauble’s drum-kit, sheng and Simmons’s sax in exposed duet. These set the musical work into motion before the rest of the players entered, either individually or en masse. As in previous concerts, several of the work’s segments built up to frenetic sustained sonic blasts for all players, Ting entering into the welter with aplomb.
In later movements, the musical pace slowed down. Free as the birds had two players put down their instruments to manipulate small kites around the performing space, while a screen on an oblique angle outside the space’s windows played a film of clouds with birds. This gave way to the finale, The art of breath, which had the musicians show exactly what that entailed; not exactly novel but undeniably useful.
For the most part, this night’s action appeared to me to be operating on two levels: one, where the focus fell on individual, often pointillist sounds or simple folk-style tunes; the other, that circumscribed free-wheeling where the musicians pick their own way through the mesh but not venturing very far outside the predictable. This alternation can make for moderately interesting moments but I had the feeling that the ensemble was very familiar with this format and not inclined to break out of the tried and tested.
You couldn’t see this as a fusion of East and West since the sheng stuck out too prominently from the general texture at certain critical stages. When Ting played softly and the accompaniment remained sparse, the sound was not particularly Oriental; in tutti moments, I found it difficult to pick much out beneath the combined sax/trumpet onslaught.
Simmons is a significant presence in that musical sphere that balances on the cusp between jazz and serious music, to the point that, at some stages of his performances, the distinctions fall away – and that is a very useful achievement. But, on this particular night, it seemed to me that both he and his colleagues were repeating themselves; that this particular vein has been sufficiently worked out; and that this particular stretch of music-making didn’t succeed in welding a distinguished guest into the ensemble’s practice patterns and musical behaviour.