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Brief Encounters #7

Iskra was a political newspaper of Russian socialist emigrants established in December 1900 as the official organ of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, initially managed by Vladimir Lenin. He left the paper in 1903. Iskra’s motto was “From a spark a fire will flare up”.

Iskra 1903 was a trio created by English trombonist Paul Rutherford with guitarist Derek Bailey and bassist Barry Guy [1970 – 1973]. Reformed with violinist Philipp Wachsmann replacing Derek Bailey from 1977 to 1995.

Iskra1903As is often the case with jazz friends, crossing paths is sporadic; a beer and a chat after a gig, hanging out on the off-days at a festival, catching up on the news; or the high moments when we are lucky enough to perform together. Forty years me and Paul Rutherford knew each other, plenty of time for our comradeship to develop, to claim a share in each others lives.

Our friendship began in the fall of 1966 when I had returned to London to work for six months on an engineering contract as a draughtsman. Jumbo jets were all the rage and Lockheed, an aircraft company out of Georgia [U.S.A.], had offered me a contract too generously compensated to ignore. By lucky coincidence my friend Stuart Broomer, on his way to Portugal, had a stopover in London, time enough for a weekend of pleasure in each other’s company. Stuart was a great influence in my musical life, partnering for our first ever recording the day before my 38th birthday, the recording appropriately titled “Conversation Pieces”. [http://rantanddawdle.ca/2013/09/29/conversation-pieces-toronto-1976/]

Back then there was a plethora of pub back rooms where jazz could be heard, but it was up four flights of narrow stairs – delayed by a pint of best bitter in the tiny lobby bar – into the Little Theatre Club, hidden away from the hustle of the city in St. Martins Place, that we chose. Here we experienced a startling new form of music based entirely in improvisation, on the quick-witted dexterity of co-operative players. The home of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble [Challenge – Emanem 5029], a group conjured up from the imagination of three chums; drummer John Stevens, saxophonist Trevor Watts and Paul Rutherford. Paul’s trombone playing was full of unimaginable sounds, unorthodox techniques never before witnessed; vocalizations, circular breathing, multi-phonics, all integrated into a gutsy dixieland brawling. What a night it turned out to be, discovering that jazz was once again travelling a new path, inspired in part on concepts developed by Ornette Coleman toward the end of the previous decade. The shape of jazz to come with an English accent.

At that time [1966] I had no plans to embark on a musical career, having only played drums casually in an intermission band at a British Legion club. Hearing this music, away from the formalism of bebop, already experiencing the liberation of Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler – the wonderful new music arriving from America, inspired me to purchase a tenor saxophone and try my luck. There were a small number of Toronto groups over the next dozen years that allowed me into their ranks, helping me along the way, but not until the formation of the New Art Music Ensemble [http://rantanddawdle.ca/2012/11/05/pick-a-number/in 1979 with David Lee (bass & cello) and David Prentice (violin & viola) did I imagine that I had achieved anything worthwhile, finding myself representing an antithetical musical form that integrated our trio into the burgeoning Canadian multi-media art scene, taking us on tours across Canada, through the Eastern United States, to England and Holland. A trio, I realise in retrospect, similar in configuration to Iskra 1903.

From patchy memory there are standouts, moments that are still savoured all these years later. 1977 comes immediately to mind, a summer evening at Alexandra Palace, dubbed the Palace of the People, its grand structure sitting on a hilltop situated between Muswell Hill and Wood Green, an event organized by the British Communist Party [CPGB].

It’s the 25th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s accession to the throne, a celebration intended to reinforce patriotic feelings of national unity among the British people. The CPGB saw it as celebration of social inequality, class privilege and undemocratic rule. One of the organizers of the People’s Jubilee was Paul Rutherford. From that night I remember Soft Machine, Trevor Watts’ Amalgam and Harry Miller’s Ipisingo. Paul, in duet with saxophonist Evan Parker, played a music so clear its purity possibly escaped the written word. We carried on into Germany to attend the Moers festival where Paul played another duet with bassist Barry Guy, and participated in an amazing trombone workshop with Albert Mangelsdorff, Gunter Christmann and George Lewis, three of the greatest trombone players on the planet. At that same event was a quintet with Evan, Barry and the Pauls Lovens and Lytton.


The eighties
would find me visiting England often, a regular performer with the cream of the London based players. 1982 when touring England with David Lee and David Prentice taking a night off to hear one of Paul’s great trios [GHEIM – Live at Bracknell 1983 – Emanem 5034] with bassist Paul Rogers and drummer Nigel Morris at the 100 Club. May 1983 playing gigs with alto saxophonist Maury Coles, one at the Seven Dials Jazz Club in Covent Garden with that very same trio. October 1987 at Islington Town Hall, hanging out with Hazel Miller for a night with Paul’s all-star orchestra Iskrasta featuring the likes of Henry Lowther, Alan Tomlinson, Trevor Watts, Evan Parker, Simon Picard, Howard Riley, Keith Tippett, Marcio Mattos, Louis Moholo-Moholo.

October 1992, in Vancouver with Barry Guy’s London Jazz Composers Orchestra, one of the splinter groups being Iskra 1903 [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tspQ-Xu1500], spending one of the afternoons together at a party in Laurence Svirchev’s garden, lolling about in the sunshine complaining.

He would eventually, in the winter of 2002, come to visit me on Hornby Island, perform in duet with bassist Torsten Muller [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=meZUumrBRTA] at our Joe King clubhouse. In my introduction I said we had known each other for a long time, supped numerous pints, spent hilarious social times together, that he had been a major influence in my life, an inspiration that had led me into a life of performance. To the latter he retorted: “Don’t blame me for that”.


Considering the importance of the participants and the quality of the music it seems unreal that over a period of twenty-five years there are so few recordings of Iskra 1903. Nine in all including the earlier releases with Derek Bailey. With the exception of a 1973 release on Deutsche Grammophon and a 1992 release on Maya, all were released on Martin Davidson’s Emanem label [http://www.emanemdisc.com]. These three recordings from my collection, all live performances, were recorded between 1988 and 1991.

South on the Northern

1988 finds the trio
at The Bedford, a pub in Balham on Wednesday, November 23rd – a freezing cold winter night – performing four lengthy pieces. Providing us with a wonderful opportunity to relish their brilliance. The first disc of a two CD set [Iskra 1903 – South on the Northern Line – Emanem 5203].


I had frequented Balham in the early sixties, my girl friend a midwife at the children’s hospital, certainly not a neighbourhood I would have associated with creative music. It had acquired a certain fame from a celebrated sketch performed by Peter Sellers on BBC Radio. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8RTWk9QIKS0]. Paul, like me, was a great fan of the Goon Show, the zany humour of Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers an integral part of our youth, a humour that I’ve always felt was present in much English improvised music. Like warm beer and cricket.

Its not stand-up, not corny jokes flipped off-the-cuff, more ingrained, ineradicable, a deep down personality trait of a specific kind, an intrinsic, subtle shared wit used as a lexicon, a language secretly compiled – made public. Seamless comes to mind, a continuous flow of spontaneous ideas, bandied about among themselves into magical forms, the changing elements delicately constructed, the reshaping covert, passing along a path of form, sound, texture: a story line.

The 2nd CD from April 27, 1989, a Thursday night, is an evening in the upstairs room of The Sun in Clapham Old Town, just a couple of stops up the Northern Line from Balham. I’ve checked out significant events for that date and it turns out there was another revolution taking place far away in China, the beginning of the student revolt that would lead to the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. Suitable coincidence.

So this music is certainly not jazz, nothing Afro-American apparent; entirely English. Superficially it could be confused with composed music of the period – some epithet such as post-modern or the like, a name designating their musical methodology – if it were not for the individualistic energy, the instant interpretation, the kinetic delight.

Judgements were made on our music, no convenient niche; not jazz, not classical, not pop. Disbelief that it could be created spontaneously. A funny story surfaces: For a decade beginning in 1986 guitarist James Pett organized a series of concerts at the Art Gallery of Ontario featuring “different” music in a grand space called the Walker Court. An internal courtyard, marble-floored, exited/entranced on all four sides by a row of faux Roman arches. Its sound an echoey box suitable for our trio comprised of wind and string instruments. At the conclusion a “contemporary” composer of some repute approached wanting to take a peek at our scores. Surprise! A sheet or two of minimal instructions to pull the endings together.

I could keep going along these lines but instead recommend a 2009 satirical film (Untitled) [the trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3Kgmv6BrEo] taking place in the artsy New York district of Chelsea in which a young “avant-garde” composer becomes involved with a trendy art gallery owner. An hilarious spoof on pretentiousness.


The final CD
featured in this story is from Frankfurt am Main on October 1st, 1991 [Emanem 4051]. The first half of the concert is one long piece lasting some 33 minutes and as Martin Davidson points out in the notes: “All three musicians were obviously in fine form”. What can I say that I’ve not already said, that they become more brilliant the longer I listen, that there is only to be one more recording a year later of this fantastic trio, that in Frankfurt they are entwined, dancing among themselves so closely it sounds as though wizardry is involved.

In the second set each of them performs solo pieces, revealing their individual brilliance, making it clear how Iskra 1903 is able to function at such a superlative level. There is no ending to it all as, rather prophetically, the tape runs out, leaving us with what might have been. If you believe in such…

Paul Rutherford passed into the spirit world on Sunday, August 5th 2007.



1. 1970/1971, Buzz soundtrack, Emanem CD 4066. Iskra 1903.
2. 1970/1972, Iskra 1903, Incus 3/4.
3. 1970-1972, Chapter one 1970-1972, Emanem 3CD 4301. Iskra 1903. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ditfhVNZ3Vw]
4. 1972, Goldsmiths, Emanem 5013. Iskra 1903.
5. 1973, Free Improvisation, Deutsche Grammophon 3LP Box Set 2740 105. Iskra 1903 + New Phonic Art & Wired.
6. 1981-1983, Chapter two 1981-3, Emanem 3CD 4303. Iskra 1903.
7. 1988/89, South on the Northern, Emanem 5203. Iskra 1903.
8. 1991, Frankfurt 1991, Emanem 4051. Iskra 1903.
9. 1992, Iskra/Nckpa 1903, Maya 9502.


End Notes:

The recordings are analogue, remastered, although that has nothing to do with their brilliance. What we are listening to or for is the quality of the music, and these recordings have that.

South on the Northern was recorded by Phil Wachsmann, Frankfurt 1991 by Rudiger Carl.

Photographic montage of Iskra 1903 by the author.

There were numerous times spent with Barry Guy: The Evan Parker trio, London Jazz Composers Orchestra, with his partner Maya Homburger visiting Hornby in 1992… [http://www.mayarecordings.com]. A future posting of Barry Guy will appear as On The Wall No. 5.

I’ve known Phil Wachsmann [http://www.efi.group.shef.ac.uk/mwachs.html] since the early eighties when I attended one of his Saturday afternoon Morley College Workshops in London [http://www.morleycollege.ac.uk].

Thank you Martin Davidson, John Butcher, Ken Pickering and Sheila Macpherson for your input.

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