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Alex Ward Item 4 - Furthered

This month's contribution to the blog comes from veteran promoter and founder of TDE Promotions, TDE himself, Tony Dudley-Evans. In it Tony muses on strategies for balancing structure and improvising that have been employed by improvising musicians, highlighting some interesting projects currently working in that area.


Freedom and Structure in Improvised Music

by Tony Dudley-Evans

The next Fizzle gig (26th February, 2pm at Centrala) features Alex Ward's Unit 4 and the Cath Roberts/Olie Brice Duo.

Alex Ward's Unit 4 is a group that exemplifies an interesting development in the way various groups and artists are looking for a balance between structure and free improvisation. Groups working in the area of free improvisation are increasingly devising contexts in which themes can exist alongside totally free improvisation. Other groups are developing ways in which the improvisation can be guided by a series of hand signals, either led by a conductor, or arriving spontaneously from any member of the group.

Of course, neither of these are new approaches; Ornette Coleman's original free jazz recordings in the late 1950s and early 60s included Ornette's beautiful compositions; Butch Morris developed his conduction approach based on hand signals to guide improvisation in the 1980s and 90s.

Butch Morris toured the UK in 1997 with the London Skyscraper Project, featuring a large ensemble with established UK improvisers and a number of other mostly classical players interested in improvisation. From that emerged the London Improvisers Orchestra dedicated to continue the momentum created by the 1997 tour with Morris; they are still active with a monthly gig.

Similar large improvising ensembles exist in Glasgow, the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra (GIO), and in Birmingham where the Birmingham Improvisers Orchestra (BIO) has played some very successful concerts recently at Centrala.

Other interesting groups in this area of the music are Moss Freed's Union Division which has an agreed set of hand signals to guide the band's improvisation and in which any member of the group has the right to change the direction of the music through the agreed signals at any time. I reviewed their album and recent gig at

Let Spin is a much smaller group, a quartet, whose music moves spontaneously in and out of their compositions without interruption or pauses. Paul Dunmall has also worked with a big band directed by Ed Puddick in which the big band plays arrangements of certain of Dunmall's compositions interacting with the improvisation of Dunmall's Quintet.

Alex Ward has always been active in this area, and has a great album with the title Furthered coming out on the innovative 577 Records label in early March. I have been listening to Ours, the one track available on Bandcamp in advance. It's a fascinating track that is a brilliant example of what I'm writing about here. The album notes describe it particularly well: it 'encompasses unpredictably twisting thematic statements, high-energy soloing from horns and drums... and an epic, swelling final section which takes the album into almost post-rock territory without jettisoning the interactive spontaneity which underpins all of of the quartet's music It's available at

The Item 4 quartet has four great improvisers: Alex Ward on guitar, Charlotte Keeffe on trumpet, Otto Willberg on double bass and Andrew Lisle on drums.

The quartet is setting up a number of gigs to launch the album; it will be great to hear them live at the Fizzle gig at Centrala on February 26th. The other part of the double bill featuring Olie Brice and Cath Roberts will provide a nice contrast in that it will be totally improvised without any composition or pre-planned structure. Totally improvised music is of course just as valid as the mix of structure and improvisation discussed here, and the interesting thing is that a structure will almost certainly emerge from the improvisation in the Roberts/Brice set as it develops.


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