Freedom: The Art of Improvisation Loft Sessions

” We just play a very short set and then we let the session takeover. It’s really done in the spirit of the ‘Loft Sessions’ that would happen in the seventies and earlier in America, so it’s really based on that. It’s just new music, fresh music; let’s have some fun and see where we go.” – Orphy Robinson

“…We’ve got references like Don Cherry and others… And he kind of encapsulates in a way a lot of the things that we want to try with ‘Freedom’, which is bringing together people from different respective backgrounds, musical backgrounds, cultural background, philosophical backgrounds, political backgrounds, as well as bringing in artists and photographers.” – Paul Bradshaw

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Paul Bradshaw (Left) Orphy Robinson (Right)
Photo: Courtesy of Nadjib LeFleurier

Multi-instrumentalist and Jazz Warriors International initiator Orphy Robinson and curator/publisher Paul Bradshaw, along with vocal gymnast Cleveland Watkiss have been cast iron pillars and dedicated torch-bearers of the UK Jazz, Alternative Jazz and Improvisational music scene for over a quarter of a decade, working together on many projects over the years, most notably with flautist Rowland Sutherland on the three fully orchestrated, impressive and well received ‘Enlightenment’ series of concerts paying tribute to legendary saxophonist John Coltrane.

http://ukvibe.org/interviews/2015-interviews/andrew-mccormack-2015/ spoke independently to both of these luminaries prior to the re-launch of their highly acclaimed ‘Freedom’ – The Art of Improvisation sessions, suitably in its new home, Vortex Jazz Club, about the history of the ‘Freedom’ concept. Firstly Orphy Robinson offers up his insights.

Orphy Robinson
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Photo: Courtesy of Nadjib LeFleurier

Orphy Robinson: ‘Freedom’ started at the beginning of 2013. The idea came when I was on tour with Nigel Kennedy, and we were doing jam sessions all over the world. So we’d be playing Bach in the concert and then going to jam sessions. It was the usual Jazz Standard, Jazz standard and all that sort of stuff and I just wanted a bit more. I was also thinking about all those Classical and Rock musicians that I know, as well as opera singers and all sorts of people who need to be involved in jams, but could never be because they don’t know those Jazz songs. There are lots of venues that you go to that are rot and snots, and also they don’t encourage it. So then I thought, “Right let’s give the musicians a chance; a place that they can go to and not feel threatened because they don’t know how to play a particular (Jazz) standard or ‘Giant Steps’. They can be creative without all the, “No, you can’t do that because you haven’t studied any Charlie Parker!” Why the heck do they have to study Charlie Parker for, there’s other music out there.

This meant that say Ornette (Coleman) came to town, he could come to this jam session. Obviously there’s a big scene in the states with the Chicago guys and all that, of which we had Ernest Dawkins from the Chicago Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) come down. And he gave us the big sort of blessing as it were. I would say the Jazz Warriors were based on that originally. It was musicians who were getting together and creating their own organisations and their own promotions and marketing and there were film people who were doing their stuff. So the idea with us was to create something like that, along those lines and getting journalists like you to document it. To get photographers with different skills, like Nadjib (LeFleurier) and various different people; there are creative artists coming down sometimes as well. They’ll be multimedia; you’ll see in March, we’ll start putting on a band first and then the jam session.

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Cleveland Watkiss (voice)
Photo: Courtesy of Nadjib LeFleurier

And YMV, which is me, Cleveland and Derek Richards we’ll be doing a multimedia thing, and then we’re going to encourage the jam sessions with multimedia, and with all the artists and the musicians. It’s just a different experience; trying to give some space to a different experience. What’s also been good is that some of the new young players coming through like Tori Handsley (harp) and Philip Achille (bass/harmonica), that’s where they popped up first, and that people start asking, “Who’s this guy? Who’s that?” Some really lovely players were coming out and people were asking, “Well, why aren’t they turning out at the old places?!” Because they’re not required there, they don’t feel comfortable going to those places. We had more women turning up to our sessions and playing instruments; whether it was Rachel Musson (sax) or Dee Byrne (sax) and various different people, they were coming to our jam session. Before we had invited them to our Nexus – One World Music sessions, we were encouraging them here.

So it was to attract a whole different crowd, a whole different experience, rather than the usual. There are some great players out there playing the standards and all that sort of stuff. There are obviously many places for them to go and do that, but is just to have somewhere that’s different. So obviously somewhere like Vortex Jazz Club has a whole history of things going on. For the improvised world, everything fits in better here. It was Oliver, Vortex Jazz Club owner who approached me. Because we had been out of the scene for a year, we took it off the scene for a year, and there wasn’t a week went by without someone getting in touch and asking, “When is ‘Freedom’ coming back?” Plus all the messages I was getting on Facebook and all this sort of stuff.

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Zuri Jarrett-Boswell (piano)
Photo: Courtesy of Nadjib LeFleurier

So we said okay, let’s start again in 2015, and Ollie kindly invited us in and he said he’d love for ‘Freedom’ to happen here (Vortex); and it made perfect sense. It takes place on the second Monday of each month. We’ve changed; it used to be on Sundays, it was the last Sunday of every month, but now we decided to go for Monday, slightly different. And also we just were keeping out-of-the-way of some of the jam things that are going on. And we’ll build this again. For Instance you’ve got Paul Bradshaw playing great avant-garde cd’s and records; we’re listening to Henry Threadgill and all of that really interesting stuff, and that I’m really happy about. This will be somewhere where Wadada Leo Smith www.wadadaleosmith.com/’ and all those guys would be welcome, and not be frowned upon as just coming here to play ‘All the Things You Are’ or something. The classical lot have also come down; Nigel Kennedy’s orchestra has also been coming to those sessions. We’ve had some really really good evenings in the past, and it doesn’t get stale.

Regarding this evening we’ll probably start with me, Cleveland (Watkiss), Filomena (Campus) and maybe Tori (Handsley), and then it would just be open for musicians. We just play a very short set and then we let the session takeover. It’s really done in the spirit of the ‘Loft Sessions’ that would happen in the seventies and earlier in America, so it’s really based on that. It’s just new music, fresh music; let’s have some fun and let’s see where it goes. With the flyers, Swifty has been doing it from day one; he’s been doing some really lovely stuff for us. And sometimes Tori (Handsley) also, because I realised that Tori was an artist, and she came forward and presented some really lovely stuff. So sometimes we get Tori to do them as well; we switch it up.

Paul Bradshaw

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Photo: Courtesy of Nadjib LeFleurier

Paul Bradshaw: With ‘Freedom’ we were talking ages ago about doing a fully improvised session. In a way, it was Orphy Robinson, Cleveland Watkiss and myself, we were looking to do a session where we could introduce a lot of different ideas and different musicians. Obviously with the title ‘Freedom’ – The Art of Improvisation, the concept comes from a lot of the seventies collaborations in the states; like the ‘Wild Flowers’ collaborations that Sam Rivers did, which were kinda seminal for the time.

At the same time you also had people like Julius Hemphill and Joseph Bowie; you had associations like the AACM and the black artists group in St Louis. There was a spirit where people were working together in very different ways, in a very free and completely open way. People like Wadada Leo Smith (drummer), people like Andrew Cyrille and another drummer – Milford Graves he’s a really crucial person. So that was the idea, was in a way to kind of vibe off what those cats were doing, because basically at that time they were dealing with the post-civil rights scenario, they were dealing with the post Black Panther Party situation. And as they went on into the seventies you had all that stuff happening with the Rock music, where Rock music had become a lot more open. People like Sun Ra played with MC5 and all that in Chicago. It was about bringing together a lot of different influences, and having no boundaries in the way – not having any genre boundaries, not calling it Jazz.

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Milford Graves illustration by Dino

So even though we’ve got references like Don Cherry and others – Don Cherry was an international traveller and musician. And he kind of encapsulates in a way a lot of the things that we want to try with ‘Freedom’, which is bringing together people from different respective backgrounds – musical backgrounds, cultural background, philosophical backgrounds, as well as bringing in artists and photographers. Swifty did the first flyers and all that, and then Nadjib became a regular, taking photos. Of the young generation, people like Tori (Handsley) came along; so it’s a kind of a crucial coming together of different people.

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Foreground: Cleveland Watkiss. Background: Nadjib LeFlueier’s AL Batin Installation
Photo: Courtesy of Nadjib LeFleurier

We initially did it in Charlie Wrights, because I knew John (The Owner) from when Straight No Chaser was based in Hoxton. I think we did the first-ever party in a pub; he was the first black person to own a pub in Hoxton, because it was famous as being home to the National front. So John’s place was a good place for us to initiate the sessions; it was on a Sunday night, which was a bit difficult. But it kind of run its course at a certain point and we decided to just knock it on the head for a while. Then basically through Orphy (Robinson) and Pat Thomas being involved with Babel, then the connection with Vortex Jazz Club came up, as they were also looking to do something. And I have always been a DJ at the ‘Freedom’ sessions, mixing it up with a bit of this and a bit of that.

Michael J Edwards

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Artwork by Tori Handsley

Essential Dates:
The second Monday of each month at Vortex Jazz Club, Doors 8pm Entrance £5
9th Feb, 9th March, 13th April, 11th May, 15th June, 13th July, 10th August, 14th September, 12th October, 9th November, 14th December

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Zuri Jarrett-Boswell (piano) Tori Handsley (harp)
Photo: Courtesy of Nadjib LeFleurier


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