Duns Limited Editions: A brief history and overview by Steve Lake
Once upon a time, it's said, record companies were able to keep pace with the inspirations of creative musicians. And whenever a Coltrane or a Miles or a Monk needed to document a new period, phase or idea, the microphones were there. An idyllic era in retrospect, it was a long time ago.
Today, the relationship of the improviser to the music business is more distanced than ever. Sales plummet in the mainstream, the "death of jazz" is trumpeted once again in the trade press, the number of jazz musicians still courted by the majors dwindles by the week. Many fine musicians are reduced to paying their way onto one of the pseudo-independent labels that now define the "cockroach capitalisrn" of the alternative jazz marketplace. Small wonder that others throw up their hands and go it alone. Click on the European Free Improvisation Pages on the Internet for a glimpse of just how many. Yet the feeling persists in some quarters that self-made CDs are not "real" records – they won't be reviewed in the dailies, say, if they don't carry the imprimatur of a commercial label or have "proper" distribution. If the same criteria were applied to literary production, history would have been deprived of such self-published classics as Joyce's Ulysses, Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Lawrence's Women In Love, and the complete works of William Blake. For instance.
I don't know how many Joyces or Whitmans there are in the world of improvisation but for sheer prolificacy and range and intensity, few contemporary artists in any idiom can hold a candle to Paul Dunmall. The South London-born saxophonist's resumé as a player takes in work with everybody from Johnny Guitar Watson to the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, from Alice Coltrane to Robin Williamson. He's one of the most open-minded, open-eared improvisers anywhere and that openness is reflected in Duns Limited Edition, arguably the most exciting home-grown label to have shot up in our new century. Masterminded from Pigeon House Cottages in the Worcestershire country village of Leigh, once renowned for its hop farming, DLE has racked up more than 20 releases in less than two years. Between them, they cover a lot of musical ground and represent cottage industry at its most industrious. Simply packaged, often with Dunmall's own paintings, woodcuts, engravings, or photos as cover and booklet art, the DLE discs spill over with ideas, good humour, musical sensitivity and torrential, passionate playing, and are opening up some uncharted areas in improvisation. They've provided much of my own "off-duty" listening pleasure in recent months.
Like many such ventures DLE began almost by accident. Paul Dunmall couldn't find a label home for his first album of solo bagpipe playing and was obliged to go by the do-it-yourself route. Solo Bagpipes (DLE 001), a fascinating study in textures and an expose of new technical possibilities for the pipes, was eagerly snapped up by listeners in the clubs, and the label was up and running. Paul found himself intrigued by the speed with which albums could be turned around. Record for a "real" label and you might wait 18 months to two years for your work to see the light of day – by which time you would certainly have moved on as a player. With DLE he could record in July and have finished copies for sale in August. It was possible to think of the discs almost as newspapers: This is the latest news, this is what we're doing now. Without any limits imposed by another label's agenda.
Today the DLE discs sprawl over several territories. Free jazz or energy playing is one of them, nowhere better demonstrated than on the thunderous Live At The Subtone, with guitarist John Adams and drummer Mark Sanders, whose two pieces (you wouldn't call them "compositions") are titled "Yelling For You" and "Yelling For You Part Two". Dunmall, when the mood takes him, is an epic, heroic yeller, with a lung capacity to rival Charles Gayle's, Brotzmann's or the late Frank Wright's. Sam Rivers' old guiding principle "form is out, content makes its own form" is invoked on discs like this, or Zap ll and Zap III, both of which are powered by double drummers (Mark Sanders and Steve Noble on Zap II, Noble and Tony Marsh on Zap III).
Paul Dunmall has a particular affinity for drums and drumming. His father was a drummer (there's a snap of his dad drumming with a swing band in the Subtone sleeve) and he played drums himself before turning to reeds (first clarinet, then alto, then tenor). Early experiences were in soul music, in rock. No surprise, then, that he hears more "rhythmically" than others in the free zone do. A duo with Tony Marsh, just drums and tenor/soprano, prompts a few Interstellar Space comparisons as Dunmall digs deep into the scattershot beat.
But in general the "late Coltrane" tag that's often put on Dunmall is an oversimplification. Or let's say he was once more in thrall to the great man than he is today. Of course, he continues to acknowledge his influence. Which worthwhile hornman wouldn't? Amongst the most straight-ahead post-Coltrane outings on DLE is one of the label's few deep-archive offerings, Live In London, a 1992 recording. The rhythm section of Tim Wells and Dave Alexander has a steam engine's drive, freeing Dunmall to soar and swoop on tenor and C-Melody saxes. Lovely, clearly-etched playing here; it might not be a bad place for the Dunmall novice to start.
Onosante and Kunikazu feature Dunmall with two regular associates, Gibbs on guitar and Keith Tippett on piano. Peter Fairclough's the drummer on both, and bassist Roberto Bellatalla is added for Kunikazu. Tippett's such a strong and decisive player, whether playing on the piano's keys or its harp of strings, that there are obvious overlaps with the work of that great improvising ensemble Mujician, yet the group has its own character, too. Free jazz is only part of the palette; when Tippett's playing his spontaneous prepared piano patterns and Gibbs is playing percussively all references are open. Sometimes there's a sense of village music from some yet-to-be-discovered locale…
The duo albums with Paul Rogers, Alien Art and Ja Ja Spoon are completely fulfilling. The two players have a rare understanding. Locked in at a telepathic level, they can play intimately, roar together, suggest folk colours, or imply an almost orchestral scope. As an arco player, Rogers has very few equals in jazz. "When I play with Paul Rogers," says Dunmall, "sometimes I just want to stop and listen to him. Such a fantastic musician."
Entirely different from all the foregoing is the beautiful Manjah, on which Dunmall and Gibbs meet Indian mridangam player M. Balachandar. It's not a culture-fusion project of the kind that fills the world music browser bins. Dunmall's had a deep interest in Indian music for more than three decades, but wouldn't presume to try and play it. The percussionist, rather, is drawn into the improviser's world. Dunmall plays fleet, buoyant, lyrical soprano throughout, ably counterpointed by Gibbs's agile guitar.
Manjah, recorded February 2001 was a pointer to things to come on DLE: At the end of the following month Dunmall recorded a folk/poetry/free improvising session with singer Robin Williamson for ECM. Ten days later he taped the double album Something Normal for his own label. It's undoubtedly one of the most innovative albums on DLE, a challenging wide-open session that pushes the parameters of so-called non-idiomatic improvising. There's nothing generic about it all. It's free and it's improvised, but the string tangled interplay of John Adams and Philip Gibbs, heard mostly on acoustic instruments (guitars, banjos, ukelele, mandolin), alludes also to folk, bluegrass, the blues, oriental music. The music feels "rooted" rather than "cerebral". But there's a sense that anything can happen. At the start of Disc B, the session breaks down in gales of laughter. Sometimes the discovery of new sounds can be a preposterous undertaking. Dunmall's own appearances on this set are rationed but each of his contributions is telling. There's a sequence of gloriously swirling soprano solos from "Normal Past, Out Future" onward, before the music is closed down with cacophonic electric guitars on "The Final Wedge". The listener comes away from the album with the feeling that something not at all normal has transpired.
An important collaborator over the past year has been engineer Jonathan Scott. The rich sound he gets at the Victoria Rooms in Bristol has also enhanced the DLE adventure. lt makes, for instance, Solo Bagpipes ll a deeper listening experience than its predecessor (although Dunmall's increased facility is not to be gainsaid). We simply hear more in the grain of the sound. It's customary, when speaking of free improvised documents, to wave away inferior sonics as beside the point. In fact good sound is crucial, especially when much of the interactive detail is manifested in the overtone range.
Scott has a brief showing as a percussionist, too, at the end of All Sorts of Rituals playing darbouka and djembe. Unusual instrumentation features prominently on this disc. Philip Gibbs may be the first free improviser to solo on the Indian banjo (otherwise known as the bulbul tarang) on Ritual Two. Autoharp and theremin have roles to play, and Dunmall fields a few of his renaissance woodwinds and recites the appalling tale of the martyrdom of Henry Smith in Paris, Texas, in 1893.
Spoken word is foregrounded on The Vision, again a Dunmaill/Gibbs collaboration, with Dunmall reading a text by Shri Ramakrishna on the title track. This is potentially risky ground: the "mystical" terrifies the beer-and-skittles end of the jazz audience. Yet it can't be denied that music through the ages has attempted to channel higher impulses. Dunmall, if pushed, will admit to feeling that improvisation is a means of "approaching or connecting with the beyond, a way of expressing and manifesting the divine energy" and on The Vision he nails his colours to the mast. Ramakrishna's is a beautiful text and Dunmall's South London accent seems to "earth" it in a charming way. John Stevens would've approved of this unpretentious treatment, I think. The slow pace at which this album unfolds – helped along by some luminous vibraphone from Dunmall and Gibbs's filigree guitar – has an almost hypnotic effect.
This is equally true of The State of Moksha, which also settles upon the listener like an evening raga. Tambouras drone, Dunmall defines the Hindu term Moksha for us, and Paul Rogers' heart-dilating bass solo could be seen to elucidate further the concept of final liberation, of release from the bitter cycle of birth and death. In the most recent DLE releases there is a new focussing of resources, a new concentration. On Moksha, Dunmall's soprano does not enter until the 21st minute, and the music is the stronger for the holding back.
There is a coming together of all of Paul Dunmall's interests in the new music on DLE. Using the drone of Indian music as a centering element, and an ever-widening range of instruments for sound colour potential and spontaneous orchestration, using the spoken word both for direct communication and to hint at the serious concerns behind the sometimes unruly noisemaking, Dunmall is drawing up a framework in which creative improvising can take place at a high level. Moksha, the album, is a doorway opening onto a new space … and a piece of very moving music in its own right.
Steve Lake, 23 June 2002