By Richard Williams, The Guardian, Friday
August 10, 2007
It would not be entirely fanciful to trace the beginnings of European
free improvising to the first meeting of the trombonist Paul Rutherford,
who has died aged 67, with the drummer John Stevens and the saxophonist
Trevor Watts in 1958. All three had spotted the opportunity of a paid
first-class musical education offered by the air force's band college
at Uxbridge, west London, and the daily routine turned out to be surprisingly
helpful to their true ambitions. After an hour's formal practice in the
morning, for the rest of the day they had the freedom of the band room
to pursue a joint interest in the forms of American jazz with which, a
decade later, they would engineer a decisive rupture.
Rutherford, in particular, became a prominent member of the small coterie
of European free improvisers whose work significantly expanded the vocabulary
of instrumental music. In his case the language of the trombone was broadened
to include a seemingly infinite variety of unlikely sounds. It was his
inherent musicality, along with a relish for surprise and a seldom disguised
sense of humour, that allowed him to gather and arrange the new materials
into something both highly personal and, to listeners of a sympathetic
temperament, enormously satisfying.
Born in Greenwich and brought up in Blackheath Village, he inherited his
leftwing beliefs and a teasing wit from his father, a former soldier who
worked at the Woolwich Arsenal. Influenced by an older brother's enthusiasm
for Charlie Parker, he tried the saxophone before settling on the trombone
and enlisting in the air force to further his musical education.
He was playing pub gigs with a Dixieland band when he encountered Stevens
and Watts, but soon the trombonist was returning to base clutching the
latest album by John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy or Ornette Coleman. Drafted
to Cologne at the beginning of the 1960s, the three played with German
and American musicians at a cellar bar, and heard Coltrane with Miles
After leaving the service in 1963, Rutherford enrolled at the Guildhall
school of music in London and, with Watts, joined Neil Ardley's New Jazz
Orchestra. Two years later, seeking a less restrictive musical environment,
they were reunited with Stevens, and on January 3 1966 all three were
present - along with the pianist Peter Lemer, the bassist Jeff Clyne and
the saxophonist Graham Bond - for the first session of improvised music
at the Little Theatre Club in Covent Garden. The name of the group, which
would undergo numberless changes of size and personnel, was the Spontaneous
Music Ensemble; their first recording, Challenge, was issued on a small
label later that year.
Among those arriving to swell the ranks were the saxophonist Evan Parker,
the guitarist Derek Bailey (obituary, December 29 2005) and the bassist
Barry Guy, whose instrumental innovations would parallel those of Rutherford.
Gradually the music shed its similarities to American jazz as the nature
of free improvisation became clear: a music devoid of the conventional
armature of repetition, whether of metre, melody or harmonic structure,
requiring courage and endurance from both player and listener but capable
of providing a unique dividend on the investment.
He won the attention of a broader audience after joining Mike Westbrook's
Concert Band in time for the recording of a suite titled Release in 1968.
During his two years with Westbrook, he formed a potent trombone partnership
with Malcolm Griffiths, whose brassy forthrightness formed an effective
contrast with his own more glancing, allusive approach.
His gifts earned him membership of a huge variety of groupings, including
Barry Guy's London Jazz Composers' Orchestra, Keith Tippett's Centipede,
the Tony Oxley Sextet, Elton Dean's Newsense, the Charlie Watts Big Band
and countless ad hoc duos, trios, quartets and quintets, while he also
accepted gigs with the Soft Machine, the Detroit Spinners and the Sensational
Alex Harvey Band.
His own group, Iskra 1903, initially a trio with Guy and Bailey, played
a particularly intimate and texturally adventurous form of free music;
its name, the Russian word for "spark", was borrowed from a
newspaper founded by Lenin and indicated the nature of Rutherford's political
beliefs, centred on fundamental, no-frills communism. Later there would
be an expanded Iskra 1912 and eventually a large-scale Iskastra.
In 1970 a visit to the annual Free Jazz Meeting sponsored in Baden-Baden
by Germany's Südwestfunk radio station led to recordings with Don
Cherry's New Eternal Rhythm Orchestra, Alexander von Schlippenbach's Globe
Unity Orchestra, and groups led by the saxophonist Peter Brotzmann, the
trumpeter Manfred Schoof and the bassist Peter Kowald. His growing reputation
eventually took him to the US and Japan.
In his first solo album, The Gentle Harm of the Bourgeoisie, recorded
in 1974, Rutherford demonstrated his eventually influential mastery of
multiphonics, the practice of singing while playing one or (through the
use of harmonics) more notes at the same time. That same year, a recording
of Iskra 1903 was included with those of France's New Phonic Art and Germany's
Wired in a Deutsche Grammophon box set devoted to European free improvisation.
Among the more cherishable incidents from the early history of this music
occurred on the night Rutherford announced that he would be performing
Luciano Berio's Sequenza V. On concluding, he was approached by a listener
who remarked that he had never heard the work so well performed. Rutherford
was able to tell him that, after sticking to the score for the first couple
of minutes, he had improvised the rest.
"I want to go out not knowing what will happen," he told an
interviewer. "I know when I'm going to play, but not what I'm going
to play." The purity of his approach impressed even the sceptical
Bailey, who remarked to his biographer, Ben Watson: "The mysterious
one to me at that time was Rutherford. He could produce genuine surprises.
If anybody at that point qualified to be called a free player, it was
Inevitably, free music has always struggled to secure an audience, and
the endless struggle could bring out the depressive side of Rutherford's
nature. His political ideology underpinned his part in the formation,
in the early 1970s, of the short-lived Musicians' Co-operative, alongside
Bailey, Guy, Parker, the pianist Howard Riley and the percussionists Paul
Lytton and Tony Oxley.
The last years were difficult. Apart from occasional appearances at the
Red Rose and the Vortex in London, there were virtually no playing opportunities
in Britain. To complicate the business of existing, his beliefs had prevented
him from investing in home ownership and had cost him at least one of
his three long-term relationships with women. Eventually he was forced
to take a part-time job as a doorman at a working man's club, while health
problems arising from a lifelong fondness for beer resulted in two major
Among his final recordings, however, was a highly effective appearance
on AMaSSED, the 2002 album by Spring Heel Jack, in which the instrumental
voices of various free improvisers were successfully blended into a post-rock
sound world. Rutherford would have scoffed at the notion that the difficult,
demanding music which began to make its way into the world almost 50 years
ago ever required external validation; here, nevertheless, was an unmistakable
sign of its enduring worth.
Paul Rutherford, improvising trombonist, born February 29 1940; died August
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