Reviews of F-IRE Collective
Reviews are regularly posted onto F-IRE's website. Please see http://www.f-ire.com/about/press/press.php
07/01/2006 Stuart Nicholson, Irish Times.
With a Mercury nomination and BBC awards last year, London collective F-ire is the new face of British jazz, writes Stuart Nicholson.
If they've not already done so, then the musicians who make up London's F-ire Collective can look back on 2005 and give themselves a pat on the back. In terms of the UK jazz scene, it was their year. The British press picked up on the popularity of their London concerts and began running features about a "new movement in British jazz". Even the UK's biggest circulation broadsheet, the conservative Daily Telegraph, ran a feature on "how jazz got hot again", saluting the F-ire Collective as "saviours of the British sound".
Two groups from the collective made the rock press - publications not normally given to singing the praises of jazz - sit up and take notice. Polar Bear was shortlisted for a Mercury Prize and Acoustic
Ladyland turned up on Jools Holland's BBC TV show, Later. "The F-ire Collective became a media phenomenon," says singer and collective member Julia Beal. "That's why it seemed to be a breakthrough year for the 'brand' of F-ire Collective, linking everybody together and giving everybody a context from which they can emerge."
At the 2005 BBC Jazz Awards, a key member of the collective, drummer Seb Rochford, won the Rising Star Award and Acoustic Ladyland was voted Best Band. There were F-ire Collective features on BBC Radio and BBC TV's prestigious The Culture Show, and in the autumn, 14 members of the collective mounted a seven-date UK tour. They were amazed at the thousands of fans who turned out to see them.
"My young niece and her friends live in the north of England and have heard of the F-ire Collective, and that really amazes me!" says guitarist and collective member Jonny Phillips. "I said: 'You're so
young, you're not meant to know about jazz!' But it's great, it's reaching all kinds of people."
The music to be found under the F-ire umbrella is not confined to any single style. The group's leader, alto saxophonist, percussionist and educator, Barak Schmool, speaks of how the collective put their music into the community and the community into their music. "You can go to a gig by F-ire and it's going to be as varied as London itself. As soon as I walk out of the door I'm interacting with all sorts of life, and inevitably your art in a big city is going to be touched by all this." Saxophonist Pete Wareham, for example, who leads Acoustic Ladyland, speaks of how London life, "like listening to The Clash or Madness", has helped shape how his band sounds.
The F-ire Collective has a fresh, open-minded approach to music that flagrantly disregards jazz orthodoxy, forging alliances with classical music, world sounds, electronics and punk rock. The
musicians may play under rock band names such as Polar Bear, Acoustic Ladyland and Panacea, but they are united by their willingness to adopt new ideas and they share an intent to move jazz
forward with the times.
Not many people had heard about the F-ire Collective until 2004's BBC Jazz Awards, when some 15 of its members stepped into the spotlight at London's Hammersmith Palais to receive the award for
innovation. After Barak Schmool had accepted the award on behalf of everyone, he made a short speech where he emphasised the "collective effort". It's something he has passionately believed in since New Year's Day 1995, when the collective held its first meeting in his bedroom.
Schmool says the idea of the collective approach to music-making came from his own direct experiences around the Loose Tubes generation of British jazz musicians, centred around Django Bates. He was also inspired by European collectives such as the scene in Brussels around AKA Moon and Octum and the recently disbanded Hask in Paris.
However, the F-ire Collective was far from an overnight phenomenon. For several years it did not even have a name, as pianist and collective member Robert Mitchell points out: "It was a long time
before the conversations ended up turning into what F-ire has become and where it wants to go. It wasn't until four years ago a pooling of information was begun; it lead to the idea of a record label,
workshops, and websites. It seems ridiculous now how quickly things have happened since then. We only decided to call ourselves F-ire Collective about the same time!"
For collective member and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrook, this self-help approach is vital in developing a different approach to writing and performing music. "I think if you throw a bunch of creative
people together, they don't need massive resources to create because are all willing to help each other out and rehearse together and try things out." It's a view echoed by Julia Biel: "You can call upon people in times of need - 'Do you fancy coming around to see what you can do on this tune?' Or, 'Do you fancy trying a string arrangement on this?' Or, 'So-and-so wants you to write a few words for their tune'. So there's a kind of network like a family. . ."
In just 18 months, the impact of the F-ire Collective on the British jazz scene has been enormous. "I think it has definitely affected it in a good way," says Laubrook. "I think it creates a completely
different audience, I really think so - it has changed the scene massively. The jazz scene, even the younger jazz scene, has been down on itself in a way, and I think that is something F-ire has
changed. I went to an Acoustic Ladyland gig recently and it was packed with young people. I don't mind if there's young or old people at a gig, but it is good that there's a different scene emerging, a new crowd that joins in, and in that sense it really has changed."
13/10/2005 Gilad Atzmon, The Telegraph.
How jazz got hot again
Award-winning jazz musician Gilad Atzmon salutes the F-ire collective, saviours of the British sound
It was British jazz that first captured my imagination. Back in the late '70s, I used to visit a British record shop in Jerusalem. It was here that I found my first jazz albums. A long time before I had managed to get my hands on any John Coltrane vinyl, it was the work of Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes that introduced me to the beauty of black music. Scott and Hayes had it all: the energy, the power, the wit, the inspiration, the originality, the warmth and the wisdom. Living then in the Middle East, I remember regarding London as the Mecca of Jazz.
In the early '90s, I settled in London, though it was academia that brought me over - studying philosophy during the day and blowing my horn by night. But to my great astonishment, the British jazz that I encountered was more confused than the firm energy of Scott and Hayes. It seemed there was some kind of crisis in the air. Scott and Hayes were rebels; they played as if they were fighting for their lives. This shouldn't be that surprising. In the '50s and '60s, jazz was still a revolutionary art form. There was no funding system and to play jazz in that era was a survival mission.
But in the '90s, there wasn't much left of that spirit of resistance. Younger British musicians were heading towards a deadlock. Playing the old standards didn't make much sense any more, and cloning contemporary Americans made even less. In the '90s, jazz was no longer revolutionary art and, as if this wasn't enough, it was barely entertaining. It had become an insular and over-sophisticated art form. Frequently, I heard jazz musicians accused of self-indulgence. Time was ripe for a big change.
Making new music is probably the easiest part of it all. A far greater challenge is to find an audience for such music. Far more complicated still is to break through. Ten years ago, a 26-year-old London-born sax player and composer called Barak Schmool decided to change the rules of the game.
He formed a musical collective. Without realising where exactly he was aiming and how revolutionary his ideas were, he founded a community of promising young musicians who decided to learn from each other and share their knowledge with the world. In 1997, they named themselves the F-ire collective. Now they are a big success story.
F-ire is a group of exceptional musicians who support one another while being committed to sustaining cutting-edge musical artistry. Together, they help each other organise performances, recording projects and educational activities. Among the collective you find Seb Rochford's band, Polar Bear, who were recently short-listed for the Mercury Music Prize. Pete Wareham's Acoustic Ladyland (winner of the BBC Jazz Awards' best band of 2005) now sell out every venue they choose to play in. The F-ire collective seems to be everywhere: in big concert halls, tiny Jazz clubs, London colleges and even carnivals. Now the entire group is just about to launch their first UK tour. They have travelled from the far margins into the heart of British jazz establishment.
Oliver Weindling, the man behind Babel, the record label behind Polar Bear, Acoustic Ladyland and Ingrid Laubrock's latest album, told me that F-ire is in fact an astonishing "marketing exercise" made by a group of young musicians who realise that "if there are no opportunities you have to create them. Too many British jazz musicians are not getting off their arses," he says.
But it goes deeper. Barak Schmool has realised something that many jazz musicians insist upon forgetting: that jazz is an urban art form with a social message, thus it must reflect on our urban life. For Schmool, to play jazz is to intermingle with one's social landscape. To make music is "to put the music into the community and the community into the music".
This is exactly what you hear when you listen to Polar Bear, Acoustic Ladyland and the latest F-ire compilation. It is loud, it can be rough, it is angry, it is beautiful but, more than anything else, it belongs to London and London belongs to it.
When I ask Schmool what he dreams of, he says: a place where F-ire can practice and mix with others. Plainly, he is fighting against all odds. When the world seems an ever-more egotistic environment led by greed, Schmool bears a message of hope. This may sound na´ve but, astonishingly enough, his message is making a difference.
If there was an identity crisis in young British jazz just 10 years ago, it is now subsiding, and a lot of that is thanks to the work of F-ire. The measure of inspiration presented in the collective's work reminds me of the very best of British jazz.
In it you can hear the epic enthusiasm of Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes, the complexity and virtuosity of guitarists Alan Holdsworth and John McLaughlin, the poetic beauty of saxophonist John Surman and pianist John Taylor, and the militant conviction of Courtney Pine and the Jazz Warriors. Maybe I wasn't wrong. Maybe London is a Mecca of Jazz after all.
10/10/2005 Selwyn Harris, Jazzwise.
Inspired by Chicagos' 60s movement the AACM and the Brooklyn 80s M-BASE scene, London's F-ire Collective has been an energising force on the local scene over the last 10 years. On the eve of a major UK tour which will showcase the Collective's composing and performing approach Selwyn Harris talks to F-ire's inspiration and driving force Barak Schmool.
New Years Day, 1995. A day that most young people would have spent sleeping off a nasty hangover from the night before. But not in Golders Green, at least not in Barak Schmool's house. There, a bunch of like-minded musicians were meeting for the first time to take part in something that Schmool had picked up from conversations with New York's M-Base collective honcho Steve Coleman. Every Sunday for the next year and a half, saxophonist Schmool and a small coterie of fellow London-based musicians, among them keyboardist Nick Ramm, bassist Tom Herbert, drummer Leo Taylor, guitarist Dave Okumu, and occasionally singer Eska and pianist Robert Mitchell, would put down their instruments to exchange ideas and experiences. Before doing anything else, they would learn how to pass on their own understanding, while at the same time learning to receive that of others. They picked up percussion, sang, and studied African music and dance. Only then did they start transferring rhythmically what they'd learnt onto their instruments. It's part of what's called Collective Learning. Forward ten years to August 2005 and 36-year-old Barak Schmool, the visionary spokesman and artistic director of London's F-ire Collective is telling me how this mutual support system was the roots of what has expanded into a thriving creative music collective of over 60 professional musicians, dancers and educators.
"We're all sharing in that experience of if you grew up in a real community," he says. "People have just arrived and they're attracted to the creative music scene of a particular nature, but they haven't grown up together. If you play with each other in a village, you've grown up with everyone there and you have the same way of passing on music to each other. You have the same experiences, you move in the same way, you know the same songs, that's one element of a 'enforced' community but also one that we own, and it's there because without that you wouldn't really have it. You need something that everybody shares".
Increasingly, F-ire has been extraordinarily active organizing samba street percussion and more contemporary groove-oriented hybrids for carnival, and running African-derived music/dance workshops in coordination with City University and across schools in London. All members of F-ire, however diverse their musical interests, have been involved in courses, workshops and carnival at some stage learning, as Schmool puts it, to develop their own rhythmic sensibility of playing fixed-pulse groove music. Although a vital skill in playing music of any kind, internalising a personalised sense of groove is something that can easily get left out of the equation in traditional western classical music teaching and even mainstream jazz education. Says Schmool: "Everyone I can think of in F-ire has had experience playing dance music. Every great American musician in jazz historically, they played dance music. Jazz is a listening music built on the sensibility of dance music so we have the same thing at the core of our collective."
With this in mind, in 1998, Schmool decided to give the Collective a name: Fellowship for Integrated Rhythmic Expression, which, being a bit of a mouthful, was conveniently shortened to the acronym F-IRE. Although the title was introduced as little more than a marketing tag, it's a neat metaphor for a community of young musicians who are virtually single-handedly re-igniting the contemporary jazz scene in London and look certain to make a similar impact around the country with this month's nationwide Contemporary Music Network (CMN) tour.
The musicians that formed a large part of the original get-togethers in Schmool's house went on to form the backbone of the saxophonist's African music-derived bands: the Steve Coleman-influenced Timeline and the Afro- fusion, Roots of Unity. But ever since, F-ire bands have thrived on their incredible diversity. It's the music they have grown up with. And with a fresh, open-minded approach that flagrantly disregards the orthodox jazz ghetto's concerns about forging alliances with what is considered less 'serious' music, they have forced jazz into an ongoing dialogue with everything from classical and global sounds to electronics and punk. In so doing they are able to react to what's going on around them, to engage naturally with the zeitgeist. This is absolutely vital for the survival of jazz as a living, breathing music. Echoing the 1970s UK jazz-rock scene, F-IRE's jazz musicians play together under rock band-type names. They look more like rock bands too, closer to gangs than music boffins, a prime example being the skinny tie and attitude of Acoustic Ladyland. Although this generally causes a certain degree of suspicion amongst the jazz fraternity, the bands have achieved this without diluting the creativity of the music. It's due in no small measure to F-IRE's ideals of teamwork and 'strength through unity' that have been forged with huge dedication into a successful working cooperative by its members. In turn this has not only fuelled the creation of a secure environment for risk taking, but also a shared interaction with their environment that's intent on moving jazz forward with the times.
"Like every community, when you continue to play to the same people you can't play the same stuff all the time. If you're stuck in the same village you've really got to reinvent yourself all the time to be responsible to the community or else how are you going to bind them together with the same old stuff," says Schmool.
The new 2-CD compilation F-ire Works: Volume 2 on F-ire's fledgling record label offshoot confirms the boundary-stretching richness of the adventure playground inhabited by many of the artists in the collective. CD-1 mixes tracks of recent recordings, from widely acknowledged punk-jazz movers Acoustic Ladyland, through to the equally refreshing but more dulcet folkish tones of vocalist Julia Biel, with a taster from upcoming releases by the excellent keyboardist Nick Ramm's Clown Revisited, a duo collaboration between explorative pianist Liam Noble and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, and Basquiat Strings' ebb and flow of classical and improv. CD-2 features some of the same artists experimenting with electronics /programming but entering via differing universes from club culture through to more abstract forms. From Polar Bear's Seb Rochford's lesser known trio Fulborn Teversham, drummer Martin France's Spin Marvel, through to pianist Robert Mitchell's Panacea and Finn Peters' Dr Seus, there's no identifying sound as such. So what then are the things that unite the bands in F-IRE?
"I suppose now it's more of an attitude to what you do that is open," Schmool replies. "It means included in every F-ire band's conception is something that is outside music. A lot of people start writing from a concept, which is not music. It's not like this chord or this melody but it's this feeling, this speech, dance move, painting or theatrical form. Everyone has this bigger outlook but more specifically I think it's the way we pass information around each other. You see some bands who deal retrospectively with structure, it's something they've already heard and they try to recreate it with different melody and chords but the structure is unchanged. There's something different about what goes on in F-IRE: I've seen a lot of musicians or dancers saying 'oh actually I want to try this thing, lets work out what it's going to be and you have to go about learning all the rules for one piece, one environment, one story for what you're going to tell. And that means you can't just slap a chart in front of people and say, 'play this' continually. People in F-IRE are learning each other's parts, so you get in a rehearsal and you leave the instruments alone, just clapping and singing stuff and passing on the music to each other which is historically accurate for how, not just jazz but, any traditional music has been passed on."
Pianist Robert Mitchell, a former sideman of Steve Coleman and member of Quite Sane, says he sees F-IRE artists as being united by "the sound and purity of expression. It's really exciting and a tiny bit disorientating at first, it's almost as if you don't believe it's possible to get these certain things together in a way that allows everybody to be themselves."
The F-IRE record label has released a handful of diverse albums in the last couple of years by Timeline, Ingrid Laubrock, guitarist-led bands Jonathon Bratoeff, Justin Quinn's Bakehouse and Johnny Phillips' Oriole, while other independents with friendly F-ire (Schmool : "the ones who are not gonna piss us about"), such as Babel have released recordings by Polar Bear, Tom Arthurs, Acoustic Ladyland, while Rokit Records released this year's Julia Biel album. The most recent F-IRE CD released last month was Trust by pianist/composer Robert Mitchell's Panacea. The long awaited follow up to 2001's Voyager on Dune records. Trust stands as testimony to F-IRE's pursuit of the ideals originally associated with an indie label in which the artist always comes first.
"Other record companies might restrict their artists' progress by controlling the time of their releases" says Schmool. "Now that might be fine economically for a record company but for an artist it's like, 'ok, I did that three years ago, I've moved on now. That project is over, now I've got a different band.' There have been people in the collective - Robert Mitchell is the classic case - who was held somewhere, and told 'no we can't release it, it's not the right time yet' because someone else was the big thing and he got sidelined. And where did he go? He had to split and say 'no I'm being controlled in the wrong way'. I want some way of my creativity going out when I need it for my life. And so people release on F-ire when they want to release on F-ire. It's owned by the artists, the members are shareholders in the Collective so it's there's."
But retaining this kind of self-sufficiency is a perennial struggle for F-IRE only made easier by the Herculean efforts of its members and an intensive education programme. With backing from City University, F-ire musicians are also able to rehearse for free and opportunities for performing get shared out amongst its members. Hampered by a lack of venues for jazz, this collective approach has generated more gigs not less. It's all about cooperation not competition. Barak Schmool: "If you give something away to someone else on the collective you know it's inevitably coming back to you. That's something you can't often do in a competitive world: 'oh I can't do this gig but how about having someone else from the collective who's got an equally high profile on a similar tip." Robert Mitchell cites this as an important benefit for his band Panacea: "the performing possibilities and the regularity of it hasn't been huge by any means of the imagination but it's been enough to be able to help the general progress of my group and also the line leading up to doing a recording of new material. I think it's been lovely to see how well shared out these possibilities have been between quite a number of groups without deriving any sense of argument or people wanting things"
Citing the 1960's Association for the Advancement for Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago as an inspiration politically, Schmool sees a powerful DIY culture with control over the music, the places it's played, record companies, distribution and education, as essential to seeing that "music be allowed to have its correct social function. That mustn't be interfered with. I guess we have the same thing as AACM but without the political necessity. I might have to fight other people off who are trying to stop us but we're not in the middle of race riots.
"But there is a musical necessity when there's forces out there who are limiting the presence of music in the community like the '2 in the bar' rule: that's a moral affront, to restrict people from communicating with each other in sound, and binding communities together. Where you're trying new stuff you've got to have a specific type of audience who go out and listen to something they've never heard before. Most people go out and listen to something that they've got an idea of what it's going to be, so the number of opportunities with promoters or venues, with all the expense of licensing or PRS, is small. Music is being used in this country in many places to sell drinks. So naturally we try to make a lot of things happen which wouldn't happen if you were waiting for money or permission"
Contemporary European collectives especially H.A.S.K in Paris directed by Stephane Payen that has recently closed down after ten years, and the scene in Brussels around AKA Moon and Octurn have also influenced F-IRE. People, Schmool says, who "are committed to their own new music which has the same depth and integrity as anything else." The different scenes have established strong connections with each other, setting up gigs together and sharing information and learning. F-ire itself is now galvanising other fledgling creative music communities in the UK such as the Loop Collective and 1001 SongNights in London and Leeds Improvised music Association (LIMA). In turn, a distinctly British lineage can be traced back from F-IRE to the 1980s Loose Tubes generation and its offspring by looking at some of the musicians involved in the F-ire bands. It's no accident that saxophonist Mark Lockheart (Polar Bear) and post-Loose Tubes Django Bates alumnus Martin France (Spin Marvel and Bakehouse) feature. Bates is an inspirational figure to Schmool (who played and recorded with his Delightful Precipice) and other F-ire artists and returns the compliment with his supportive sleeve note on the new compilation CD.
In recent years F-IRE has earned much recognition both as a dynamic force in terms of 'serious' music as well as in the popular music subculture. In 1994 and 1995 F-IRE stormed the BBC Jazz Awards, winning awards for Innovation, a rising star in Seb Rochford, best band Acoustic Ladyland and nominations for Tom Arthurs, David Okumu and Ingrid Laubrock. Jade Fox and Finn Peters have been making inroads into the urban and clubby scene while Polar Bear have broken through into the mainstream media, getting on the Mercury nominations short list. Meanwhile Acoustic Ladyland have appeared on major International cross-genre festivals, recently on the Jools Holland BBC Show Later, and hitting the rock media in a way unprecedented in modern times for a group of jazz musicians.
The result being, Arts Council sponsored bodies have started to sit up and take notice with F-ire collective about to embark this month on their first CMN tour. Schmool has tried to incorporate everyone in the tour even if it means they don't perform, so there is music for about 15 writers for both small and larger ensembles formed out of about the same amount of performers. Schmool appears happy at the unique opportunity this gives the musicians in the F-ire community but being a man guided by unwavering moral principles, he's somewhat ambivalent concerning any ongoing commitment to creativity.
"If only we could concentrate artistically on what we do and make sure that's good and is developing and interesting and then somebody in the Arts Council would come to you and say, 'we like what you do, do you want a national tour?' " he exclaims. "But it doesn't work like that. The Arts Council is more like, 'prove to us you can run one little project and draw a line underneath it and then we'll see if we can give you a bigger project. They're dealing with you in the way they're allowed to, in small packages and you've got to jump through a lot of hoops and if you come up with something that's different you'll be pushed around by departments because your mode of creativity doesn't fit one of their boxes. So [promoter] Tony Dudley- Evans put our name in the right place. I hope that unique opportunity is passed around other young creative communities in the country because it's an accident and one that we're going to be very grateful for. The fact that we're allowed the opportunity and that we're allowed to control a certain element of it to say 'no we don't just want Seb Rochford and Pete Wareham to go on tour because that makes the arts council look good by going with all the cool new stuff, but that they let us include everybody as much as possible."
So has the success of F-ire bands, especially recently with Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland, come as a surprise at all to Schmool?
"No," he says emphatically. "Because I heard the stuff some time ago and Seb [Rochford] and Pete [Wareham], aren't people who've got their creative fingers in just one pie. They understand things from different perspectives. Pete describes his thing as very 'London', like listening to the Clash or something or like Madness or skateboarding I think, that he was into. It's got a certain kind of energy that resonates with people, a certain rate of change of the length of a piece, how they're composed, how they move emotionally. If you are on the pulse of something that's going on around you, they might not understand the harmony or whatever, but if the sound of that is great, they'll get off on it. Seb, as well, is telling stories every time he plays, within the structures he creates that are very funny. It's a game that's very inviting. I'm not surprised it's a success. It's really, really clear. Other people: me, Robert Mitchell - we write things that are much more opaque, you need to come to it with some pre-knowledge."
"We forget the - I wouldn't call it commercial, but publicity - success. That's irrelevant and it's accidental," he says. "Human success: saying to each other we believe in each other and we're going to make it work so if someone's feeling crap in the collective, everyone's calling them up and asking them to sit in on something. In urban society you can live without the support and it can be horribly empty and meaningless. Through the street in rush hour, people don't make eye contact, talk to each other. People evolved in small communities in encampments in forests or villages and are genetically adept at dealing with that, not at dealing with urban society. Whatever it is, you've actually created a community that's bound by creativity rather than being bound by location or by ethnic group or economic position. OK, we've arrived here in many different ways, from different backgrounds but we're bound by this creative thing and it's very important and we're going to continue to do it with each other's help. And that's real success".
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