Few musician-run labels have the iconic identity or influence of percussionist Eddie Prévost’s Matchless Recordings, from its 33-year documentation of free improvisation to the visual brilliance of the cover art and the challenging, unapologetic thoughtfulness of the liner essays. It is, most conspicuously, the label of AMM - the pioneering English free improvisation group that began in 1965 and included Prévost, composer Cornelius Cardew and guitarist Keith Rowe and which continues to this day with Prévost and pianist John Tilbury - but it’s also far more than that.
Launched in 1979, the label has flowered along with Prévost’s multi-faceted projects, including his free jazz groups and the London improvisation workshop he has convened since 1999. Today Matchless releases projects like the free jazz trio Sum, works by composers Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff, the brilliant textural improvisations of the French band Hubbub and the computer interactions of pianist Sebastian Lexer. A publishing wing, Copula, has released writings by Prévost, Tilbury and Cardew. The independence of Matchless contrasts sharply with the world that Prévost first encountered in the mid ‘60s and he traces the roots of Matchless to an era when intrepid pop labels sought out the most challenging music. “In 1966 the music was completely new and some of the early free improvising musicians were picked up by big labels. AMM’s first recording was released by Elektra. But, for a number of reasons, this and other examples were all ‘remaindered’, sometimes within weeks of their release. So although it was initially satisfying to have the attention from these labels, it didn’t lead anywhere. “It soon became clear our musical lives depended upon our own initiatives. The ‘big break’ was in dreamland. Also, the feeling of the time was distrust of established structures and people realized that making, releasing and selling records was nuts and bolts. The mystique had gone. In Britain Incus [founded by Derek Bailey, Tony Oxley and Evan Parker in 1970] was the leading improvising musician co-operative label to thus develop. It was a good model to follow.” When Matchless was launched, it had little to do with AMM and almost everything to do with Prévost’s own free jazz projects. “By the time I decided to start the label, AMM was in disarray. The band had fractured under the weight of Maoist politics and youthful bloodymindedness. Matchless Recordings became the vehicle for my free jazz band with Geoff Hawkins on tenor, Gerry Gold on trumpet and Marcio Mattos on bass with me on drum-kit. The LPs LIVE Vols. 1 and 2 [“live” rhymes with “give”] were soon followed by AMM-connected material as the rapprochement and the refiguring of AMM occurred with the addition of John Tilbury.”
In 1981, the label released The Crypt, a boxed set of AMM music from 1968, some of the most challenging music ever recorded. “The decision to release The Crypt was dependent upon a surprising complex of factors. [Bassist] Gavin Bryars was, at the time, a musician serving on the Arts Council New Music sub-committee. Gavin’s intervention gave Matchless a grant towards realizing the then-ambitious project of the double boxed release accompanied with documentary material. Keith Rowe and I, as part of economic necessity and artistic decision, glued covers - Keith’s design - onto the boxes in the Village Hall of Matching Tye [where Prévost and Matchless reside].” Prévost describes the reaction: “In one case a distributor was angry at our decision to release this material. He claimed no one would buy it, missing the point in a number of ways. First, it was not a commodity but the embodiment of our work. Secondly, it turned
out to be the most economically successful recording Matchless ever released!”
The impact of The Crypt still resonates. The saxophonist Seymour Wright, now one of Prévost’s closest associates, says, “Actually, when I think of the Matchless label I always think of The Crypt. That box set, on Matchless, on vinyl, was one of the first records I ever played and listened to as I started to work my way through my parent’s records as a boy. Everything about it - music, cover, box and booklet - fascinated me.” The AMM CDs have a monumental unity about them. The virtual motto of the band is “as alike as trees”; each is typically a CD-length improvisation, an organic investigation of layers of texture and continuous sound - The Nameless Uncarved Block and Tunes without Measure or End are aptly named. The Matchless catalogue includes the full sweep of AMM history through all of its permutations and collaborations.
On Sounding Music, recorded at the 2009 Freedom of the City, AMM is still finding new connections, with John Butcher, cellist Ute Kanngiesser and Christian Wolff joining Prévost and Tilbury. Butcher remarks, “Five musicians playing together, some for the first time, can make for a risky improvisation. I think it has a real edge because of that. You sense the concentrated listening and decision-making. Eddie’s commitment to improvisation definitely encourages exploratory musical engagement.”
Matchless represents Prévost’s other impulses as well. In recent years there have been his drum-kit forays with free jazz masters like pianist Alex von Schlippenbach (playing together for the first time on 2008’s Blackheath) and the energy-school saxophonist Alan Wilkinson on So Are We, So Are We. His sound driven side is evident in work with youthful experimentalists like Seymour Wright on Gamut, on which Prévost plays Roto-toms, and violinist Jennifer Allum on Penumbrae, where he plays bowed percussion. Those discs reflect Prévost’s role as mentor to successive generations of improvisers. Allum and Wright are among the many younger musicians who have found a path to improvised music through the London workshops. As far as economic reality permits, Prévost takes chances: “Whatever the artistic merits, we can only go as far as return on sales makes new things possible. Even the audience for this music is conservative in its choices and the downturn in the economy perhaps makes people more cautious. It has become likely that sales of CDs featuring, for example, Evan Parker or AMM music will break even and give us a return to invest in other things. Nothing, though, is certain.”
What is certain is Matchless’ impact on the current landscape of recorded improvisation. While Prévost stresses that he’s “unable to respond positively to almost all the unsolicited material I receive,” his support has been tremendous to the few musicians associated with label. Bertrand Denzler of Hubbub recalls that, “Having a CD out on Matchless was quite important for us. A lot of people who wouldn’t have
been aware of our existence discovered our music thanks to the reputation of the label."
Durability is apparent everywhere in the Matchless catalogue, from the wonderful Supersession of 1988 with Prévost, Rowe, Evan Parker and Barry Guy, an almost unthinkable assemblage of talents, to the dense abstraction of 396 by the trio of Yann Charaoui, John Lely and Seymour Wright and None (-t) by 9!, early documents of the London workshop that grow in significance.
Prévost recently launched a concert series of “Meetings with Remarkable Saxophonists” and the results are starting to appear on Matchless. First up is All Told with Evan Parker, bassist John Edwards and Prévost on drumkit and CDs with John Butcher and Bertrand Denzler will follow in the series. Also just released are Impossibility in its Purest Form with Sebastian Lexer, Wright and Prévost and Volume 2 of John Tilbury and the Smith Quartet performing Morton Feldman’s music for piano and strings, a series on DVD to accommodate the lengths of Feldman’s pieces. A new AMM CD, London Concerts, will be out soon and projected releases include a CD with saxophonist Jason Yarde and bassist Oli Hayhurst. “These are two very new people on Matchless,” Prévost says, “and hopefully reveal another surge in the spirit of openness. Other material is in the pipeline. It looks like a busy period ahead.”
Stuart Broomer — The New York City Jazz Record July 2012