Robert Wyatt’s appearances in musical settings diverging from his own have proliferated over the decades. In a way he’s become something of an emblem for the “you can’t go wrong with him” formula, considering the deserved fame and the unconditional esteem elicited by the man’s sheer charisma.
However, in exquisitely artistic terms one must also consider the actual weight of these collaborations. Wyatt has occasionally been involved in projects that had this writer recoiling in horror (I’m thinking in particular of certain Italian lightweights, but let’s not digress). With Last 1 + Last 2, saxophonist, composer and, in this case, conductor Caroline Kraabel has aimed at a difficult target, ultimately reaching midway point on the “total failure to absolute success” scale.
Wyatt agreed to sing a fragment composed by Kraabel, sporadically used through a pair of relatively disciplined pieces. In the first (dated 2016) sixteen musicians — including several stalwarts of London’s improv scene — were totally unaware of the melodic traits of the singer’s contribution. On the contrary, the second (2017) is a quartet where Kraabel, vocalist Maggie Nicols, percussionist Richard E. Harrison and bassist John Edwards had familiarity with the pre-recorded snippet. Both sets were taped at Cafe Oto.
If describing the activity of an instrumental collective is in itself troublesome, even harder is trying to narrate about this experiment without recurring to commonplace. The “orchestral” version offers all the pros and cons of such a cooperative effort. Sections gifted with the brilliance of intuitive coherence alternate with more inconclusive spots where the meaning of what’s heard is probably clear only to those who attended the performance. Sometimes, looking at a gesture can be revelatory in apparent absence of relevant music. The quartet presents a mix of linearity and sparseness, room left for extended solos highlighting the individual qualities. Nicols’ voice — as cathartically distressed as Wyatt’s is sweetly melancholic — represents an obvious catalyst for a degree of perturbation.
Overall, intriguing stuff on paper yet not completely working. Wyatt’s occasional emergence sounds rather disjointed from the rest of the events, not genuinely amalgamated in the timbral palette. Although some performers respond to the “apparitions” quite interestingly, the lingering impression is that of a slightly forced virtual partnership. Nonetheless, thanks to the indisputable sensibility of the participants, the interplay still warrants moments of mysteriously whispering beauty, alone worthy of repeated spins.