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Lol Coxhill in a Skip, 2nd November, 2004

John Robert Brown

Half an hour remains, for the performance is advertised to begin in the market place at noon. On an overcast Tuesday here in North Yorkshire, Malton is quiet. Daylight-saving time ended last Sunday. Checking my watch, I notice that the church clock is still on summertime. The endearing notion that putting the clocks forward will fade the curtains (More sunlight, you see) could have supporters here.

In a cafe opposite the marketplace, my fellow diners are all mature ladies in sensible hats. They don't look like Lol Coxhill fans, but how would I know? Coxhill was born in 1932; these ladies could be of a similar age. Who can define the followers of this saxophonist who can claim to have played with Tommy Cooper, The Damned and Anthony Braxton?

At ten to twelve a traffic warden directs a skip truck into a coned-off corner of the market place. Several people in anoraks - one in a Mongolian flap hat - wander about bearing bulky TV cameras or fluffy mikes on poles. Local newspaper reporters, in raincoats, are also here. Thirty or so uniformed and well-mannered children emerge quietly from a pair of smart school buses.

The snippets of conversation are fascinating. "That looks like the sort of thing the empty dustbins into," says a lady behind me, looking at the yellow skip observantly. "They say he's one of the greatest saxophonists in the world," says another. A local radio man comes by. From Radio York, he, too, tells me that Lol Coxhill is one of the best saxophonists ever. Our conversation quickly turns into a recorded interview on free jazz. My friend the composer Graham Lyons (who lives nearby), is here, carrying one of his Lyons C Clarinets. Cheekily, he plays "Why Are We Waiting". Raffishly twirling his clarinet in the air, it slips from his fingers to crash onto the tarmac. the beak of the mouthpiece is grazed, ending any notions of a reed duet with Lol Coxhill, which is a pity.

A healthy crowd is now assembled, undeterred by splashes of rain. Under umbrellas, the docile children line up, carrying pads and pencils to sketch the drama. Lol lurks unnoticed up a side street, having arrived hot from his first performance of the day, at nearby Brawby. He's riffling through the browser bins in a nearby second-hand record shop. Graciously and shyly he allows me to take his photograph. "Gotta go to work now," he says, and heads for the skip.

Organiser Simon Thackray, who seems to have distributed Lol Coxhill picture postcards everywhere, and even got the event into The Guardian, is still busy. He makes the skip comfortable (!), chats to various media people, then holds a brolly to shield Lol and his saxophone from the rain. It was Thackray who recently conceived, produced and directed HAT (headgear is in counterpoint to today's theme, it seems), which was a performance of words music and knitting, starring the poet and Radio 3 presenter Ian McMillan and guitarist Billy Jenkins. Locally, Thackray is known as the man behind Yorkshire's famous micro-venue, The Shed. "People keep asking me: "Why a skip?," says Thackray. "But they wouldn't be here if Lol wasn't in a skip." True.

Lol climbs into the skip, takes time to adjust his reed, then plays. On unaccompanied soprano saxophone he uses bebop licks and flurries of free-ish playing, nothing that would have surprised Charlie Parker. Long notes, melodies and vibrato are all avoided. In truth, his saxophone tone tends to be anonymous and bland when compared with recent unaccompanied performances from Dave Liebman or Michael Brecker, for instance. There is none of the marvellous take-no-prisoners bravura technique of, say, Evan Parker, for instance. But this isn't really the point. He's his own man, to be praised for going his own way.

What this tour has achieved is to bring jazz of a sort to the attention of an audience that isn't normally targeted by jazz animateurs and proselytisers. Let's hope that these spectators go on to discover some of the great glories elsewhere in the music. And at least there will be some jazz on TV tonight. Good for Lowen Coxhill.

The crowd disperses, and the skip truck moves in. Soon it trundles off to afternoon performances in Pickering, Kirkby Moorside and Helmsley.

Later, being interviewed about this event for BBC TV, I skip the puns.

This article first appeared in Jazz Review, issue 63, December 2004, and is used by kind permisssion of the editor, Richard Cook. Visit the Jazz Review website
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