The Groove Seeker: Basil Kirchin’s Primitive London

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Basil Kirchin: Primitive London (Trunk Records, 12/6/10)

Basil Kirchin: “Primitive London 3”

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As one of the most under-appreciated artists of his time (roughly from the late 1950s to the mid-’70s), Basil Kirchin’s music has been shrouded in obscurity.  But thanks to Jonny Trunk and the folks at Trunk Records, who’ve reissued titles such as Particles and Abstractions of the Industrial North, Kirchin has not only been realized as one of jazz’s most eccentric characters, but as a musician ahead of his time in terms of experiments in sound and fusion.

Trunk Records’ latest release, Primitive London, reveals some of the grooviest music Kirchin ever made, bringing together two never-before-released film scores.  The first is the strange cult-classic Primitive London, the 1965 Arnold Louis Miller shock-doc that explores the dark side of London during its birth of cool.  Accompanying Primitive London is an even more obscure unreleased gem, The Freelance, a 1971 gangster film shot in London featuring a score by Kirchin.

Trunk Records’ decision to release them together is a fantastic idea: each film reflects two distinct periods in Kirchin’s musical career and development.  Primitive London listens like a double feature; Kirchin’s swinging ’60s jazz turns into something entirely different by the 1970s, as he delves deeper into the spontaneity of free jazz and the nuances of the experimental.

After a period of electronic compositions written for “imaginary films,” Primitive London marks Kirchin’s first venture in writing music for an actual film. The movie itself may be one of the strangest ever made in the UK. It’s a bizarre patchwork of non-sequitur sequences aimed to juxtapose the shocking with the ordinary, or the ridiculous with the downright freakish.  Interviews with mods, rockers, and beatniks are laced in between sequences such as child birth, “wife swapping” parties, women modeling monokinis, overweight men in a sauna bath, and not to mention the raw glimpse of battery chickens being slaughtered.

The record has no track listing; instead, songs are numbered as they came on the original quarter-inch reel.  The six tracks are a nice variation on the theme.  “Primitive London 1” immediately gives us a taste of Kirchin’s style: persistent rhythms and dark melodies searching for the unknown pleasures of “Swinging London.”  The music sounds more mod than anything else Kirchin made — a jazz for the jet-set mentality that comes off cool and sexy.

The trumpet in “Primitive London 3” underscores an all-together beautifully layered composition that seeks to capture the allure of Carnaby street and the nearby Soho district when the neon signs shut off.  Kirchin keeps the first half of the score very much standard before launching into the second half, departing into a weird blend of jazz flourishes with slightly electronic sonic elements.  The music becomes brooding, almost evil, balanced by a sense of curiosity.

The sound is carried into The Freelance score, where, by 1971, Kirchin’s experimental side was fully developed.  The British visionary was already mastering reel-to-reel tape collage in a project called World Within Worlds, which combines conventional instruments with wildlife sounds and insect noises in a meticulously edited ambient experience.

There are moments when The Freelance sounds like Kirchin wants to do away with jazz altogether. However, it remains a free-jazz effort; the four-track score is filled with signature changing percussion and avant-garde melodies.  “The Freelance 2” demonstrates Kirchin’s progressive drumming style as it slowly dissolves into a lazy arrangement of out-of-nowhere string placements and single-bass note plucks.  The aesthetic mirrors Charles Mingus’ Pithecanthrpus Eretcus and The Clown, which both push the limits of jazz past and present into something new.

Though not as raucous as Mingus, Kirchin’s free jazz is just as organic.  Kirchin’s unusual arrangements have a tinge of electronic drone that leads the transition from structure to something more amorphous over the course of the tune.  Though the same five-note melody that opens The Freelance is revisited again and again, it’s not before each possible tangent is explored.

A wonderfully rich album in history and sound, Primitive London gives Kirchin the attention he deserves.  With his death in 2005, Trunk Records has now become the number-one purveyor of Kirchin’s legacy: an oddball elegance that is now appreciated by a generation of inquisitive listeners. Though the films may or may not be of taste, Kirchin’s music alone stands as highly original and a welcome addition to any music library.

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