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Pianos, Toys, Music & Noise: Conversations with Steve Beresford by Andy Hamilton

Shropshire improviser, that sounds like a contradiction in terms but as it happens isn't, Steve Beresford, who turned 71 the other day, is an amusing interviewee. Or maybe that should be amused. Scratch that just as often he is bemused. Not that he …

Published: 9 Mar 2021. Updated: 44 days.

Shropshire improviser, that sounds like a contradiction in terms but as it happens isn't, Steve Beresford, who turned 71 the other day, is an amusing interviewee. Or maybe that should be amused. Scratch that just as often he is bemused. Not that he tries to be any of these. He just is. There is a sort of deadpan, wise and disarmingly honest style to his repartee. Take recently on one of Oliver Weindling's weekly Zoom Vortex jazz-ins that have been running every week since Lockdown. Steve, who is a regular, typically looks as if he is bored out of his tree, or asleep, sat there on the couch but usually isn't, chipping in the best contributions of all when he does speak. For instance in response to a tech guy enthused but truth be told waffling interminably on about VR headsets recently not at all rudely but completely straightforwardly Beresford said back to the guy something like ''I love technology. But I find talking about it really boring.'' Even the tech guy smiled however exhausted after his presentation having just spent the guts of an hour telling the collective online baffled huddle how bloody brilliant VR is.

There are quite a few dry and funny lines from Beresford within the pages of Pianos, Toys, Music & Noise. I think I liked this section best about one of his early bands Alterations most. In response to the sage-like Andy Hamilton's question about how the band got its name: ''That was my idea. I loved the idea of being in a band with '-tions' at the end, like The Temptations. And then I noticed that virtually every dry-cleaners had a sign that says 'Alterations.' And I thought 'This is great – we’re playing music but altering it'.'' Or on second thoughts, and typical of the throwaway that Beresford does so well, how turning to the subject of what constitutes the professional's toy piano how ''someone pointed out that Schoenhut means 'nice hat'.''

I haven't read Hamilton's earlier book about Lee Konitz but now must go read it. I have met Andy a few times, one of the last times our paths crossed was standing in a street chatting in friendly fashion near an Indian restaurant in Bath back in the late-1990s, I do like to accost writers in the street. He wasn't a university professor of philosophy in those days although I think he was already a lecturer if memory serves me correctly. Andy was heavily influenced by the great jazz writer Richard Cook (1957-2007). The two knew each other from their school days at Latymer Upper in west London.

As for Beresford I've only seen the pianist perform once although nowadays I do follow his records fairly observantly and aim to catch up on a lot of golden oldies mentioned in the book. Last year's Frequency Disasters was certainly a pleasure. The only time I managed to see the improviser perform in the flesh was at the Vortex jazz club in London in November 2010 having turned up for a late night show when Beresford was performing John Cage's 'Indeterminacy' joined by genius stand-up Stewart Lee as a sort of narrator and by another fine musician Tania Chen. A banal at times even absurdist affair, superb abstract touches from Chen with Lee delivering well aimed falling cadences were just part of the spell that all in all turned into quite a gem of a show and certainly pointed me in the direction of the Beresfordian universe. Lee introduces Hamilton's book, dedicated to guitar innovator Derek Bailey, noting in the foreword that he regards Beresford ''as a wit and an epicure; as a fount of musical knowledge and a great conversationalist who is disproportionately popular with the capital’s cleverest women.''

Into the book itself I found myself chapter after chapter pausing to call up musical examples on YouTube as Beresford recalls some of his earlier collaborators and experiences as he eventually discovers his true métier as a free improviser. There is obvious rapport between Hamilton and Beresford. Sometimes it is as if Hamilton is cueing Beresford but without any clunkiness and who then via whimsical musing washed down with a good draught of self-deprecation adds extra colour and insight. Best bit of badinage? Oh difficult. But take this, on page 49 drawn from the brilliant chapter when discussions turn to Derek Bailey: ''Hamilton: You’ve described the moments in a free improv performance where nothing of interest was happening, as 'roughage.' Beresford: [Laughs] I think Derek was trying to get rid of roughage. I remember him saying about one musician, 'I like the way he never stops playing, even when he doesn’t know what to do – he just gets quieter.' That would be roughage. But sometimes, roughage is the most interesting thing.''

Interspersed by commentary from a range of luminaries, often the least interesting element of the book although I liked Tania Chen's and Pat Thomas' comments a lot, I kept leaping on to the conversational chunks that form the main narrative and wit. As for the most significant part of the book it is probably surrounding talk of Bailey of whom Beresford says definitively: ''The sound of his guitar is constantly in flux.''

If discussions of Webern's klangfarbenmelodie, sound-colour-melody, toy piano, top tips and commentary on a range of good restaurants are your thing, you have struck very lucky indeed among the many enlightening delights of a witty and wonderful book that meanders from amusing and more to the point amused stories of the Portsmouth Sinfonia to Morecambe and Wise. A remarkable life in music in a tapestry of delights is painted. Beresford has blazed a distinctive trail being serious but never taking himself at all too seriously. Stephen Graham

Published by Bloomsbury Academic

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