Joseph Holbrooke Trio: The Moat Studio Recordings


Occasional Writings
December 26, 2005


The recorded legacy of Joseph Holbrooke from the 1960’s is almost non-existent. The material that does survive from the 1960’s is located on tapes of rehearsals at a time when the trio’s work was in transition between playing harmonic or modal jazz and the free playing which became its principle activity. These rehearsals took place in the front room of my ground floor flat at 329 Crookesmoor Road, Sheffield some time in 1965. It was a medium-size living room and was just big enough for the three of us to have sufficient space to play. I lived in the upstairs flat during my last two years as a philosophy student, a period when, in reality, I was working virtually as a professional musician even before I graduated in 1964.

I had met Derek and Tony for the first time when the student trio that I led, with guitarist Eddie Speight, played during the interval of one of their quartet performances (with pianist Gerry Rollinson) in a pub on Eccleshall Road. At that time they had a local bassist, Len Stewart, who played a five-string bass, with the upper C string, and who bore a remarkable resemblance to the comedian Arthur Askey (with whom I later worked!). I was invited to play with them, and was given a kind of audition at Derek’s house when jazz pieces containing very rapid harmonic changes, such as John Coltrane’s Moment’s Notice, were thrown at me. This baptism of fire was the equivalent of, in the days of bebop, choosing to play Cherokee at the fastest tempo possible whenever an intrepid outsider asked to “sit in” during a performance.

Initially we played a refined form of harmonic jazz, and the last recordings of the Bill Evans trio – with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian – were models for us, but these served also as a useful example of one way in which the concept of a hierarchy of roles could be undermined. Examples of the kinds of ideas we used in the process of evolving from harmonic jazz to free playing are described in Derek’s book. A quite early device was to play modally but at the same time not to impose any limit on the amount of time that a player might spend improvising. That is, not to proscribe, for example, the number of “choruses” and even to move away from the very idea of  “chorus” length in relation to the thematic material (as in the rehearsal recording of Miles’ Modes issued by Incus). Even when working with modal material we established very quickly the practice of moving outside the mode established by the theme once we were improvising, effectively negating the very concept of modal playing.  We also experimented with forms of notation, graphic and other kinds, as a way of mapping out manoeuvres through improvisations.

These rehearsals were chiefly concerned with testing possible procedures in our transition from jazz to free playing. But sometimes Tony and I would practice alone, working on complex approaches to pulsed time, especially in order for the trio to become familiar with Tony’s increasing interest in subdivisions of triplets (even when we were still playing relatively conventional jazz compositions). When we were still playing more or less conventional jazz we also practised exchanging solos with the imperative that I should come in exactly at the end of his solo, and he find his way back after mine – Tony had a justified horror of players coming back into the music in the wrong place at the end of measured drum solos. We performed regularly in public, playing every Saturday lunchtime in an upstairs room at The Grapes, Trippet Lane. The loyalty of our audience over the whole period is mentioned in the chapter on Joseph Holbrooke in Derek’s book Improvisation and is discussed in Andy Shone’s article for these notes. The fact that we worked together only in the north, isolated from developments elsewhere, probably contributed to the healthy spirit of open-minded enquiry and to the originality of the trio’s work.

Apart from these rehearsal tapes there are no recordings of our free playing to the best of my knowledge. There are (somewhere) tapes of our playing with Lee Konitz when he toured the north of England in the mid-60’s, but these are hardly representative of our work – although Lee was actually interested in a degree of free playing at that time. One of these tapes, recorded at a club in Manchester, actually appears in the published discography of Lee Konitz where the players are listed as “guitar (Derek Bailey), drums (Tony Oxley), bass (player unknown)…”

Working with Derek and Tony was of enormous importance to me throughout this time. Although we continued to play each Saturday I stopped working as a professional player in the summer of 1966 and started to teach in a college. I abandoned improvising as an ongoing, engaged activity somewhat dramatically towards the end of that year. As it happened this was when, curiously enough, we had played three different concerts in one day: our usual lunchtime session in Sheffield; the opening of an art exhibition in Northampton (where I taught) in the afternoon; and later that evening at The Little Theatre, St. Martins Lane, London, the home of London-based free playing (effectively a descent from the north, with a stopover halfway…). When I returned home I put my bass in its case and didn’t take it out for 17 years. After that night although I met, and occasionally played with, Derek from time to time, Tony and I didn’t see each other again until over 30 years later. I moved more and more into composition, and had given up teaching by the time we met again. I wrote a piece in 1971 for Derek to record on one of the first Incus albums (“The Squirrel and the Ricketty-Racketty Bridge” for one player of two guitars) and Derek did the first performance of this in a double version with John Tilbury – four guitars altogether. The concert also included the first performances of two of my early pieces The Sinking of the Titanic and Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (for which Derek played acoustic guitar). He also played on the first recording of this piece, on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records and told me later that he had had more drinks bought for him on the strength of this than for any other reason….


I was asked, in September 1995 through Gary Todd and his Cortical Foundation, if I would be interested in playing again with Derek and Tony. I was surprised at the request but was assured that they were both happy with the idea and so I agreed, although at the time I was touring the Far East with my ensemble. A complicated series of flights were booked for me (Hong Kong – Tokyo – Los Angeles – London) so that the performances in Los Angeles could take place. Unfortunately this planned reunion did not happen as I was taken ill and had to fly straight back home from Tokyo. I learned later that Derek had also been unwell and had been unable to travel from England. But Tony did! He gave an evening of performances at the Fred Hoffman Gallery with Fred Frith who Cortical managed to bring down from the Bay area to fill in.

In September 1998 we did finally all meet together – for dinner in our hotel the night before a reunion concert organised by German radio as part of a whole weekend long celebration of Tony’s work – and found that we still got on remarkably well. We didn’t talk about the concert, but swapped anecdotes about old acquaintances and caught up with what we had each been doing for the last 32 years. For the concert itself there was no rehearsal, just a two minute sound-check for the radio for levels and balance. We played about 45 minutes – two fairly long pieces and one short one – in front of an audience of about 500 people and I was surprised by my complete lack of nerves, but also at how comfortable it felt. As one reviewer put it, like three friends “resuming a conversation that had been interrupted for 30 years”. Although both Derek and Tony had continued to work as improvisers of course, they told me that they found the experience of the three of us working together represented a very different kind of challenge from the work that they had, individually, evolved over the intervening years. Derek, for example, mentioned that he had not had to consider pitch in such detail for a very long time. While the opening moments sound to me a little tentative, very quickly it became remarkably fluent, with a sense of intimate and quite refined chamber music. We also played as a sextet with three other musicians for a different set, but this felt much less satisfying to me and did not have the same degree of internal coherence as the trio.

This live trio performance was later issued on CD by Incus (Joseph Holbrooke 98). It seems ironic that, unlike the early days, every note that the trio played from this time onwards was recorded.


Following this performance we agreed to spend three days together later that year making some recordings in a studio of Derek’s choice, Moat Studios in Stockwell, London. It was fitting, given his role in bringing us back together again, that these sessions were produced by Gary Todd for his Cortical Foundation. The owner of the studio, and our engineer, was Toby Robinson who had made many recordings with Derek and who created an extraordinarily relaxed environment for us to work in. Although we set aside three days, in fact we had a routine of playing only in the afternoons from about 1 o’clock until around 6. I drove down with my bass from the village where I live on the first day, but came down on the train on others. We seldom left the room in which we recorded and were never tempted to listen to playback except, as with the Cologne concert, at the outset to verify sound quality and levels. On the many CDs that form a document of the whole time at Moat one can hear only quite short gaps between pieces (except when we break for a cup of tea) – 4 minutes to change a string on one occasion, a short time checking tuning. On one occasion a piece evolves from Derek tuning his second guitar, a very beautifully resonant acoustic instrument through harmonics. I start to bow harmonics on the bass, initially to check my own tuning against Derek’s, but gradually Tony starts to explore pitches on his instruments and away we go. Toby was very alert to these kinds of moments and almost always had microphones live and tape running just in case. Sometimes I would force myself to stay within certain limits – only using the bow throughout an entire piece for example, or on one occasion deliberately using no open strings or harmonics at all. Derek would also change guitars from time to time. We did not play at a very loud dynamic level and positioned ourselves so that we were facing each other, like three corners of a triangle, rather than play towards some hypothetical audience. I used only a very small degree of amplification in these sessions, and in Cologne but negated its effect to some degree by playing muted throughout. I never liked using an amp, and never used one when the trio were together in the 1960’s, preferring the natural acoustic of a good instrument – and the bowed bass often sounds grotesque when amplified. The growing perceived necessity for amplification in the 1960’s, and the emergence of the ubiquitous bass guitar, an instrument I despise even more than the oboe (which I merely dislike) was one factor in my move away from playing.

I was constantly struck by the levels of invention that Derek and Tony brought to these pieces, and to the strikingly confident way in which pieces often begin. There is never anything remotely tentative or diffident – although there can be softness or delicacy. I was also surprised at how different every piece was and at the absence of any hesitation. There were also constant good-humoured exchanges between us. At one point, when a piece broke down after a few seconds for some reason, Tony quickly says “OK, back to bar 7” and Derek and I immediately say “right, bar 7” and off we go into an extended and fully formed piece. We only stopped at the end of the afternoon because we didn’t want the sessions to become pressured.

However, for the third day, Derek suggested that we record also in the evening in front of a small invited audience of perhaps a dozen people (Moat Studio is not very big). There were some (like Andy Shone who I used to give him bass lessons in Sheffield for a time) who had heard us in the 1960’s and in Cologne. We played for around 40 minutes or so – three pieces in all. For some reason I didn’t find the performances very satisfying at the time – I know that my hands were quite tired – but on listening subsequently they sound fine and are consistent with the other recordings.

Derek thanked everyone for coming and we had cake and drinks, which were laid out on a table in the corridor outside. At some point during the drinks and chat a fire extinguisher went off very dramatically, filling the whole of the corridor with foam…


Our plan was to release a selection of the pieces we recorded through the Cortical Foundation, and the three of us chose nine tracks for a double CD as the pieces we would be happy to release. We did not consider, at that time, releasing any other material.

A couple of months later, in January 1999, we played in public for the second time, in Antwerp, and this time we did a whole evening concert. As with Cologne, the first piece felt a little tentative, but the rest of the concert had real authority and confidence. We always considered it perfectly possible that we might play together again after this time but unfortunately that never happened, and now in all probability never will.

However, the planned release never happened as intended. Gary Todd had a tragic accident when he fell from the balcony of his apartment and was in a coma for some time. He never recovered from that fall and is now permanently hospitalised.  His friend (and mine) Tom Recchion was a benign presence throughout the recording sessions at Moat and, as well as being one of Gary’s carers, has battled since Gary’s fall with incredible tenacity to try to get the 2 CDs released. He has also fought with great loyalty to put the Cortical Foundation’s work on a sound footing, and continues to do so.

Now the whole project is with Tzadik. Tom mentioned to me at the beginning of November 2005 that Derek had expressed an interest in taking the recordings for Incus, but as Derek was unwell this seemed unlikely. I spoke with Tony on the telephone the situation and, a few minutes after we finished out conversation, Tony phoned back and said “what about Zorn?” I sent John an email and within minutes I had a long and enthusiastic reply. From that moment the process accelerated at a giddy speed so that within four weeks a decision was made to issue everything from the sessions, in a coherent way starting with an expanded version of the original planned releases as a double CD and then to follow up with others. The live sessions at Moat are not included in this initial release as none of those pieces was included in the set selected for Cortical, but will come out separately with all the other material. On some days John and I have exchanged five or six emails, speaking on the phone in between to push things forward. We are even trying to locate a rumoured recording of the Antwerp concert…

Going through these recordings of the trio, preparing material for John, and listening with close attention to every detail, has given me enormous respect, and even pride, in what we achieved as a group. These recordings also stand as a testament to our enduring friendship.



The instruments that we played changed over the years. Tony started out using a quite conventional drum kit, but he was very struck by the recording I bought of John Cage’s 25 year retrospective concert at New York town hall, especially Cage’s First Construction in Metal in which we heard the astonishing sound of a fixed pitch instrument, a gong, doing pitch glissandi. He experimented with various cymbals and did achieve pitch bending (it was only later when I obtained the Cage score that we realised that the gong had been dipped in water). Something which was very particular to Tony’s playing at this time, and which can be heard on the Incus ‘single recording from 1965, is the extreme care with which he would tune his drums – the bass drum, various tom-toms and snare (with the snares in their ‘off’ position) giving his solos great tonal, almost melodic, variety. Between this early recording and those at the Moat Studios he had developed an extended concept of percussion such that very few of the sound making devices he used to make up his “kit” come from conventional sources.

As I mention elsewhere in these notes, Derek used two different guitars for the Moat sessions and his approach to playing is different for each one. The acoustic guitar, which he did not have in the early days, has an extraordinary built in resonance, which produces extremely clear harmonics that ring for a very long time. With the amplified guitar he uses his feet to operate effects and volume pedals, almost as much as he uses his fingers on the instrument.

I played different basses throughout this time and for the various performances and recordings. When I first played with the trio I had a modern instrument, which was not a particularly good one. On the 1965 rehearsal tape recording, I play my beloved old English bass – a Bernard Simon Fendt from the early 1800’s that I bought when I left university. For the Cologne reunion concert I used a bass provided by West German Radio, which was one that I had played the previous year when my ensemble gave a concert for the radio there, and which I found ideal for this kind of playing. In the Moat Studio recordings I used my current bass, a very beautiful one made for me by Michael Hart and which was built in the knowledge of my Fendt (which Mike had repaired and set up a number of times). For the concert in Antwerp the organisers provided me with an instrument which was, like the one in Cologne, a very good one with a fine singing pizzicato and which had previously been borrowed, and enjoyed, by Gary Peacock.

Gavin Bryars, December 16th 2005



By the time that work had begun on putting together these recordings and on making sense of exactly what recordings we have from the trio, Derek had become seriously ill. I was in constant touch throughout with him and his wife Karen, and with Tony, sharing ideas, showing possibilities and explaining just what John Zorn and I were trying to achieve. Derek read all the notes, participated in all the decisions, and had copies of all the takes from the Moat sessions. He was very happy indeed that these recordings would now finally be released.

Sadly, he died at midnight on Christmas Eve 2005. Ironically, I had just received the long-lost cassette recording of the Antwerp concert in the post and was transferring it to CD that night….

Gavin Bryars December 26th 2005


CD 1 (4 tracks)

1. Orchard
2. Condensation
3. Crookesmoor
4. Campo

CD 2 (5 tracks)

1. Holderness
2. Tenter
3. Edinburgh
4. Mappin
5. Matilda

Gavin Bryars