To call Tony Oxley a drummer is to diminish him. He was a percussionist extraordinaire. He was also a supreme individual who went his own way. The romantic idea of jazz is that it is populated with free spirits, liberated and musically swashbuckling. There are not too many like that. Jazz has its own conventions. It is deeply conservative and it takes someone like Tony Oxley who is eager to break open the carapace of rules, move beyond and explore the real deep anarchic spirit of jazz.
National Service in the army meant that Oxley served with the Black Watch. He managed to get a place in the regiment’s classical orchestra, playing Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, Dvorak and Prokofiev. He was playing percussion: timpani, xylophone, glockenspiel, triangle. He was also able to study the structure of music.
Oxley expanded his kit relentlessly. He had fallen in love, not with rhythm but the textures of sound. The kit grew with wood, metals, cymbals of various sizes, springs, cowbells, pans, anything that could produce a sound when rattled, struck or brushed. He was moving rapidly away from conventional sounds and conventional rhythms. At times, he utilised electronics but in later years he discarded that route.
In 1962 and 1963 Oxley joined the many musicians who took orchestral work on the transatlantic liners into New York in order to explore the jazz clubs. He described in an interview going to the Metropole bar to see the Woody Herman band. He would move on to Birdland to hear Art Blakey then to the Vanguard to hear Bill Evans or Miles Davis, then move to the Five Spot to hear the Thelonious Monk Quartet.
In Sheffield, where he was born, Oxley was part of The Joseph Holbrooke Trio. The group was named in honour of the English composer Joseph Charles Holbrooke with Oxley, guitarist Derek Bailey, and budding composer Gavin Bryars. Oxley was interested in the avant-garde music of Morton Feldman, Stockhausen and Webern and was intent on changing drumming. He was fascinated by the way that Elvin Jones had altered drumming for the Coltrane Quartet. Oxley, however, did not consider that Jones had gone far enough. He wrote a complex article for the Crescendo magazine outlining his ideas on subdividing 4/4 imposing quaver triplets on crotchet triplets.
If you listen to Oxley on Extrapolation (1969), the album that he made with John Surman, John McLaughlin and Brian Odges, you will hear a fairly conventional drummer schooled in Ronnie Scott’s where he had played with Lee Konitz, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Ben Webster and Stan Tracey. Oxley dismissed the music that they created on Extrapolation as just popular music. He was more interested in the music of Cecil Taylor who he had heard at Scott’s and from Taylor albums such as Conquistador and Unit Structures. For a time, esoteric jazz was recognized by a major label and Oxley produced The Baptised Traveller. However, the attention of CBS was short lived and contracts were cancelled. Oxley became disenchanted with the UK scene and its neglect of challenging jazz and he moved to Germany, which became his base.
Berlin in 1988 was a crucial time when Cecil Taylor came to the German city to give concerts and produce albums for Jost Gebers’ FMP label. The ensuing box set (11 CDs) of the concerts is not only sought after, but profound and ground-breaking. It was then that Oxley started his association with Taylor. Oxley loved working with Taylor and said that the only way of preparing to work with Taylor was to be unprepared. ‘The best preparation is to be fit and open your ears.’ Oxley talked about the joy of working with Taylor and, over the last years of Taylor’s life, Oxley was his main percussionist. In later years it was his association with Scottish painter Alan Davie that also absorbed him and Oxley painted covers for some albums.
One memory is at the Festival Hall in 2004. Oxley opened the programme with a fifteen-minute percussion solo before Bill Dixon and Cecil Taylor accompanied him with some complex music. To see the two iconoclasts playing and inspiring each other was an exciting experience. Earlier the Feel Trio unedited recordings (10cds) (1995) are a monumental tribute to the percussionist and the pianist recorded at Ronnie Scott’s with William Parker on bass.
Tony Oxley always went ahead. He was an inspiration yet a lonely figure: a prophet who was without honour in his own country. His music has a timeless feel because it was produced uncompromisingly with integrity and intensity.
The Baptised Traveller, CBS, 1969; reissued Sony-Columbia, 1999.
John McLaughlin Extrapolation, Marmalade, 1969; reissued on CD/Polydor, 1991.
Tony Oxley, Incus, 1975.
Leaf Palm Hand, FMP, 1988.
Looking (Berlin version), FMP, 1989.
Nailed, FMP, 1990.
Melancholy, FMP, 1990.
(The Feel Trio) Celebrated blazons, FMP, 1990.