I first saw Lol Coxhill play in Amsterdam in 1972. He had a shaved head, was wearing small round wire rimmed sun-glasses and enormous dungarees. He was playing a funny little saxophone that I had only seen played by clowns before. But with Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink this was serious stuff, though they also joked a lot. The music was a bit too abstract for me then - I was only 16 . But I thought he was the coolest dude on the planet. That opinion never changed after I got to know him and work with him - many years later.
I'm a visual artist, a film-maker, so my interest in Lol was also as a performer with an amazing face and an extraordinary presence. During the following years I saw him play at many left wing benefits and concerts (it was GLC days), and often with fringe theatre companies. He stood out a mile. I saw him act in Derek Jarman's film Caravaggio and Sally Potter's Orlando. I particularly remember a performance on the River Thames called Siren Space composed by David Toop featuring a solo improvisation by Lol standing in the middle of the river on the deck of a tugboat with his recognisable one shoulder up, one down stance; his solo soprano saxophone improvisation - searingly beautiful and stark - filled the river with sound.
But it was not until I became involved with filming him that I really came to appreciate what an extraordinary musician Lol was. Though he had played at Woodstock with Kevin Ayers and the Whole World and been an original soul boy in Rufus Thomas's band, in his later years Lol was concentrating solely on the music that became known as free improvisation. Though much loved by the jazz world, I never heard Lol call himself a jazz musician, preferring to be placed in a general 'avant-garde' that included sound poets and performance artists working within the legacy of modernism. And though in his last years playing regularly with such free improv musicians as Veryan Weston, Roger Turner, Mike Cooper, Steve Beresford, Hannah Marshall, Max Eastley, John Edwards, Steve Noble and Satoko Fukuda, as well as being a mainstay of the London Improvisers Orchestra, Lol always performed extraordinary solo improvisations on soprano saxophone.
And that's where I come in. In the last few years of Lol's life I was fortunate to get to know him a little and to film him performing. I knew his health was not great but he was playing better than ever, so I started to film him whenever I could capture those moments. I particularly loved filming the solos. For my film Solo Soprano, I re-edited five solo improvisations from my own archive, along with more abstract images from Lol's flat of all the stuff he had collected, and archive footage from a documentary made in 1972. The way Lol played in his solos employed an extraordinary use of space and timing in the music. His phrasing and sense of timing, were for me as a film-maker just wonderful to respond to. There were pauses and breaks that I could react to with the camera. There were complex textures I could film in extreme close-up mirroring the sound with blurred images of fingers and keys on the instrument. And there was always his profile. The sculptural head - like an Easter Island statue - with a nose that turned up slightly at the end. And the humour. Both when he played and when he spoke there was an incredible modesty and self depreciation that was rare in his world of great egos. That for me was what I loved the most about Lol's playing. It was unique. When Solo Soprano was showed as an installation in Cafe Oto project space, people walked in off the street saying 'I can hear Lol Coxhill'.
And his playing was beautiful. Truly, heart-stoppingly beautiful.
Helen Petts is an artist film-maker who often works in collaboration with free improvising musicians, but who also makes very solitary work in the landscape. Her films explore rhythm, texture, sound and chance events and are distributed by Lux. She studied film at Westminster University then, after a career as a mainstream film and TV director, she studied Fine Art at Goldsmith’s College and now makes films as an artist for gallery installation and festivals. For 5 years she collaborated with John Russell, running his regular free improvisation night Mopomoso and filmed the concerts for a dedicated Youtube channel helentonic. Recent work as an artist includes “Throw Them Up and Let Them Sing” where she followed in the footsteps of Kurt Schwitters through Norway and the Lake District. Commissioned by the Cultural Olympiad and the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle, it features musicians Adam Bohman, Phil Minton, Sylvia Hallett and Roger Turner. In 2013 she was commissioned by the Full of Noises Festival to make Solo Soprano - a portrait of Lol Coxhill. An interview about making this film and others, with Frances McKee Director of CCA Glasgow, can be heard on her website www.helenpetts.com.
Solo Soprano - a Portrait of Lol Coxhill (extract). 30’. HD digital film. 5.1 sound. © Helen Petts 2013. Courtesy of Lux.
Solo Soprano was supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.