Perfect Sound Forever

Packing Heat with Evan Parker

  Album photos courtesy of European Free Improvisation

by Steve Kulak (April 2000)

What do Albert Einstein and Evan Parker have in common? Both know how to ignite space. Both at some time wished they could have been invisible (at least one of them has tried darkness but found it irritated the audience) and both are musicians for whom improvisation is important. Although Einstein improvised on the piano and was good at physics, Evan Parker is a saxophone colossus content to leave physics in peace.

Was there a greater occasion than Evan Parker's 50th birthday? Yes, but was there a greater album delivered as a result of one? This Parker flies as high and fast as the great Bird on alto ever did. This image of the late Charlie "Yardbird" Parker bookended by the great Englishman on tenor and soprano is entirely appropriate. Bird was an innovator and Evan Parker is certainly one of the few players who can transport you inside their mind completely.

Like Bird, his dazzling technique rides hard on the back of an elaborate sense of invention. It has been written elsewhere that if genius is the sustained application of intelligence, then Evan Parker merits the term. He has changed the face of saxophone technique and saxophone music. When appraising his body of work, virtuoso comes readily to mind. But it's a bloodless description. He is, like Coltrane and Bird before him, simply a colossus. So where do you start?

Try Evan Parker: 50th Birthday Concert recorded in 1994 at Dingwalls nightclub in London. It features Parker in two distinct trio settings with four musicians playing five songs. The results are devastating. Music like this takes decades to reach this point of perfection. Alex von Schlippenbach, Paul Lovens, Barry Guy and Paul Lytton support a soundstage that delivers one of the most exciting developments in modern music imaginable. It is unfair to brand what is created here with the restrictive marketing brush of commercial death known as free or improvised music. This is beyond labels. It is impossible not to be overwhelmed by the sheer force of what is going on here. You would need to have ears of steel and a heart of stone not to appreciate this extended flight into outer space. The most gratifying aspect of it all is that these musicians keep getting better.

After Appleby, a big blazing ball, is further proof of that. Leave your feet on the ground and let your mind soar. Come fly with me.

"I think of music's strength as its power to point at a dimension beyond the mundane, beyond the known, to allude to the unknowable, the metaphysical."

In 1968 Parker was featured on two influential releases, Karyobin and Machine Gun. Both may have been accurate representations of what was happening in improvisation at the time, but these were two very different records. Over the years Parker¹s name floated to the top of the often chaotic pile that was free jazz and improvised new music. 1994 was the watershed year. Not only the 50th Birthday Concert (Leo CD LR 212/213) but also Time Will Tell (ECM 1537) with Paul Bley and Barre Phillips finally generating the wider audience exposure that was Parker's due. 1996 saw the release of Towards the Margins, a striking new direction featuring the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. And now comes After Appleby, another defining moment veering treacherously close to greatness.

After Appleby is social engagement by four minds of equal stature sharing an equal commitment in an unequal world. Years of engagement by these musicians have inspired a massive vocabulary with an astonishing library of sound resources. If you are suspicious of music that defies description, then venture no further. These musicians reinvent their instruments, from primal bursts to a thrilling harnessing of sound converted into a viable music so exciting and different that it virtually defies categorization.

The popular conception of improvisation as performance without preparation is wrong. There is a lifetime of preparation and knowledge behind every improvised idea. After Appleby again features one of Parker's most important long-term associations, the trio with Barry Guy and Paul Lytton. This time they are joined by the incomparable Marilyn Crispell.

Recorded in the studio (with Where Hearts Revive featuring Parker on tenor a highlight) and live at the Vortex, After Appleby, like 50th Birthday Concert, represents a family of great musicians engaging in a brilliantly argued conception. It is music of such impressive focus and fearsome weight, that there is never any doubt as to the significance of the musical content. The sources may be different from your average composition based approach, but the destination is the same.

Parker is in great company. Barry Guy and Paul Lytton match him in every respect. The bonus is Marilyn Crispell, an enterprising and critical addition to the volatile chemistry on display. She is a major talent whose contributions on After Appleby extend beyond the sharing of writing credits (on every track except for the Parker/Guy exploration "Falcon's Wing") If anyone wanted an introduction to the most engaging, exploratory piano mind at work today, then the Crispell discography on Leo Records will satisfy that ten times over. Hers is a disciplined mastery reflected through a prism of songs impregnated with all manner of subliminal nuances.

Parker may regard the soprano saxophone as his first instrument, but he is just as remarkable on tenor, although his approach to that horn remains different. On soprano, he creates huge sprawling lines (using a circular breathing technique) that veer off into outer space on extended explorations that always somehow manage to resolve themselves. Think of Einstein and the science that spiraled ever upwards as a result of his explorations and you get close to the Parker effect. It is an intensely physical yet intellectually detailed approach to music, constantly challenging at every level.

No obvious language comes to mind when discussing this music. The widely circulated definition of improvisation, where meditation and execution combine in the highest form of composition, still insists on a link back to composition. Improvisation and composition certainly elevate each other, just as improvisation ultimately sustains composition. But it is the vital role of the players and their moment to moment orgy of reflexive creativity that remains paramount.

Consider this. Harmony is just another form of control. The excitement of improvised music is not its rhythmic propulsion but liberation from harmony. The truth is such that we can theorize all we like about music and dream of harmony, but the world is not harmonious. Just ask Einstein. Close technical analysis of improvised music leads into unrecognizable areas. Like science, it is distracted and always elsewhere. Any abstract description of it achieves little. It is like hearing Hendrix on the guitar for the first time and trying to put it into words. Why bother?

Has this music gone as far as it can go? Is it possible to still be an innovator? Let's put the question another way. Apart from hedonism and faith, as a useful civilization, is there much further for us to go? Technology and our adventures into outer space prove nothing, merely functioning as a distraction. The Merry Pranksters excursion bus had "Further" written up on its destination board. It was the case back in 1968 and it still is now. Except outer space to them was an adventure spiraling ever further inwards. There are no limits to our Further quest and we can never expect to reach it. But in seeking it, do we move away from the centre, or move in towards it? Is the centre shifting or is it static and immobile? Where is it? Is it towards the margins or right there in front of our eyes?

OK, so there has to be solid ground somewhere for our vague groping, otherwise the constant flux becomes like a swirling current shifting in and out of focus. Sometimes we need to drag ourselves onto dry high ground just to take a breath. At least some of us do. Others just keep going. Further.

Welcome to Evan Parker's controlled fury. Welcome to life heard as music, an intimate source of sound, discipline and devotion swept along by a restless quest for the new to liquidate the old. Welcome to After Appleby. The ancients sought the sublime, and rooted for harmony and beauty. Theirs was not a fascination with disorder and discord. The moderns like Parker seek the same stillness only they know it exists within the eye of the hurricane.

With convenience and commodity upon us, we seek pleasure and fun not confrontation and challenge. We relish the private experience of music and don't debate its public value. In an age of hedonism, it's the pay-TV sports screen that vies for attention with the music and the two-for-one drinks at the bar, just as conversation seeks no further weight than that left by a floating impression. Mass society is upon us. Who is in control? Humanity is community, yet our alienating technologies do nothing but deprive us of both. The Parker group assert their humanity, emphasizing that control is still ours. Does the music give us new social directions, create new social relations? No, this is not music searching out the future in the present. Their world is not for seeing. It is not legible but audible. Because nothing essential, you see, happens in the absence of music.

Parker/Guy/Lytton/Crispell have imagined radically new forms because they hear new realities. Media today controls knowledge but it cannot control musical imagination. It cannot direct their dreams or yours. It can try to encourage them in a particular direction. But then suddenly you hear music like this and boom! you hit the ground running. Not for cover, but as the assault force of an invigorated and inspired imagination.

The academy used to treat musicians such as these as fringe figures. The 1990's have been witness to a dramatic reversal of fortune that sees them assuming new relevance and importance. Why? Because they persist? It is no accident that Evan Parker's favorite writer is Samuel Beckett, the man who completed his influential trilogy with the words "where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on." Clearly the reputation of these musicians is distinguished and distinguishable. Meanwhile the grave robbers continue to sound the same horn and merge into a bland confection akin to sponge cake. Perhaps they haven't noticed that the great period in music history, when a concentration of virtuosos forged techniques and styles that have remained conventions of the music ever since, has been overtaken.

New music today twists and turns, flying off into tangents that don't appear to have a common source. It soars, shifting, attacking, bending and splitting tones further and further. This music is not easily taught nor are the mechanics of the style evident in ubiquitous how-to books. You need a lifetime to play like this. Being genuinely inside the music helps. It is music both known and unknown. There is little mystery to conventional music any more. Only gold medal gymnasts rewarded by pensioned professors of the craft, choking on well-rehearsed patterns with nowhere to go and nothing to say. Analyze this, put it into a system, create a school and apply for membership. When Bud Powell created them, they weren't patterns, man.

Evan Parker's course will always run parallel to the main body of music, which has often contrived to ignore musicians like him. Jazz though doesn't belong in the academy. Witness how Peter Kowald (Was Da Ist?), Eberhard Weber (Pendulum) and Barry Guy have extended the tradition and role of the Double Bass. No sign of the academy here. It is pure invention brought on by the desire to extend their range and enter a new zone.

Climb over the wall. Project yourself into the music, into a situation you are obliged to be present in. This is music of conversation, making audible a world that already exists. It is not commodity music made to a market demographic. This is music which no system of power can channel. Music no longer possible to hear in silence. Everyone has a right to be different, a right to compose their own life. There is within every one of us an intense refusal to be standardized. And too much music has found a way of integrating itself into a type of background noise for a semi-conscious way of life. Listening to Parker, Guy, Lytton and Crispell you regain consciousness and can feel your bones again. Who needs to go further than that?

We need to attach ourselves to something, call it faith, hope or charity. Instead, we consume. Do we consume in order to resemble our surroundings or is it simply because we no longer wish to distinguish ourselves? What we need can be found in music. We don't need more myths. We need more music. The music doesn't need to take us higher, only Further.

These musicians represent the last resistance. Go Further, they shout. You really can live with your own values in your own head. Your mind is a movie, not a still life.

"I'm looking at the saxophone as a resource which has its own unique set of possibilities."

Evan Parker has had an incalculable influence on the direction of improvised music as a whole and on how it is played. It is art created for specific audiences for whom it is expected to have significance. It is music tied to his time and inseparable from it. He continues to be driven by a particular need to express himself according to some inner imperative. We can understand him because we share both his time and a need for self-expression. Like us, the history of music is many histories, and promises more surprises yet.

Hart Crane, American poet, wrote to a friend in 1922: "Let us invent an idiom for the proper transposition of jazz into words! Something clean, sparkling, elusive." Why bother. "Art thou troubled? Music will not only calm, it will ennoble thee." After Appleby, I think I'll Handel it instead. Because if the mind happens in space at all, it happens somewhere north of the neck. So does music. What an attractive coincidence.

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