The wave of cool that has engulfed European free improv in the past couple of years has, thankfully, not yet encroached upon its British counterpart. You won’t find Evan Parker on the cover of The Wire, his activities aren’t listed on Facebook, his albums aren’t heavily pushed by Volcanic Tongue or given the vinyl reissue treatment by modish Vienna labels. Then again, you get the feeling that that kind of attention is not something Parker craves all that much. After years of doing without an official website, he finally got himself one a few years ago; but he still relies upon my little page elsewhere on this blog to tell the world about upcoming concerts, a page that has never made any claims to completeness. Other than there, the only places you’d have heard about this event were the advance notices put out by Porgy & Bess and Jeunesse, the umbrella organization responsible for promoting the concert. And both of those advertised the evening as a performance by the Topos Quartet, a wilfully obscure billing even if it is the quartet’s official name.
All of that said, Porgy & Bess had filled up nicely by the time Parker wandered onstage with double bassist Barry Guy, drummer Paul Lytton and pianist Agusti Fernandez. I had been anticipating this concert immensely, partly because it was Parker’s first appearance in Vienna for more than four years, and partly because the trio with Guy and Lytton has always been my favourite of Parker’s many configurations. Their superb At the Vortex (1996) CD was the first album of free improvisation I ever heard, and once I’d heard it I was hooked for life, so I owe that record a huge debt of gratitude.
While Parker’s playing may not hit the listener with the visceral impact of a Brötzmann or a Gustafsson, he more than makes up for it with long, fluttering improvisations and passages of circular breathing that are utterly confounding in their fractal beauty. Equally a master of the tenor and soprano saxophones, in the trio with Guy and Lytton he concentrates on tenor. Which makes sense to me, since this is the line-up where Parker is most likely to reach back to the language of Ayler and Coltrane, to frame his love of abstraction within a more or less explicit free jazz sensibility. And it’s the searing blast of the tenor sax that most readily acknowledges that lineage.
On this occasion, then, Parker’s sax playing was matched for intensity not only by Lytton’s relentlessly focused drumming and Guy’s jaw-droppingly inventive double bass work, but also by the twinkling and tumbling piano of Fernandez. Parker and the Spaniard have form going back to the mid-1990s, with two duo CDs and a 2006 recording of the present group under their belts. For long stretches of this concert’s two hour-long sets, though, it was Fernandez who set the pace in tandem with the drummer and bassist. Occasionally trading amused glances with Guy, the pianist brought a zesty European flourish to the core trio’s distinctively British take on free improv.
And for those like me, struggling to comprehend why Parker and his friends don’t get the attention that their European counterparts do, it’s this question of Britishness (in which, obviously, I have a vested interest) that may hold the key. Lytton, who rarely looked up from his kit during the gig, seemed to share Eddie Prévost’s ruthlessly centred approach to drumming, as seen to splendid effect in his trio gig with Marilyn Crispell and Harrison Smith at the Blue Tomato last year. As for Parker, he’s happy to bide his time, stock still, eyes closed, listening with absolute attentiveness for the moments in the music when the spaces and the traces open up to him and let him play.
While I don’t believe Parker has ever been on the cover of The Wire, there was a big feature article about him in the May ’07 issue (http://thewire.co.uk/archive/issues/279).
That article contains this great quote by him:
“I fantasise about the last period of my life being practice only – no gigs, no other pressures – practice for the sake of practice. It’s such a beautiful, simplified set of problems and relationships. I’ve pared the whole thing down to its core… the relationship between me and the instrument. That would be a marvellous way to finish.”