Evan Parker, Barry Guy, Paul Lytton & Agusti Fernandez, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 15 March 2013

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.

Concerts of 2009

Here’s a list of the concerts I enjoyed most in 2009. There’s not much of an order to these ten, except for number 1, which was an incredible evening for me for all sorts of reasons.

1. Jandek, B72, Vienna
2. Spiritualized, Krems, Austria
3. Peter Brötzmann/Toshinori Kondo/Massimo Pupillo/Paal Nilssen-Love, Fluc, Vienna
4. Ken Vandermark/Paal Nilssen-Love, Blue Tomato, Vienna
5. Mats Gustafsson/Barry Guy/Raymond Strid, Blue Tomato, Vienna
6. Sonore/The Thing, Blue Tomato, Vienna
7. Naked Lunch/Universalove, Gartenbaukino, Vienna
8. Sunn O)))/Pita, Arena, Vienna
9. Bruce Springsteen, Ernst Happel Stadium, Vienna
10. Kraftwerk, Wiesen, Austria

Mats Gustafsson/Barry Guy/Raymond Strid, Vienna Blue Tomato, 18 November 2009

The first of two thrilling free jazz gigs at the Blue Tomato in the space of three days. What with these two, and the Sonore/Thing soundclash last month, this unassuming venue in the wilds of the 15th district is at the very top of its game right now. Ken Vandermark says that this place and Alchemia in Krakow are the two best jazz clubs in Europe, and he should know.

Whenever I’ve seen Mats Gustafsson play before, it’s been with Peter Brötzmann – either with Sonore, or as part of the Chicago Tentet. He’s always been a powerful presence, but at the same time he’s occasionally been overshadowed by the ferocity of Brötzmann’s blowing. Last time I saw the Tentet at Porgy & Bess, it seemed to me that the Swedish saxophonist’s prodigious physicality was underused. The solution, naturally, is to give the man his own trio – and that’s precisely what we got at the Blue Tomato this week.

I say that, but of course this was a long way from being The Mats Gustafsson Trio. (Sidenote: with the exception of the Schlippenbach Trio, you just don’t get that highlighting of one person as the leader in the names of free improv groups, which is just as it should be.) Joining Gustafsson were Barry Guy on double bass and Raymond Strid on drums, neither of whom I had seen play live before. Guy, however, was known to me through his work with Evan Parker and Paul Lytton – in fact, Parker/Guy/Lytton’s Live at the Vortex album on Emanem was the first free improv record I ever heard, and for that reason it’s an album I cherish with great affection.

Anyway, the point is that each member of this trio contributed equally to the great firestorm of sound that was kicked up. Strid was a consistently agile and forceful percussionist, as well as being great fun to watch with his varied approach to his cymbals, gongs and whatnot. Guy, meanwhile, was simply breathtaking. I’ve never really “got” the double bass before, it’s always seemed a little bit too trad-jazzy for my liking (Ingebrigt Håker Flaten’s assault on the instrument notwithstanding). But I sure as heck “got” it tonight, as Guy proceeded to play the bass in ways I never knew were possible. Switching fluidly between arco and pizzicato, he stuck sticks between the strings, rapidly and expertly travelled his way up and down the length of the neck, and generally flayed hell out of the thing. And he did so with, often, the broadest of smiles on his face. It was sheer joy to behold.

As for Gustafsson, his playing on the saxophone was overwhelming. Whether he’s soloing tenderly and lyrically, producing a range of unusual sounds by tonguing the reed, or delivering a majestically deep and resonant melody, the man is never less than compelling. And the strength of his commitment to live performance couldn’t be clearer. With his face getting redder and redder, the sweat dripping off him and his veins threatening to burst at any time, Gustafsson is a viscerally enthralling performer.