As usual, I find myself way behind with writing for this blog at the end of the year. I hope I’ll be able to go back and fill in some of the gaps in the list below, but who knows. Anyway, here is a list of the best concerts I attended in 2015:
Evan Parker was the first free jazz/improv saxophonist I ever heard, and the one who made me fall in love with this kind of music. Before I had heard Ayler, Braxton or Brötzmann, Parker was the one who showed me that the saxophone could be a source of great passion and intensity. Live, his serpentine solos and jaw-dropping circular breathing technique burned themselves into me in a way that very few rock performers had ever done.
It’s been a long time since I saw Parker live – there was a stimulating collaborative show with Zoviet France, a phenomenal trio gig at the old Vortex in Stoke Newington, and a concert in Brighton with Spring Heel Jack – so it was great for me to see him for the first time in Vienna, this time as part of his long-standing trio with pianist Alex von Schlippenbach and drummer Paul Lovens. Their improvisational instincts honed by many years of playing together, the trio proceeded to play two long and engrossing sets. Schlippenbach was an agile and eloquent pianist, Lovens an enthralling presence on the drums. Parker was the star for me, but at the end of the day this concert, like all the best group-based improvisation, was an extended conversation between these three gifted musicians.
Undoubtedly the highlight of this month’s concerts is a rare visit to Vienna by the British saxophonist Evan Parker, playing at Porgy & Bess as part of the Alexander von Schlippenbach Trio. Parker is a saxophonist like no other. Along with figures like Peter Brötzmann and the late Derek Bailey, he is one of the leading lights of European free improvisation – a movement that began in the mid-60s, taking the language of free jazz (as heard in the work of musicians such as Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman), divesting it of its rhythmic origins and extending it into the realm of pure abstraction. No two concerts of free improv are ever alike – the performers are guided by the dynamics between them on the night, rarely lapsing into the easy formularity of melody, rhythm and harmony. The results can be challenging to the untrained ear, but can also be truly spectacular. Nowhere is this more so than in the playing of Parker, whose soloing on tenor and soprano sax is possessed of a unique, serpentine beauty. Parker is a virtuoso exponent of circular breathing, a fiendishly difficult technique that enables him to play long, continuous solos without ever pausing for breath. He issues torrents of dense, fluttering notes that hang in the air like a challenge. Happy in many different contexts, from stripped-down solo to large-scale electro-acoustic ensemble, Parker’s trio with Alex von Schlippenbach (piano) and Paul Lovens (drums) is one of his most enduring musical associations.
Later this month, Slovenian industrialists Laibach invade the inhospitable surroundings of Planet Music for your average evening of eastern European totalitarianism. As founding members of the Neue Slowenische Kunst art collective, Laibach have been making a nuisance of themselves since the early 80s with their stirring blend of neoclassical and martial music. Like other groups associated with the NSK, Laibach like to privilege the collective over the individual, issuing statements and manifestos and framing their concerts as quasi-political rallies.
Laibach’s use of uniforms and totalitarian aesthetics, allied to the Wagnerian overtones of the music, have led to frequent accusations of political extremism – charges that the band dismiss, pointing to the humorous impulse at work in their militaristic interpretations of cheesy pop songs such as “One Vision” and “The Final Countdown”. Laibach adopt the trappings and symbols of state power, exaggerating them to the point of parody and thereby offering satirical comment on them. While certainly open to misinterpretation, the ambivalence of their methods can be read as an invitation for listeners to examine their own beliefs and prejudices. Their new album, Volk, is a collection of songs inspired by national anthems, further embedding Laibach’s bold interrogation of the iconography of nationalism. And you can dance to it as well. Political music was never this much fun.