Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

Evan Parker; Western Front, 1978                                           ©2014 Kate Craig, Courtesy of Western Front

Evan Parker turned 70 in April with surprisingly little fanfare, given that 2014 may well go down in history as the banner year for anniversaries – well, at least until next year – and he seems to have devoted more energies to rally support for the ailing Kenny Wheeler than to toasting his milestone. Despite the voluminous documentation of his music and ideas, and a decades-old, self-reinforcing consensus about his singularity, the saxophonist is difficult to consider retrospectively, and not simply because he is still with us, convivial and inquisitive as ever, and continually evolving as an artist. Parker is hard to peg beyond generalities in part because he has outlived the world he set out in to become a working musician; the history of a subsequent, global improvised music community being integral to his own.

The world Parker first entered is well encapsulated in a story told by Wheeler. In the late ‘60s, the trumpeter was tapped for a session by film score composer Basil Kirchen. As the musicians were readying for the session, Wheeler was seated next to Stan Roderick, a veteran of Ted Heath’s trumpet section, when, improbably, Parker and Derek Bailey arrived for the session. Roderick glanced at them and dryly referred to them as the guys who sounded like a fire in a pet shop.

The anecdote is a reminder of how free improvisers like Parker were shunned by musicians of almost every stripe, and initially had few colleagues and supporters. Although it now seems like a quick chain reaction, the European improvised music community was years in the making, and for ongoing alignments to emerge from isolated, even chance encounters on and off the bandstand. But, then, everything took longer then: getting a gig; making a record; being noticed in an indifferent, if not hostile press.

It took even longer for Parker to muster even a meager audience in the US. When he first toured North American in 1978, news about improvised music in Europe took weeks, if not months, to seep into the US. LPs on labels like Emanem and FMP sometimes found their way into shops and onto mail order lists, and sometimes not. Few attempts were made in the ‘70s by European improvisers to perform in the country, not all of them successful – Derek Bailey was denied entry twice because of his frankness with customs officials. Stateside enthusiasts were not exactly in a vacuum, but it was close enough for jazz.

That’s why Parker’s ‘78 solo tour will forever have “epic” attached to it. 29 dates in 31 days is ambitious by any standard, and currently only endeavored by well-oiled agencies; but, Parker all but did it on his own, setting up his itinerary by letter and the occasional, costly (by today’s rates) transatlantic telephone call. The venues were often ad hoc – lofts, galleries and bars – and his accommodations sometimes were nothing more than a supporter’s couch. Although some stops along the way were just a few hours apart by car or train, Parker sometimes had to travel considerable distances to make the next gig. Such was the case at the end of the tour, when he had to fly from the Bay Area to Vancouver for his last concert at Western Front, the vanguard artist center founded in ‘73. By then, road fatigue had set in, inspiring Parker to recently title the performance with a pun of Joycean density, albeit one not requiring fluency in Serbian or Hindustani, languages Joyce effortlessly tapped for the polyglots in the opening pages of Finnegans Wake: “Vaincu.Va!” translates from French as “broken: go (leave),” which Parker now describes his state at the end of this marathon.

To celebrate their 40th anniversary last year, Western Front issued Vaincu.Va on vinyl. In true ‘70s fashion, it took a year for me to obtain a copy; but it was worth the wait. Painstakingly restored and mastered, this performance is at once a persuasive argument for vinyl’s ability to convey fine acoustic details to bracing effect, and a testament to the astonishing impact of Parker’s soprano saxophone solos in the ‘70s. Western Front has the benefit of being a large, high-ceiling room, its specific ratio of glass, plaster and wood facilitating a recorded sound that is just about perfect for Parker’s soprano – or more precisely, his late ‘70s sound (undoubtedly, the room would serve him equally well now). Arguably, a rough parallel can be drawn between Parker and Steve Lacy in terms of how their sound became fuller over the decades, shedding the astringency they had in the ‘70s. Vaincu.Va! is an excellent example of how Parker’s attack bordered on the ferocious, as he unleashed tightly entwined coils of phrases and textures, their edges sharpening as they ricocheted down the barrel of his soprano. All of Parker’s early solo recordings share this quality in abundance; but, on this occasion, first heard so long after the fact, Parker seems to be hurling himself into the unknown.

The new virtuosity Parker posited in his soprano solos is rooted in an unprecedented velocity and density of information facilitated through multiphonics and circular breathing. “Information” should not suggest Parker’s soprano solos to have some musical deficiency; rather, the musicality of his solos is embedded in the information gushed out over the course of a lengthy improvisations like the ‘78 Western Front concert. Generally, Parker took little time at the outset of his solos in the ‘70s to outline thematic materials; instead of the sometimes lengthy deliberations Lacy would undertake, Parker quickly drew an initial set of monosyllabic and free-standing textures into his now patented whirl of rapid arpeggios and triplet patterns. It is when Parker reached full loft that the most subtle aspect of his innovative approach is foregrounded – the supple shifting of the rhythms within his multi-helixes, created through changing the sequence of specific timbres. It is these ongoing polyrhythmic permutations – achieved largely through the interplay between double-tonguing and fingering patterns – that align Parker’s solos with African music and Minimalism. Without its vital rhythmic component, Parker’s solos would be far closer to being slabs of sound than sheets.

Vaincu.Va! is a reminder that few musicians delivered the shock of the new as Parker did with his soprano solos in the 1970s. Nearly 40 years after the making of Saxophone Solos, however, a soprano solo is now almost as obligatory for Parker in any concert setting as playing Monk was for Lacy.  Each uniquely faceted, these solos retain more than a residue of the raw, confrontational energy freely improvised music represented back in the day, an energy reinforced through duration: the solo clocks in 35 minutes, the intensity relenting only while the disc is turned over.

Alexander von Schlippenbach long ago referred to Parker as Coltrane’s best pupil. If simply following a great artist’s example makes one a student, Parker then is perhaps Lacy’s best as well. Lacy frequently talked about “curing” his music, that it took time – sometimes years or decades – for an idea to fully mature. The rap against Parker by puritanical free improvisers in the ‘70s was that he practiced, a position that reflects little to no regard of how virtuosity is necessarily nurtured, or how long it takes to extrapolate ideas to their fullest form. After all, it took Joyce almost 20 years to write Finnegans Wake, and is no less brilliant because of the obsessive drafting, revisions, and fine-tuning it underwent. The difference between a novel that obviously relied on the author’s improvisational virtuosity – particularly when it comes to puns – and a body of solo soprano saxophone recordings (recorded over 30 years in Lacy’s case; almost 40 in Parker’s) is that the novel is presented as finished and immutable, while improvised saxophone solos are issued successively and as snapshots, without overt linkage to each other.

However, there is a still actively evolving shorthand in Parker’s solos, a contraction of syntax, a reduction of vocabulary to iridescent phonemes, an endless recirculation – in Lacy’s, too. Despite an abundance of solo recordings, we have a very incomplete map of the morphology of this shorthand. In this regard, though it is a full-throttle exposition of Parker’s stunning late-70s vocabulary, Vaincu.Va is but a promontory, with plenty of blank space about it to be filled in one day with bend of bay and scraggy isthmus. As a send-off to North Armorica, the vitality of Vaincu.Va! suggests that, contrary to the title’s sentiments, Parker was ready for another go-round, as if he was saying: A way a lone a last a loved a long the

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