Tuesday, April 19, 2005

EVAN PARKER WITH AND WITHOUT BIRDS

So a couple of months ago I was sent these three CDs from a new improvised music label called Treader; very nice they looked too, in complementary pastel sleeves with different animal engravings on each. And in particular the two CDs which involve Evan Parker and the gentlemen from Spring Heel Jack have, I think, compelled me to rethink my perspective on British improv yet again.

When in the early '70s Wayne Shorter left the Miles Davis group to form Weather Report, and Miles was scouting around for a suitable replacement, his then bassist Dave Holland enthusiastically recommended the name of Evan Parker as a candidate. To back this up he played Miles the then-recent SME album Karyobin - on which both Parker and Holland appear. Miles duly listened intently, and upon the album's conclusion raised a wry smile and told Holland, "Dave, that was some nice shit going on there - but it's not the sort of shit my band's gonna play."

What might have occurred had Davis hired Parker is something of which we get an indication on Trio With Interludes; and, as David Toop has already said in his Wire review, the record suggests a direction which British improv might have taken back in 1970 if the Electro camp had won the battle for attention over the Acoustics. Essentially TIW is an extended piece of alternating moods, between Parker (on tenor throughout) blowing with splendid directness over the crazy paving of John Coxon and Ashley Wales' assorted pianos, guitars, samplers and "riveted tambours," crucially abetted by the always relevant percussion work of Mark Sanders, and more covert, crepuscular, not-quite-ambient interludes by Coxon and Wales on piano interiors and noises offstage. One supposes the obvious stylistic comparison is with Lunge - one horn, double electronics and Mark Sanders - but the approach here is less discursive, perhaps less mischievous but certainly more linear. Here Sanders is a crucial presence; as with other lineally-minded drummers such as Paul Lovens and Louis Moholo, he inspires Parker to jog across a determined and decided rhythmic and harmonic path, and there's a muscularity to Parker's tenor which these drummers always seem to inspire. Indeed, the pace is generally breakneck - there is absolutely no room for coasting - with Parker immediately and beautifully slurring and howling raspberries on track one (none of the CDs boasts individual track titles) over distended, abruptly cut-off Hammond, piano and harpsichord figures. Comparisons have already been made with Sun Ra and Larry Young but there is definitely a touch of the Joe Gallivans about Coxon and Wales' pointillistic, rhythm-favouring attack.

This treatise of power more or less continues throughout the piece's 52 minutes, interspersed with the aforementioned interludes which begin as slightly irreverent takes on standard notions of Ambient - the bayou moon guitar, the post-Satie piano - but which systematically become darker and darker until we are left with skeletal piano interiors being caressed, interrupted by the sound of repeated slamming doors (trapdoors in reverse?). Meanwhile, the ensemble's rhythm nation continues to prosper. There is a staggering moment in the second half of track three where tenor sax interacts with rapid-fire synth, Cutmaster scratch clicks and Sanders' never-wavering floor tom-heavy "beat" and eventually one cannot decipher who's doing what; an improvised stroboscope flashing athwart your mind.

And the Weather Report comparisons aren't misplaced, either; there's a lovely moment at the beginning of track nine where we could practically be listening to an outtake from Mysterious Traveller; Parker's languid tenor coasting over warm Fender Rhodes ripples. But this soon ascends into more 900 bpm quickfire gunfire interplay, until eventually Parker and Coxon are exchanging beefy belches from the guts of their respective instruments.

So Trio With Interludes is a remarkable record in itself, but its power is swivelled into proper perspective when set beside its astonishing companion, Evan Parker With Birds. No, this is not the long-desired collaboration between Parker and Girls Aloud (though I'd sneakily love Coxon and Wales, who have worked with both, to arrange this), but judging by the reaction I've been getting from friends and associates when playing it, it could well turn out to be Parker's first hit record (if we discount his indispensable contributions to previous hit records by Scott Walker and Vic Reeves), and is certainly one of his most moving ones. This finds Parker improvising over, and with, field recordings (sometimes electronically modified, most of the time not) of English birdsong. It could easily have fallen into the trap of Jan Garbarek at Kew Gardens, but skilfully avoids doing so by avoiding easy options, and most of all because the record acts as a requiem - for Parker's friend, fellow saxophonist and sometime collaborator Steve Lacy, who died last year.

Certainly Parker introduces a new dimension to his playing here which is explicitly referential to Lacy, in many ways the polar opposite of the younger man in terms of approach - whereas Parker specialises in circuitous, constant whirlpools of motivic variants, speeded up to dervish speed such that he can frequently sound like a flock of birds on his own, Lacy was a slow, calm and patient player, acutely aware of the precious and specific value of every individual note that he played, caressing each note, or sequence of notes, as though reluctant to release them into the air.

On EPWB, Parker concentrates on slow motivic development, again with the apparent aim of becoming one with the birds with whom he is trying to communicate. The opening ten-minute section is very affecting, with Parker stating and building on a mournful Eastern theme on his soprano, as birds and countryside sounds gather and flutter around him - if he had appeared on Virginia Astley's From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, it might have sounded something like this. There is a staggering moment at the end of track one where the birds double into themselves and gradually merge into an electronic blur, as though awakening from a dream, as though none of this was reality (the same mowing blade blur, in fact, that we hear at the beginning and end of "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)").

On track two the soprano dovetails into its more familiar eddying cycles, and again by the piece's end it is hard to determine which is Parker and which are the birds. Throughout this section there is a strange, irregular percussive obbligato which could come from either Parker slap-tonguing his saxophone or from the cricket smack of leather upon willow.

Parker seems to disappear from the brief interlude that is track three, where the atmosphere suddenly becomes nocturnal and rather threatening, with the noises of running hooves and madly flapping wings. But peace, of a hard-purchased kind, resumes in the shattering 15-minute closing track. This begins with Parker's doleful tenor blowing low notes at long strategic intervals - and thereby reminding us of Lacy's partial procedural debt to Jimmy Giuffre - over a continuo of nature at unquiet rest; indeed, this record may constitute some of Parker's most "conventional" saxophone playing since his tenor solo on Tony Oxley's recording of "Stone Garden" back in 1969 (the shock of the latter is that it doesn't shock) and some of his saddest too. After some four minutes, the tenor disappears to leave us with a heartbreaking landscape portrait of sunshine, church bells, creaking bicycle wheels - not in the crass John Major analogous sense, but with the sense that this is a paradise, a life, lost. Soon, day once again turns to night, and while we hear a sample of what must be a typical polyphonic flurry from Parker's tenor, the man himself returns, back on soprano, and with slow and profound deliberation plays a quite beautiful Coltrane modal lament over the soundtrack. As nature falls asleep, lies down (never to awaken again?), Parker is, as Surman was at the end of Westbrook's "View From The Drawbridge," as the lights of the world go out one by one, left on his own, leaving us a clear and poignant picture of Rosetti's "visible silence, as still as an hour-glass."