Bley/Parker/Phillips: Sankt Gerold (ECM 1609)

Sankt Gerold

Paul Bley piano
Evan Parker tenor and soprano saxophones
Barre Phillips double-bass
Recorded April 1996, Monastery of Sankt Gerold
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Steve Lake

Time Will Tell was not only the title of ECM’s first document between pianist Paul Bley, saxophonist Evan Parker, and bassist Barre Phillips, but also a premonition realized live in the confines of Sankt Gerold, from which this follow-up borrows its own. The Austrian monastery has hosted many label recordings by groups such as the Hilliard Ensemble, and here the voices are just as distinct. These are musicians who learn how to fly by jumping from the tree, leaving us to gawk on the forest floor. The improvisation that ensues may be free, but from it we are not, buried by the sands of its ephemeral hourglass.

The twelve variations of Sankt Gerold lure us into enchanting freefall with deep, fluttering calls. In these beat the rhythms of worms and larvae, the breaths of a chrysalis, frozen yet somehow alive, hiding its transformations behind a scrim of bark. Steps share the floor with broom strokes and memories created in the moment. This time around the emphasis is as much on solo turns as on groupthink, with the most potent scoops of gravity from Bley, whose sleepwalks play like a kitten who gets only more tangled the more he tries to work through the yarn. Only here, escape would mean silence, a breaking of the line that otherwise holds us fast to the moment. Parker solders our attention with feats of sustained energy. In it we hear ourselves breaking and mending simultaneously, our souls rendered amorphous clots brought to life by embouchure and circular breathing. Philips embarks on the darkest prismatic sojourns, even if they are lit by creativity aflame. His is the meditative center of these infusions, the embryo of some percussive entity that sings as it beats. Together, the trio winds pathos-rich fuses, the ashes of which turn matches into oracles.

To speak of these tracks individually is like trying to extract one letter from the album’s Prussian cover: each needs the others to speak. This music throws open doors of insight to let in the night and day of its containment—beyond it not a room but an infinite body of which we hear one cell dividing. Like affirmation of an unrequited love, one finds its heart by getting lost in it.

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