Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: The Moment’s Energy (ECM 2066)

The Moment's Energy

Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble
The Moment´s Energy

Evan Parker soprano saxophone
Peter Evans trumpet, piccolo trumpet
Kō Ishikawa shō
Ned Rothenberg clarinet, bass clarinet, shakuhachi
Philipp Wachsmann violin, live electronics
Agustí Fernandez piano, prepared piano
Barry Guy double-bass
Paul Lytton percussion, live electronics
Lawrence Casserley signal processing instrument
Joel Ryan sample and signal processing
Walter Prati computer processing
Richard Barrett live electronics
Paul Obermayer live electronics
Marco Vecchi sound projection
Recorded November 2007, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield
Engineer: Steve Lowe
Produced by Steve Lake

With the conviction of a fractal, this fifth ECM outing from Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble unwinds in distorted, vastly interconnected replications. True to form, the ensemble welcomes three new members: trumpeter Peter Evans, reedman Ned Rothenberg (who also plays shakuhachi), and Kō Ishikawa playing the shō (Japanese mouth organ). As the growing roster (here numbering 14 members) simultaneously hones and fragments the ensemble’s dynamics, it likewise reshuffles Parker’s role as composer and bandleader in this commissioned piece for the 2007 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. As with The Eleventh Hour, a wealth of intensities emerged in the rehearsal sessions leading up to the event in question, only now most of the selections are taken from behind those very scenes (only Part IV and the epilogue are live). A meticulously composed fuselage serves to enhance the spontaneity of its appendages.

Part 1 introduces us to the masterful cross-referencing of signatures that distinguishes this album from its predecessors as a work of superlative control. Waterspouts of piano (Agustí Fernández), soprano saxophone (Parker), and violin (Phillipp Wachsmann) leap and drown in a roiling ocean of sonic information, from which Part 2 draws out cartographic ingredients in the effervescent soup of Rothenberg’s bass clarinet. Part 3 pales into lachrymose shades, rubbed smooth by the sandpaper of a deep-throated awareness. Its echoes are more pre than post. Part 4 strikes the expressiveness of Ishikawa’s shō like a match to wick. If ever there was darkness in these halls, it is now dispelled by holy presence. This transmogrifies into a jangling exposition in Part 5 and on to the bowed details of Part 6. In a space where siren and unfinished business can stew and percolate, its string-heavy idols pirouette at the border of gut and reason before Part 7 evinces fantastic droning depth. The album’s most nourishing morsel comes last in the form of “Incandescent Clouds,” an electronic summation of all that has preceded, spliced and held together until it fuses anew.

As the most electro-centric of the EAE recordings, The Moment’s Energy embodies an exact and accomplished science. Yet no matter how technologically slanted the music becomes, it always retains an earthen quality. Interventions reveal the circuitry of life at large. Every element carries equal atomic weight. Thus it becomes the thing it never professes to be: naked sound. Like the repeated word, it sheds its associations, becomes its own entity.

This is energy’s moment.

Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: The Eleventh Hour (ECM 1924)

The Eleventh Hour

Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble
The Eleventh Hour

Evan Parker soprano saxophone, voice
Philipp Wachsmann violin, live electronics
Paul Lytton percussion, live electronics
Agustí Fernández piano, prepared piano
Adam Linson double-bass
Lawrence Casserley signal processing instrument, persussion, voice
Joel Ryan sample and signal processing
Walter Prati computer processing
Richard Barrett sampling keyboard, live electronics
Paul Obermayer sampling keyboard, live electronics
Marco Vecchi sound projection
Recorded November 2004, Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow
Mixed February 2005 at Gateway Studio, Kingston-upon-Thames
Engineer: Steve Lowe
Produced by Steve Lake

The birds have survived winter’s bane. Wind pulls their feathers northward. The cranes arch their necks. Let the awakening begin, they seem to say. Chickadees distort in and out of frame, radio stations at the whim of a quavering dial. The crows prune their ebony in the guise of indignation. The starlings weep electricity. Echoes of samples wound forward lift their minds while lowering their eyes. Hammers and strings convulse in riddles of expression. Ghosts become living. The analog becomes digital. There is always something of one in the other.

So begins The Eleventh Hour, the fourth album by saxophonist Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble for ECM. Adding to his already growing menagerie are the voices of Richard Barrett and Paul Obermayer, both remarkable composers and electronic alchemists. Their extensive databank brings a gravid feeling that such manipulations often lack. In the same vein are knob-turners Lawrence Casserley, Joel Ryan, and Walter Prati, all of whom bring so much to “Shadow Play,” the opening track described above in which their real-time modifications expand upon Parker’s multilayered soprano solo. The latter’s relative absence thereafter speaks to his appreciation for space and his ability to mark its passage without uttering a note. And while we do hear ghosts of Barry Guy in the mix, it is American bassist Adam Linson who takes the stage in his place.

This vibrant record documents the 11-piece ensemble in performances commissioned by Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts, under whose auspices it developed the five-part title piece nightly for a week in early November 2004. The Parker solo is from November 3rd, the centerpiece from three days later. Part 1 begins in a flurry of zippers, catches, and locks coming undone in one glorious catharsis (then again, catharsis may not be the right word, for the end of every tunnel begins another). Violinist Phillipp Wachsmann is a prominent voice in Part 2. Jagged, cilial, and primordial, he playfully alludes to Arvo Pärt’s violin/piano version of Fratres amid a small explosion of squeals and giggles. The filaments of Part 3 wrap us in droning bliss, pianist Agustí Fernández continuing where he left off on Memory/Vision with deeply felt cartilage. The human voice (courtesy of Parker and Casserley) makes a rare EAE appearance in Part 4, adding considerable movement to the palette. Reeds crackle like logs in a settling fire, holding fast to the smoke that draws their spirit out, tendril by tendril. This leaves us with a taste of afterlife in Part 5, which glows among the embers left behind to a tune of humming sky, gilded by a veneer of high-pitched sweetness to the savory heart within.

The divisions between parts seem only nominal at first, sharing as they do the same blood in their veins, but upon closer listening they reveal distinct planes to the overall shape. The mounting electronic presence this time reveals the henna-patterned hand of technology in utterly glowing ways and forges an unforgettable experience that is atmospheric to the core. Like any EAE session, this will challenge as many as it delights. Either way, it’s worth taking a chance to see which camp you’ll fall in with.

Crossing Reeds: Roscoe Mitchell and Evan Parker on ECM

–Locution–

Jazz multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell has been called many things: technical genius, avant-garde pioneer, iconoclast. Although I may expound upon any of these assertions by way of proof, there seems to be a futility to the reviewer’s task when in the presence of his sound. Mitchell grew up on sound. His musical household was brimming with it, leading him to take up saxophone and clarinet as a young teen. While stationed in Germany in the 1950s, he met the great Albert Ayler and others, from whom he learned to develop his palette without fear. After returning to the States, he fell in with two Lesters (trumpeter Bowie and trombonist Lashley), bassist Malachi Favors, saxophonist Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, and drummer Alvin Fielder—a group first known as the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet and out of which grew the legendary Art Ensemble of Chicago. By no mere coincidence was their first path-breaking album entitled Sound (Delmark, 1966). It was, and remains, the alpha and omega of what he does. 

Across the pond in England, one might tell a similar story about Evan Parker. The free jazz stalwart also picked up the saxophone in his early teens and sought inspiration in Ayler, Paul Desmond, and John Coltrane. If Mitchell is about sound, Parker is about breath. Since the 1960s, he has shared his characteristic love of extended techniques, of which his mastery of circular breathing has become something of a doctrine. His first defining efforts came with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, with whom he cut his first record and which included drummer John Stevens, guitarist Derek Bailey, bassist Dave Holland, and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler. Parker and Bailey went on to form the Music Improvisation Company, the free wonders of which were documented on ECM’s fifth ever album of the same name. Subsequent decades have brought fresh collaborations across the board and the formation of his most influential, the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. Formed in 1990, it remains the benchmark of his collaborative achievements.

In 2003, Munich’s Kulturreferat (one of twelve municipal departments responsible for the promotion of art and culture) invited Mitchell and Parker to participate in a symposium on the role of improvisation in the compositional process. Thus the Transatlantic Art Ensemble was born, pushing the boundary—fuzzy as it is—between predetermined and spontaneous music-making. Together, these master thespians of the reed present a double bill of “scored improvisations” that combine the cross-idiomatic interests of the one with the stimulatingly open approach to group performance of the other.

–Illocution–

In addition to his activities as a jazz artist, Mitchell has been a longtime classical composer (he would just as soon call it “music,” plain and simple). This work has led him to his current post at California’s Mills College, where he holds status as Distinguished Darius Milhaud Professor of Music, and comes across vividly in Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3. Through nine “scenes” Mitchell instructs the musicians to improvise from: (a) prewritten cards (Nos. VIII and IV), (b) using only a certain set of notes (I, II, V, VI, VII, IX), and (c) through real-time manipulation of previously composed elements (III). If this sounds like a puzzle, it’s only because said elements fit together so complementarily. Along the way, Art Ensemble of Chicago members Corey Wilkes (trumpet, flugelhorn), Jaribu Shahid (bass), and Mitchell sideman Tanni Tabbal (drums, percussion) share the stage with pianist Craig Taborn, whose stylings have since caught the ECM wave in well-deserved projects both solo (Avenging Angel) and alongside bassist Michael Formanek (The Rub And Spare Change), not to mention Mitchell’s own Note Factory project (Far Side, Nine To Get Ready). Parker cohorts Philipp Wachsmann (violin), Paul Lytton (drums, percussion), and Barry Guy (bass) add spark to an already iridescent fire, along with a handful of classically trained talents.

Roscoe Mitchell
Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3 (ECM 1872)

Roscoe Mitchell soprano saxophone
Evan Parker tenor and soprano saxophones
Anders Svanoe alto and baritone saxophones
Corey Wilkes trumpet, flugelhorn
John Rangecroft clarinet
Neil Metcalfe flute
Nils Bultmann viola
Philipp Wachsmann violin
Marcio Mattos cello
Craig Taborn piano
Jaribu Shahid double-bass
Barry Guy double-bass
Tanni Tabbal drums, percussion
Paul Lytton drums, percussion
Recorded September 2004, Muffathalle, Munich
Engineers: Manfred Eicher and Stefano Amerio
Produced by Steve Lake

Stepping into the suite at hand, we recognize the variety of architectural turns, tempered by an idiosyncratic feel for harmony and appreciation for pause. The haunting viola of Nils Bultmann articulates the first of many monologues, which with increasing clarity map the genomes of the ensuing developments (Bultmann returns for the end, hub to a forlorn and longitudinal ode to losing oneself). When the helix breaks and the family grows, the conversation suspends its provocations from the beam of judgment, only to cut their strings and notate their descent into sanity. Percussion solos speak in riddles of color. Winds scour away the film of predestination and refill the basin with trust before carrying over into gorgeous turns from Parker on tenor, building with the group to a level of virtuosity so intense it can only be described as oneness incarnate. The pastoral clarinet of John Rangecroft leads us into a den of foxes, where the fear becomes flesh, and flesh an opportunity for reflection. Neil Metcalfe on flute reveals a subtly adorned canvas, while Wilkes flashes his notes like sunlight off a turning crystal. Anders Savanoe completes the picture with his spastic yet saintly contortions on baritone. Because everyone reacts, possibilities narrate themselves with humble authority, somehow jarring in its regularity toward the end. There is so much commitment to the moment that we can only follow along like shadows, filling the spaces left behind.

–Perlocution–

The second half of the Mitchell/Parker collaboration finds the Englishman laying compositional concepts before the same personnel while also leaving spaces for improvisation to flourish. The title is at once curious and instructive. Meaning “like an ox plowing,” it gives insight into six “Furrows,” each of which cultivates its own crop of fertile solos.

Evan Parker
Transatlantic Art Ensemble
Boustrophedon (ECM 1873)

Evan Parker soprano saxophone
Roscoe Mitchell alto and soprano saxophones
Anders Svanoe alto saxophone
John Rangecroft clarinet
Neil Metcalfe flute
Corey Wilkes trumpet, flugelhorn
Nils Bultmann viola
Philipp Wachsmann violin
Marcio Mattos cello
Craig Taborn piano
Jaribu Shahid double-bass
Barry Guy double-bass
Tanni Tabbal drums, percussion
Paul Lytton drums, percussion
Recorded September 2004, Muffathalle, Munich
Engineer: Manfred Eicher and Stefano Amerio
Produced by Steve Lake

A spiral staircase of percussion from Lytton and Tabbal in the “Overture” pairs one musician with his transatlantic counterpart in the watery expanse of the Furrows, each a different curl of octopus ink in the brine. The instruments take on their roles with surety and purpose. In this context said roles are not theatrical, but are (psychologically, at least) offstage. Rangecroft’s flute in “Furrow 1” is the knowing bird, conversational partner of Taborn’s keys. The latter elides the slide of its introspection and lays it to dry in the sun until it cracks underfoot—just one of countless leaves on the forest floor leading toward a sunlit grove. Violin and viola in “Furrow 2” are two travelers carrying histories in their satchels. The cello of Marcio Mattos in “Furrow 3” is the subterranean yearning to these aboveground wanderings (their protracted journey is a highlight of this live performance). Svanoe’s entrance on alto here is an awakening and reveals a voice of descriptive genius. The clarinet of “Furrow 4” becomes a base to the strings’ acid, the trumpet a distant commotion. The two basses in “Furrow 5” become a shadow of the past, which casts its lessons upon the yet to be and configures music-making decisions as would a breeze goad a butterfly’s path. Parker maintains notable restraint until the open sky of “Furrow 6.” He spreads the clouds like wings and gives his flight room to sing. But the compression of his playing is such that we feel more than an album’s distance in its shape. It is the sonic white dwarf, a single note of which weighs many scores yet which floats like a feather plucked from the cap of the Milky Way. His elliptical solo bleeds into a steamy rhythm section, bringing a flavor of the club to the dialogue at large. Hints of big-band ebullience shine through the tatters but are drowned by the density of the center. As the group fades, we hear that this density has resided all along in the drums. An intimate gallery of solos ensues in the oddly beautiful “Finale” (in order: Shahid, Metcalfe, Svanoe, Wachsmann, Taborn, Mattos, Bultmann, Rangecroft, Wilkes, Guy, Mitchell), tying a series of knots until they form a single ball of string.

The sense of flow imparted by the compositional elements in both albums is breathtaking, building textures organically and never indulging in extremes for too long. Rather, the continuity lies somewhere in the shadows, balancing on the fulcrum of surrender between static and whisper. In the end, such teetering of intuition becomes a way of life, a mantra for those whose ears flower with curiosity.

Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: Drawn Inward (ECM 1693)

Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble
Drawn Inward

Evan Parker tenor and soprano saxophones, khene
Philipp Wachsmann violin, viola, live electronics, sound processing
Barry Guy double-bass
Paul Lytton percussion, live electronics
Lawrence Casserley live electronics, sound processing
Walter Prati live electronics, sound processing
Marco Vecchi live electronics, sound processing
Recorded December 1998 at Gateway Studio, Kingston
Engineer: Steve Lowe
Produced by Steve Lake

The spheres of composition and improvisation are not so far apart. In fact, Evan Parker and his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble seem to say, they are as inseparable as water from the ocean. Since 1992 the Ensemble has gone, as the title of its 1997 debut suggests, toward the margins, and is content in the asymptotic nature of those margins. This follow-up welcomes Lawrence Casserley and his computer wizardry into an already eclectic admixture of sound processors, thus enhancing the overall atmosphere with real-time entanglements. Because the result feels so much like an aural diary, I can only offer a written one in return.

(1) there is a jagged line in the egg, and the light that spills from it sings, crackling like rain on tarp. in the crooner’s sigh there are wounds, in his laughter there is healing.

(2) aroused from my dream, i creep like a shadow toward the lighted window, throw open its transparent lungs and breathe in the dew-kissed air. but a serpent in the sky mars this otherwise idyllic dawn with S-curved passage, the only afterimage to linger in these eyes as it wriggles through gauzy cloud cover and parhelia. Parker’s lockdown is arresting, a Glassean riff turned on its head and spun like a top.

(3) to travel in the homeland is to walk away from yourself. catharsis of will and locomotion. in the absence of progress, the feet quicken their pace. in the absence of goals, they slumber even as they ambulate. hidden in the watering can behind the barn is the drop i left before parting for the city, where only sewer drains collected the tears of so many others and stirred them into an underground cocktail, never again to be tasted. it is not so radical to think that one might live here, but to think that one might die here. i can turn the radio dial however much i want, but will never find the beacon that i crave. instead, a diffuse comfort whereby the winds of opportunity blanket me with their hush.

(4) to look into the spouting bowl is to blind yourself to the truths of which it is an indifferent receptacle. i can lasso these words to its underwater circus yet fear i might not have the strength to hold on ’til i reach bottom. a fidgety existence i lead when it’s all i can do not to fall away from others’ attention.

(5) the music tells me i can deploy my love as an agent of unrest and offers in that possibility a temptation in whose surface i cannot see myself reflected. my heart is already lost to the cause. i stand in a booth on the corner making collect calls to strangers, my fingers all a-blur at the number pad in their furious attempts to communicate.

(6) i have found it: the spinning globe of circumstance on which i was trapped like a drone on a treadmill. now i can hold it, toss it as a child would a ball. but in so being endowed, i find there is only guilt and discomfort, and the knowledge that the top of the pyramid is a lonely place. i can only follow my wayward guides, playing the part of the child again as i slide down its brick-laid slope.

(7) back to concrete, i run pell-mell, pushing the capabilities of my social craft to the flexible limits of their stature, dangling before myself a carrot of progress. i cannot want this; i must let it want me. somewhere in the body of a cello, my bones are breaking and mending by the laser vision of gas stove flame.

(8) at home in the universe…nowhere else i’d rather be. it is our terrarium, our humid sanctuary, our light and love.

(9) i am writing on ice, using the ink my mother gave me. i let myself seep into the surface, tracing imperfections with newfound script.

(10) they have captured something in the frame, glued it inside with the adhesive of acceptance. timetables and train tracks curl into a tangled ball, it’s shadow the signature in the lower left-hand corner.

(11) the thread has unraveled and the secret is out. i am here only so long as i write myself to be. i take your hand and bid you to take another’s, so that by the end we stand as one. this is the music that goes on in the attic when we are asleep, in concerts attended by mice and other wall dwellers. if we are drawn inward to anything, it is ourselves.

Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: Memory/Vision (ECM 1852)

Memory/Vision

Evan Parker soprano saxophone, tapes and samples
Philipp Wachsmann violin, electronics
Agustí Fernández piano, prepared piano
Barry Guy double-bass
Paul Lytton percussion, electronics
Lawrence Casserley signal processing instrument
Joel Ryan computer, sound-processing
Walter Prati electronics, sound-processing
Marco Vecchi sound processing, electronics
Recorded October 2002 at Norges Musikkhøgskole, Oslo
Live sound: Cato Langnes and Pål Klaastad
Recording engineer: Henning Bortne
Mixed December 2002 at Gateway Studio, Kingston-upon-Thames by Evan Parker and Steve Lake
Mixing engineer: Steve Lowe
Produced by Steve Lake

An introverted biological excursion percolating through the crevices of reason? The fundamental opposition of oil and water made whole? A wired caterpillar turning painfully into butterfly? If images exist in answer to these questions, Evan Parker has drawn them throughout the massive intimacies of Memory/Vision. He and his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble have created a monster, and its name is “chronotopology.” The selfsame theory, invention of esoteric philosopher Charles Musès (1919-2000), sees the phenomenon of chronology as an effect of microscopic breaks in the space-time continuum. Relativity strings these breaks into beginning, middle, and end. In its attempt to embody chronotoplogy to the utmost, the EAE hurls ghosts of instruments—through real-time electronic manipulation—into the abyss exploded by violinist Philipp Wachsmann, pianist Agustí Fernández, bassist Barry Guy, percussionist Paul Lytton, and Parker himself on soprano saxophone. Dancing with a wide array of accoutrements, and aided by a first-class team of sound processors, this nonet dives headlong into the piano’s harp skeleton and resurfaces with the voice of a prophet in its teeth. One can draw points of contact between it and, for starters, the work of jgrzinich, George Crumb, and even later Heiner Goebbels. Yet rather than read into it, I propose that you let it read into you.

What you hear is the voice of an un-caged bird looking for the past that flourished beyond its capture. The rush of water would sooth you in this dream were it not for the drought that veins the land with understated death. Suddenly, the piano turns upright and levels its paroxysms on a field of ebony and ivory. Reeds and bows balance on the edge of something free, coughing out the fulcrums of their revolution as stardust. Shades of recital bring their hummingbird thoughts to bear upon insectile realities. This is the corona of a storm that will never blossom and wither. A thistle of sound, prickly and rare.

What you see is yourself falling down the rabbit hole, your fingers scratching glyphs into the dirt and roots that funnel you into oblivion. Each of these yields a navigable direction. The patter and movement of birds indicate a world beyond the beyond.

What you feel is the sky growing cilia, tickling the borders of your skin and the biases it wears. Shifts of color and water link worm-hooks of possibility into recycled chains.

What you taste is the mineral of your anxiety, the acid of expectation folding into spontaneous acceptance. Itself a form of improvisation, it splashes across the ornaments of your social life until they glisten anew. With them comes the flavor of experience, the privilege of assumptions made after the fact.

What you smell is something burning from the inside out, singed bones crackling with transformation: the promise of embers condensed into charcoal and scribbled across the face of an unwound clock. Breathing in the haze of this cerebral (de)construction zone, you do not cough, but rather sleep for all the warmth that has embraced you.

You’ve hit the ground. You’ve experienced all these things, have through them known the measure of your life. If the music treads above you, it’s because you are beneath it. If below, it’s because you aren’t low enough. Parker and company have thus accomplished the impossible: breathing out by breathing in.

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.

Bley/Parker/Phillips: Time Will Tell (ECM 1537)

Time Will Tell

Paul Bley piano
Evan Parker tenor and soprano saxophones
Barre Phillips double-bass
Recorded January 1994 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Steve Lake

That pianist Paul Bley, reedman Evan Parker, and bassist Barre Phillips had never played as a group before flipping the coin of Time Will Tell matters little. Whether you call heads or tails, you win. The fact that Phillips had played with the two who hadn’t emerges through the sensitive approach he elicits from each. By the same token, one cannot simply say that he tempers what we might be expecting from two powerhouses of the free improv universe. Rather, he spotlights the tenderness already flowing within. The 17.5-minute “Poetic Justice” is proof positive: a meander through darkening trees that breeds not solemnity but a fitful stirring of forest creatures. Parker plays the role of itinerant blues musician mumbling in his sleep. Beyond his chosen paths, the directions are unlimited, their inks varicolored, their maps heavily creased. The trio’s aesthetic borders on beat poetry, pops and whispers taking the place of requisite snaps. With a twang and bend, even a Ravelian shade in the piano, the music soars “Above The Tree Line.” Parker’s soprano, lilting through starlight with immaculate care, forms the top of a pyramid grounded in Phillips’s sands. In this chamber within a chamber, the footsteps of the spontaneous way echo in complex reinforcement. “You Will, Oscar, You Will” is another origami pact of inspiration in which one can almost hear the memory of Paul Motian wanting to join. “Sprung” guides soprano down an ant line of activity, circularly breathing while festooned from galaxies pregnant with impending doom—all making for a sort of agitation that is strangely moving. “No Questions” brings more loveliness into the equation, blowing like a soft curtain through the sunlit room of Andrew Wyeth’s Chambered Nautilus, where only yearning may catch itself from time to time in the reflection of a burnished bedpost. “Vine Laces” and “Clawback” are both wondrous bursts from Parker, who finds respective company with Phillips in one and Bley in the other. “Marsh Tides” promises a smooth jazz number, but instead breaks its fall with measured insight, as honest as it is unplanned, and brings us into “Instance,” another excursion of extended technique between Parker and Phillips, the latter drawing strings of rusted light through “Burlesque.” Shades of late-night happenings end in an abrupt inhalation without repose.

Something grandly intimate is taking place here, for while there may not be much to hold on to in this sound-world of fleeting statements, we are left with an overwhelming amount to mull over. The title of this album is therefore an appropriate one, for only time will tell whether or not its sounds will find a secure place in your listening.

Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: Toward the Margins (ECM New Series 1612)

 

Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble
Toward the Margins

Evan Parker soprano saxophone
Barry Guy double-bass
Paul Lytton percussion, live-electronics
Philipp Wachsmann violin, viola, live electronics, sound processing
Walter Prati live electronics, sound processing
Marco Vecchi live electronics, sound processing
Recorded May 1996, Gateway Studios, Surrey
Engineer: Steve Lowe
Produced by Steve Lake

What’s given:
If ECM had a musical attic, it would sound like Toward the Margins. Not to imply that the Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble’s debut is filled with unwanted or forgotten things, but that it exists toward the margins of a human life, its shed skins stacked like boxes above our heads, waiting for a breath to blow the dust away. Parker has been with ECM almost since the beginning, having first appeared on The Music Improvisation Company and subsequently on Gavin Bryars’s After the Requiem, among others. An abiding interest in electronics as an improvisational medium led him to the present project, which draws from disparate disciplines bonded by an infatigable spirit of sound production.

What’s taken away:
Grating strings first clear out the rafters, shafting like light from behind a broken cloud. Parker’s soprano scratches gently at their back. Grumblings and sampled ether flutter and churn, tripping down sand-covered stairs like a creature covered with feet, so that it is always standing no matter how it lands. Compartmentalized echoes share their cubicles with shallow utterances of deeper assignments. Barry Guy’s double bass ties its strings into a tangle of self-awareness as Parker trembles within his own computer-augmented aftershocks. Like a flock of geese in overdrive, he burns in the upper atmosphere before he dares dream of land. Melody is but an afterthought to the sputtering multitudes, caught in the welcoming stare of an unwanted stranger. The overall sound is subdued yet robust. It inhabits the crawlspace of our dreams. The haunting final track lingers in our bones, long after the silence comes, animating a body whose only fear is cogency.

What’s left behind:
Parker is the rare musician who treats improvisation as composition—not so much an offering to the aleatoric gods as a vocabulary articulating its real-time derivations. His saxophonic work is high but far from mighty. He listens more than he plays, as the musicians faithfully tune themselves to a radio signal only they can hear. Washes of precipitation and other climatic changes stipple these aural landscapes, leaving Andy Goldsworthy-like rain shadows in their wake. Sometimes he rolls through rough detours, kicking up sparks and gravel; other times he hovers like an appraising insect, every note a kaleidoscopic cell unfolded into the whole of its vision. As the title makes unabashedly clear, this is an asymptotic experience with nowhere to hide but our ears, and there it burrows, hibernating until the next thaw.

The Music Improvisation Company: s/t (ECM 1005)

1005

The Music Improvisation Company

Derek Bailey electric guitar
Evan Parker soprano saxophone
Hugh Davies live electronics
Jamie Muir percussion
Christine Jeffrey voice
Recorded on August 25-27, 1970 at Merstham Studios, London
Engineer: Jenny Thor
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: November 1, 1970

Derek Bailey is a pioneer of British free improvisation, and although this is one of his earliest recordings, it houses much of what he would come to be known for: microscopic precision, a love of empty space, a supremely fractured aesthetic, and a subtle disregard for the rules. As with his later solo outings and fruitful collaborations with John Zorn and other bastions of the avant-garde, Bailey brings full commitment to the table in this early, digitally reissued ECM recording. Yet how to describe it? A possessed duck call tripping down a flight of stairs into a pile of discarded instruments? A broken jack-in-the-box heavily amplified on cheap speakers? A radio being tortured to give up its innermost secrets? None of these comes close to mapping the album’s rambling course. Still, the results are consistent. So much so that track titles like “Packaged Eel” do nothing to deepen our understanding of the goings on. As can be expected from the roster, the musicianship is of indisputable quality. Evan Parker awes with his outbursts of indiscernible melody while Bailey cultivates an anonymous approach, cutting in and out from behind a surgeon’s mask.

The Music Improvisation Company is nothing more or less than what one makes of it. Its difficulties are also what make it go down smoothly. A mysterious morsel that yields a new flavor with every taste.