Complicated Sublimity: Evan Parker Interviewed

Following the recent release of two archive live sessions, Stewart Smith talks to the virtuoso saxophonist about his vast back catalogue of recordings and collaborations. Photograph courtesy of Caroline Forbes

"Can you think of a better saxophone player? I can’t… the point with Evan is, he really starts beyond somewhere even where you could get to and takes it from there, that’s the great thing about him. He is a giant." – Robert Wyatt

Evan Parker is one of the great saxophone players, pushing the instrument into uncharted waters since his emergence in the late 1960s. As a lynchpin of the European free improvisation scene, Parker played on such landmark recordings as the Spontaneous Music Ensemble’s Karyobin and Peter Brötzmann’s Machine Gun (both 1968), and founded the Incus label with Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley in 1970. In addition to his collaborations with numerous figures in the worlds of jazz and improv, Parker has worked with the likes of Robert Wyatt, Scott Walker, Spiritualized and drum & bass duo Spring Heel Jack.

Recent months have seen the release of two stunning live albums, recorded some 33 years apart, which showcase Parker’s versatility and brilliance. Vaincu Va! Live At Western Front 1978 documents a solo set at a Vancouver festival, where an uncompromising Parker unleashes wave upon wave of raw multiphonics and fluttering tones. Powered by Parker’s superhuman feats of circular breathing, these intense flurries of sound bring to mind the minimalist compositions of Terry Riley and Steve Reich as much as they do the wilder flights of John Coltrane or Roscoe Mitchell. Live At Maya Festival, on the fantastic Lithuanian label No Business, captures a 2011 date by Parker’s long-standing trio with bassist Barry Guy and drummer Paul Lytton. Classic free-jazz, performed by three masters of the form, the set is testament to the remarkable interplay between Parker’s rich tenor horn, Guy’s tectonic bass and Lytton’s cymbal-dappled explorations.

The Quietus spoke to Parker via e-mail about these new releases, some recent collaborations and his approach to improvisation.

To begin with, I’d like to talk about the newly unearthed Vaincu Va! recording. It’s a stunning performance, fiercely inventive and beautiful. Listening back to it over 30 years on, how do you feel about it?

Evan Parker: This Vancouver concert was the last of the US and Canada solo tour I did in 1978. I think there were 29 concerts in thirty-odd days beginning in Montreal and ending in Vancouver with the East Coast, the South and the West Coast in between. So this concert came at the end of the longest sequence of solo concerts I have ever done. I try to thank all the people who helped me put that tour together on the sleeve. At that time, as a tourist, you could buy an air pass good for a month for a very cheap price. It would be much more difficult to organise such a tour these days, although in some ways the trio road-trip with Alex Schlippenbach and Paul Lytton in 2003 was as ambitious. One day I will try to reconstruct as much detail as I can about the solo trip. It was, as they say, a trip! The stamina involved in playing that way for that long only comes after a lot of playing – solo concerts are the only real way to prepare for solo concerts.

To me, Vaincu Va! evokes images of swarming birds and roiling streams. Do you think of your music in an imagistic/impressionistic way or are there other thought processes going on?

EP: The listener is in a different place than the player. My concerns are to a large extent concerned with control, firstly of the instrument then of my imagination. If there is any processing power left over I can concern myself with what might be called the narrative.

The set is a real tour de force of circular breathing, a technique you’re renowned for. Recently that technique has been taken into post-rock/indie territory by Colin Stetson. Are you familiar with his work and how do you feel about those sounds being used in such a context?

EP: The technique is there for all to use. I played opposite Colin Stetson in the Bimhuis in Amsterdam a while back. It seemed the thinking was to get the younger audience to come for him and the older ones to come for me. It worked, there was a good crowd but there was no contact between us. I am not even sure if he knows my work.

You have of course made a number of high profile contributions to albums by cult rock artists like Scott Walker, Robert Wyatt and David Sylvian. In each case, were you given a specific brief or was the collaboration more organic? None of them are exactly conventional songwriters, but do you enjoy working within the tighter structures of a song?

EP: There was a different approach in each case. I think perhaps what these three great individuals have in common is their love and consequent understanding of the studio. After that they each approached things in their individual ways. I think it is well known that Scott Walker only sings his parts after the other tracks are in place. No pilot vocals. [For Climate Of Hunter] he had already told me that he knew what I did, that it was not "a funk session" and that he was hearing clouds of Ligeti piling up in my playing. He pre-dated my own attempts at such a use of the studio that only came to me with Process And Reality and later Time Lapse. I am pleased to have been part of that record which announced the direction he has subsequently followed, digging deeper and deeper into himself. What a life story!

The first recording I did with Robert was for [Canadian jazz-poet] Paul Haine’s Darn It [a 1994 album recorded with a host of avant-garde luminaries] where I was just in the studio waiting for my turn to record and Robert suggested I play a solo as a coda to the setting he had done of one of Paul’s poems. Later he invited me to play on Schleep. Robert loves the studio so much that he slept there while he was making that. I think he had 48 tracks to work with and there must have been many changes of mind as each layer was added. Robert was a friend from the days when we both lived in Twickenham. My two older sons used to call in on their way home from school to see him because he could play them the music they didn’t hear at home. Last time I saw him was backstage at Ornette’s Meltdown.

The work with David Sylvian [2009’s Manafon] was in a sense to create raw material that he could take away and edit and resequence, using all the possibilities of digital editing and totally blurring the distinction between recording, mixing, production editing. He made certain suggestions about material and combinations until he felt he had what he needed then took it back to his home studio I guess and added his parts.

During the late 90s/early 00s, you had an ongoing partnership with J. Spaceman and Spring Heel Jack, playing on their own records as well as in an improv group. Did you find this to be a rewarding experience? I’m particularly interested in how you approached improvising with Spring Heel Jack’s electronics? Are you interested in exploring electronic dance music further?

EP: I am not sure that what we did had much to do with dance music. I remember being at Ronnie Scott’s to hear Weather Report, the first version with Omar Hakim on drums, and I overheard a conversation which finished with, "Yes, but you can’t dance to it…", then a woman just got up and danced to it… It was great to work with Spring Heel Jack and we are still in touch. John Coxon became involved with Freedom of the City [annual London improv festival founded by Parker and AMM’s Eddie Prevost in 2001] and has since collaborated with many improvisers. Ashley [Wales, Spring Heel Jack] and Jason [Pierce, Spiritualized] are both very thoughtful characters too. The way of working for me is always about the specifics of time and place. To make the studio recordings with bird song recordings was very different from playing the same idea live at The Whitechapel Gallery or at The Big Chill as first act up in the afternoon. There may be more to come from these collaborations.

That project, and others, involved electronic processing of your playing. I guess it depends on the person doing the processing, but I imagine it must be quite a strange experience not to have total control over the sound of your playing?

EP: The feeling is not so strange. I have been working with live electronics from the earliest days and with great people, Hugh Davies, Paul Lytton, Michel Waisvisz, Hans-Peter Haller, Lawrence Casserley, George Lewis – all in the analogue era and later with Walter Prati, Joel Ryan, FURT and most recently with Matt Wright. It is usually clear to me who is doing what.

You also explored noise and drone with Yellow Swans, John Wiese, C Spencer Yeh and others on the Free Noise tour in 2007. I thought it was an exciting project, but some felt that there was too much going on. How did you find it?

EP: That was such a complex event that even the musicians who made every gig of the tour didn’t necessarily hear it all. It was a high risk concept and there were certainly combinations that were hard to make sense of but there were also some sublime moments.

I can’t resist asking about your contribution to Vic Reeves’ 1991 album, I Will Cure You

EP: Of course it was through Steve Beresford [UK improv legend, Flying Lizards member and co-producer, with the Human League’s Philip Oakey and former Soft Boy Andy Metcalfe, of the album] that it came about. My main reason for doing that session was the chance to meet Vic (I know his name is Jim but we haven’t been introduced). I was a great fan of his/their work in the period leading up to that recording. Unfortunately he added his voice at later sessions. Han Bennink [wildman Dutch percussionist] and I still think fondly of ‘Lost Island’.

Being Glasgow-based, I’ve followed with interest your relationship with the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, who celebrated their tenth anniversary last year. From your perspective, how has GIO developed over the years?

EP: The GIO story has been great to watch from a foreign country like England. When you compare the opportunities made available to the GIO and contrast them with the fortunes of the London Improvisers’ Orchestra it is a clear tale of two cities, "It was the best of times… It was the worst of times…"

GIO has had a determination to exist and develop that have really impressed all of us. The recent experience of being there with George Lewis and Maggie Nicols and the Schlippenbach Trio showed just how far they have come in terms of individual commitment from the players and their solidarity as an organisation. I am very happy that the project with Lol Coxhill at the Sage got recorded just before life started to become difficult for Lol.

To bring things up to date, you currently have two main trios – the trio with Barry Guy and Paul Lytton, and the long-running Schlippenbach trio. Would it be fair to say that the former is entirely improvised, whereas the latter involves elements of composition? When I saw you with Schlippenbach last year, I noticed a note on top of the piano with what appeared to be directions and some notation. Is there a plan to it, or, after 40 years together, have you developed a more telepathic way of working?

EP: The whole distinction between improvisation and composition is not about pieces of paper. Both groups ‘improvise’ (I may as well add ‘freely’), both groups have material that they have played many similar versions of over the years of their existence, both groups are made up of individuals who have specific instrumental abilities and preferences – ‘styles’ if you like. I don’t forget Jim O’Rourke’s famous statement that "the Parker/Guy/Lytton trio doesn’t improvise, they play Parker/Guy/Lytton music". The more useful distinction is about how the music evolves and how ideas move between the individuals, how new ideas arise and are taken up, even how ideas move between the two groups because the two groups have one member in common and the relation between the individuals involves other collaborations – the above mentioned US tour in which Schlippenbach replaced Barry Guy at short notice, the 2 x 3 = 5 projects involving both groups playing together, even the collaboration (one time only) of LJCO and Globe Unity Orchestra. It’s complicated, as we say these days.

These trios are entirely acoustic, but you also have the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. This must involve a very different dynamic between the musicians?

EP: In fact the original idea for the very first EAE was to have the Parker/Guy/Lytton trio shadowed by three processing musicians. It has evolved from there and the best way to follow the story is by listening to the records in sequence. The relationship with Steve Lake at ECM has been a crucial part of the group’s development and with his support each important change in the group has been documented. Listening to these recordings will reveal the dynamics between the players. The essential ideas of free interplay have been at the core of the music making but certain elements of "pre-structuring" have been part of the story – in this case there have been "pieces of paper".

Your label psi has been putting out releases by exciting young artists like Peter Evans and Bark!, as well as more established names. What is the aim of the label and how involved are you in the A&R aspect?

EP: The psi story has just come to a close. The work that Martin Davidson did both technically and administratively was essential. He is soon going to live in Spain; without the close collaboration that living in the same town made possible, I cannot make sense of continuing.

I am thinking about my next move, but the artists who entrusted psi with their work will have the rights in their works returned to them as we gradually dismantle to label.

The A&R decisions were all mine. I am more interested in specific works of individuals than in genre. The label was just about things that I liked and people whose work I respected.

Finally, could you tell me about any other projects you’re working on currently or in the near future?

EP: Books, records, collaborations, reeds, mouthpieces… The trio with John Russell and John Edwards is ready to record. There are piles of good un-issued recordings that I would like to release.

To give this question a decent answer would take up time that I need to use in making it happen!

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