Evan Parker at 50


Occasional Writings
April 1, 1994

I don’t know why it was surprising to find out that Evan Parker is now 50 years old. After all, I passed 50 last year and we have been friends since the mid 1960’s. Although he has been around for so long, in an unassertive way, the energy and (apparently) effortless invention in his playing seems somehow surprising in someone of his age. While there is little doubt that he is the finest saxophonist of his generation, he is also at the same time much more than simply a performer.

Our personal history is a long one. We first met when I came down to London from Sheffield to play at the now defunct Little Theatre Club in St. Martins Lane in 1966 where Evan played regularly. I was working with a trio consisting of myself on bass, Derek Bailey on guitar and Tony Oxley on drums. Our trio had worked together in isolation developing an original form of free improvisation, away from the range of influences available to the London musician. Evan and I knew of each other by reputation and we had an enjoyable conversation. Shortly after that first meeting in London, however, I was to abandon improvising completely, developing a real antipathy to it, committing myself to composition, and my bass did not leave its case for 17 years. My aversion to improvisation became almost pathological. It was ironic, then, that when I moved to London from America in 1968 I found myself living in a tiny flat on the top floor of a house in Kilburn, with Evan (plus wife and child) in the next room. For 3 years I heard endless scales on tenor and soprano saxophones and became acquainted, through the walls of my room, with his comprehensive collection of John Coltrane records. To add insult to injury the only telephone in the house came through my room and I had to pass messages to Evan’s extension as well as to the two musicians (Hywel Thomas and Johny Dyani) living on the floor below. (There was the added disadvantage that our phone number was listed in the directory as being that of the Britannia Hotel, Mayfair).

Evan and I did play together from time to time at the Little Theatre Club and elsewhere with a curious quintet which divided ideologically into a trio – Evan, Derek Bailey and Jamie Muir, from the jazz wing of free improvising – and a duo of myself (not playing bass) and John Tilbury contributing a more anarchic Cage/Tudor approach, using radios, contact microphones and such like. We played a mixture of improvised music and pieces of indeterminate music by Cage, Christian Wolff, George Brecht and so on. This group finally broke up when it was noticed that I programmed a particular performance in Bristol in such a way that the improvisations would be last in the programme and, ultimately had to be omitted because the compositions ran overtime. Evan was the one musician who was least disturbed by the obvious dichotomies within the ensemble and handled the apparently irreconcilable forces with aplomb. Consistently over the years I have seen this liberal artistic generosity at work, a generosity that put me to shame.

When we served on committees or panels, such as the Arts Council’s ISCM Committee in the early 80’s or the panel charged with drawing up a shortlist for last year’s Hamlyn Award, Evan was no doubt included as a token representative of the more vernacular forms of music. But his breadth of sympathies and the acuteness of his judgement showed that his knowledge and instincts extend to many other forms. In the mid-80’s knowing his technical prowess and dedication to the instrument, I appointed him as saxophone teacher at Leicester Polytechnic (now De Montfort University). Given his self-taught background it was interesting to see him working with students on material from the standard classical repertoire preparing them for concerto recitals. But at the same time he was able to contribute to an educational ethos sympathetic to the more extreme forms of improvised music which I was trying to develop. By then I had started to play the bass again and was running projects in improvisation. Evan joined me in these projects and would talk with students about the importance of developing an awareness of all forms of music in which speedy interaction played a part. He was also remarkably gentle in discussion about the merits of the students’ own collective playing.

In 1971, with Derek Bailey, he founded Incus Records, one of the most long-lived and consistent labels for disseminating improvised music in this country and he has championed the cause of many British and European musicians. As a player he works in a variety of environments. He has maintained a remarkably stable trio with Barry Guy and Paul Litton for many years, and has played as a guest with many improvising musicians, mostly in continental Europe. He provided some astonishing moments in the very different big bands of Kenny Wheeler and Charlie Watts and it was at the suggestion of ECM’s Manfred Eicher that Evan put together a fine quartet of saxophonists to record my sax quartet four years ago, the quartet being essentially the sax section from Kenny Wheeler’s Big Band.

For me, however, his own playing is at its best in his solo concerts. Interestingly he frequently views these solo improvisations as potential "pieces" in which successive versions move towards a definitive state, that is they are tantamount to compositions. He records each performance and analyses what he has done and adjusts his performance on a following occasion. Many of these private recordings serve as a sketchbook for his subsequent albums. His soprano saxophone solos leave the listener literally gasping for breath, in that they may involve a period of 20 minutes or more of continuous playing with no gaps in the sound. His technique of circular breathing is better than anyone’s I have ever encountered and can be quite exhausting at first hearing. But at the same time he uses it to great musical effect producing a spellbinding combination of multiphonics, elaborate repeated patterns and acoustic resonance. In a solo concert he usually alternates between soprano and tenor saxophones and he treats each instrument in a different way. The soprano solos are frequently fast, fluid and at a constant dynamic level whereas the tenor solos are more dramatic, with violent tonguing effects and less use of circular breathing.

He can be found playing in surprising places. On the one hand he may be heard in one of the freer jazz environments in London. On the other he appears frequently at prestigious international festivals. I have fond memories of hearing him play solo concerts in the basement café below Blackthorn Books in Leicester to a small but loyal audience. His fiftieth birthday concert in London features him with his regular trio and with other ensembles and I am only sorry that I cannot be there. The concert will be stunning and I will raise a glass or two of champagne to celebrate the birthday of my good friend whose work I now admire without reservation. I enjoy our long telephone conversations and receiving the faxes he sends of photocopied album sleeves of previously unissued recordings that he knows I would like. But at the same time I must admit that I am glad we are no longer next door neighbours.

Gavin Bryars

Gavin Bryars