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Thursday, September 12, 2013

Evan Parker – Vaincu.Va! Live at Western Front 1978 (Western Front New Music, 2013) ****½

By Dan Sorrells

It may be a truism to say so, but it is impossible to keep up with all of the new music that’s released these days. Equally impossible is adequately sampling from the coffers of the past, even without digging through thrift store bins or obsessively surfing eBay. That’s because every year there are countless records resurrected as reissues, or historical performances that are finally given a chance to be heard by those beyond the long-dispersed original audience. Almost all of it is worthy, rewarding music, but how can one make the time for it when so many current musicians are still forging ahead, adding to our already too-lengthy “have to hear” lists? 

Improvised music adds another twist: free improvisation itself is predicated on a ceaseless push forward, never-ending tinkering with the infinite combinations of musical bits, and the idea that you never have to say the same thing twice. In a music so literally grounded in the present, why focus one’s attention back towards the past?

Naturally, I’m being a bit of a Devil’s Advocate. There are plenty of compelling reasons to look back across a domain of music that has always been looking forward. With some historical releases, there’s no question that one must stop and listen. In fact, some releases underscore just how far we’ve come, and still manage to offer a glimpse of where we may be heading yet. Vaincu.Va! Live at Western Front 1978 is such a case, a recently resurfaced Evan Parker solo set, recorded on the final night of his marathon 29-date North American tour in 1978.

The closest touchstone to Vaincu.Va!  in Parker’s oeuvre is the formidable Monoceros, an album that was direct-cut to vinyl and released on Incus the same year. Parker’s solo approach was fully developed by this time (a remarkable thought, as more than 30 years later, it still yields astonishing music), a completely overwhelming torrent of patterned, harmonic playing that pushed saxophone-based music and playing technique into places few others have reached even to this day.

In a conversation recounted in David Toop’s Haunted Weather, Parker says that, in a sense, the “design” of his solo playing is “built up from one calculation, the output of which becomes the input for the next calculation.” By becoming a one man feedback loop, Parker can focus his attention on generating an incredible range of harmonic overtones. He describes hearing Greek clarinet music as a student in the 60s that gave “the sensation of insects or buzzing. Hearing that layer in the music,” he knew it was “very important, what’s happening up there, on top of the line.”

While albums such as Monoceros or The Snake Decides were recorded in ultra-fidelity in an effort to capture all of the partials generated by Parker’s playing, live performances like Vaincu.Va! hit upon a more psychedelic mode. Here, the edges are blurred, the notes spreading and reverberating and blending before making their way to the microphone. It’s often tempting to try to imagine what Parker is actually doing at any given moment, what sort of other-worldly technique goes into producing such music, but with Vaincu.Va! one simply succumbs to the sound, which rolls in like a fog, too thick and too fast to process in a meaningful way. Vaincu.Va! gives Parker the opportunity, as he wishes in the documentary Amplified Gesture, to “disappear and just be the sound.”

The blended sonorities of Vaincu.Va! emphasize another line that can be traced back through Parker’s solo playing, a line the leads to John Coltrane. Not so much the obvious connection between Parker’s free improvisation and Coltrane’s late-period free jazz, but an earlier development in Coltrane’s playing, what Ira Gitler called his “sheets of sound.” Parker has perhaps finally realized what Coltrane was grasping at in the dense, vertically-stacked solos on albums like Black Pearl: a saxophone harmonizing with itself, creating true layers of overlapping, interacting notes, rather than a steady, linear train. 

Parker continues to release many albums each year; there is certainly plenty to stay current with. But Parker’s singular body of solo work is something that every fan of improvised music should make an effort to survey: since the first solo albums of the early 70s, Parker has been uncompromising and peerless in his accomplishment.  There’s something strange, even unsettling, about Parker’s solo playing, something that, even when it was captured over 30 years ago, points to a place the rest of music hasn’t seemed to stumble upon yet. Vaincu.Va! isn’t an easy listen, but it’s an essential historical document of what still remains truly novel creative music. As Parker himself said in 1992, “even audiences who think they want the familiar actually need music to be about newness, too.”

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Unknown said...

Wonderful review, and a nice perspective on past vs. present.

Colin Green said...

Agreed, an excellent review.

Martin Schray said...

Well-written and very insightful - as well on the idea of releasing old live recordings and on Parker's works in general. Made me want to listen to his old solo performances again.