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Friday, May 19, 2017

Evan Parker & RGG – Live@Alchemia (Fundacja Słuchaj, 2017) ***

On June 12, 2016, Evan Parker joined RGG (Łukasz Ojdana on piano, Maciej Garbowski on bass, and Krzysztof Gradziuk on drums) for a 70-minute set of improvised music at Alchemia, in Kraków, Poland. So, what happens when a paragon of free jazz plays with a young trio who usually play a sort of meandering, lyrical, romantic jazz?

“Part One” makes a promising start. Parker, under the dreamy influence of RGG, dispenses with his usual fast-layered harmonics and instead plays a style reminiscent of West Coast Cool Jazz. Gradziuk, freed from the chore of merely keeping time, joyously plays every bit of his drum kit. Ojdana comps and echoes Parker’s riffs. As Parker plays, he draws lines of laid-back beauty with the artful distinctiveness of Picasso painting on glass. Here, as with Picasso, we witness the art and the man creating it at once. Ojdana’s melodic piano solo feels out of place, but he comes alive for a moment at its end, chording aggressively. The highlight is Garbowski’s bass solo. He strums dissonant dyads to accompany his own runs up and down the neck. This catches Parker’s ear, for he picks up Garbowski’s lines, echoing and complicating them.

“Part Two” is the most exciting part of the set. Odjana repeats a four-note melody and creates harmonics inside the piano. Parker enters, holding notes, growling and fluttering a little. Garbowski bows in, filling the air with the sound of long, plaintive cries. Again, Parker follows Garbowski. They play together for a bit, as the piano and drums drop out. During Parker’s solo, he seems to get stuck on a thought until Ojdana interrupts with his most assertive chording of the night. His comping becomes clusters; his chords no longer in major keys. For nearly 7 minutes of the 18-minute piece, everyone on the bandstand plays with one mind, driving the music past the limits of form. Gradziuk plays without inhibition. Parker’s fast, staccato runs skip like a small stone over water. There is even some call-and-response playing between Ojdana and Parker. Then Parker steps away, and RGG plays free jazz on their own . . . for a moment, until they fall back to earth and their wonted prettiness.

When Martin Schray recently reviewed another Evan Parker live collaboration on this blog, he rightly mentioned the “deep affinity, a shared consciousness” in that group’s playing. This occurs for a moment in “Part Two”; however, in the final two parts it disappears. Even in the freest of free jazz, one detects a conversation among like-minded people about some unifying ideas or elements, but not here. Parker drops out more frequently in the second half; it is as if the trio is not listening to him nor to each other. Ojdana perseverates on a handful of notes. Gradziuk’s drumming becomes distracting. Garbowski’s playing continues to be interesting, but in the last in the 37 minutes, their ephemeral concord is gone.

When I listened casually to this album, getting to know it, it was rather enjoyable. It was when I began to listen more closely that the shortcomings of this experiment revealed themselves. Evan Parker’s playing is intriguing because it is so different from what one might expect from him, but RGG feels out of its element—but, of course, getting out of one’s element from time to time can be valuable. If this were a 35-minute album of the first half of the set, it would have been stronger and might have ended on a much higher note than it does.

Some of this set is available on a series of videos, starting here:

Available here: