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Thursday, April 27, 2023

Evan Parker "X-Jazz Ensemble" - A Schist Story (JACC, 2023)

By Stuart Broomer

In August 2012, Evan Parker conducted a week-long improvisation workshop at Casa da Cultura da Sertã in the schist village region of Portugal. Joining Parker were 17 musicians, some already firmly established in Portuguese and European free jazz and improvised music circles, others emerging and some neophytes. Each day they were immersed in the principles and practice of large-scale collective improvisation. Each night various assemblies from the collective would perform in neighbouring villages. At the end of the week, the musicians played as an ensemble, Parker playing saxophone and signalling. One imagines from listening to the results that there might have been intense interaction during the sessions among musicians of like instruments, as strong and empathetic contingents of string and reed and percussion groupings emerge from within the band.

Evan Parker has a special place in improvised music, including among large ensembles. He participated in early expansions of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. He was a charter member of Barry Guy’s London Jazz Composer’s Orchestra; he had long been an explorer of combining acoustic improvisation with various forms of signal processing, bringing a very large version of his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble to Lisbon in 2010. Parker has been a central figure in myriad forms of improvised music, from his mid ’60s work with John Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble to the recent Trans-Atlantic Trance Map that linked improvisers in Faversham, UK (Parker, Matt Wright, Pat Thomas, Alex Ward, Robert Jarvis, Hannah Marshall, and Peter Evans) and Brooklyn, New York (Ned Rothenberg, Craig Taborn, Ikue Mori, Sylvie Courvoisier, Mat Maneri and Sam Pluta).

Parker is not simply a significant practitioner of improvised music, he’s also a key spokesperson for its essential underlying values. In his liner note to A Schist Story, Rui Eduardo Paes writes:

Following the British saxophonist’s libertarian principles, it was also an experiment concerning social interactions ruled exclusevily by the values of equality and freedom. Those are the coordinates of a much desired future alternative society and were lived by this group of individuals as an inner change, even a micro-revolution, in terms of a way of being with others and of personnal, non-egotistic, behaviour.

Parker repeated his recommendations every day: don’t put yourself in front of your partners, play only when you have something important to add, give space to the other contributed sounds, don’t force anything, let it flow. Change directions only when things are getting undefined – this isn’t about you, but about the collective. Of course, the temptation was to do otherwise. Much of improvised music, in its evolution, turned a show of technical or expressive capacities, and those contradictions often emerged. When it happened, Parker stopped everything, to begin again, and again. Be subtle, give non-invasive lines that everybody can relate to intuitevily. Don’t think to much, be attentive, listen. Listening is a priority. If you’re a horn player, or a percussionist, put yourself at the level of the less vibrant instruments, strings for instance. Watch out the volumes and the dynamics. Use only the necessary notes, not more and not less – you’re a little part of a global construction, act in correspondance, but do it with the conscience that you’re a fundamental piece of the all.

It’s one of those large ensemble performances that alway leaves this writer wishing it were a video for accuracy of identification. I’ll confess that I hate to be wrong, but there’s barely a false step anywhere in this music.

The 45-minute work realized on the final evening stands as tribute to the work of Parker and the ensemble. Organized episodically, the opening moments belong to the strings, with violist João Camões initially leading with cellist Miguel Mira playing pizzicato and harpist Angelica Salvi plucking bright flurries with Marcelo dos Reis contributing subtle acoustic guitar. Mira’s assumption of the lead eventually brings in trumpeter Luís Vicente, the soul of empathy, using a Harmon mute and gradually expanding his short melodic phrases into a lead.

A short pauses introduces an extended passage that will bring the rest of the orchestra into the continum. There’s an abstract dialogue of electronics (Miguel Carvalhais and Travassos) with some percussion, with an entry of electric guitar (Luís Lopes or Gonçalo Falcão), luminously light until the saxophones enter: Rodrigo Amado, João Martins and Pedro Sousa. The passage ends with a brief focus on a strongly patterned tenor saxophone lead with lightly accompanying bass (Hugo Antunes and/or José Miguel), drums and cello. It might well be a brief interlude by Rodrigo Amado Motion Trio with Mira and drummer Gabriel Ferrandini (then it might not be, drummers João Lobo and João Pais Filipe were also present).

At the 30-minute mark, after another brief lull, a soprano saxophone enters with a just-gently-contorted pitch bend in his line, moving on to longer and more liberated phrases, a brief, dramatic moment that might serve as a focal point for the music to come (I strongly suspect it’s Evan Parker on a particularly oracular shafir-sort-of-day).

While Lisbon has a long history of significant large-scale collective improvisation centred around Ernesto Rodrigues and the Creative Source label, including serveral of these musicians, this is clearly a special moment for Portuguese free jazz and for the musicians involved. The CD is accompanied by a facsimile of a comic-book history of the event that appeared at the time. It’s an apt commemoration of a unique gathering.


Alien Welcoming Station said...

Stu: Donald Brackett here: Kudos on an excellent exploration of the remarkable Evan Parker. A most enjoyable read. Cheers.