Jazz Review: British Saxophonist Evan Parker Brings his Brand of Innovation to Boston

Free and fluid as it was, the set made memorable sense to the packed crowd at the Lily Pad.

Evan Parker/Nate Wooley/Joe Morris Trio — live at the Lilypad, Cambridge, MA, on September 18.

Evan Parker in Photo: Caroline Forbes

Evan Parker in Hasselt, Belgium, Photo: Caroline Forbes

By Michael Ullman

Now 70 years old, the British saxophonist Evan Parker told his afternoon master class at Boston’s New England Conservatory that he has been doing free improvisation for forty years. I think he lopped off a decade. His first of nearly 400 recordings was made in 1966 in London with his old friend trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, whose death (at the age of 84) Parker heard about on the afternoon of his Cambridge gig. (He dedicated the music at the Lily Pad performance to Wheeler.) Since the sixties, Parker has been a creative mainstay of a flourishing free jazz scene (along with such talented musicians as Wheeler, Barry Guy, Derek Bailey, and Dave Holland) in Britain and beyond. In 1968 he recorded the incendiary Machine Gun in a group led by Peter Brötzmann. Still, to most British musicians, freedom remained a series of techniques rather than an indelible aspiration, especially because musical liberation in Europe never had the political (or racial) resonance it has in the United States.

Yet Parker’s brand of free jazz has been equally as probing and, at its best, revelatory, as its American version. He frequently performs solo successfully and has made a series of large-group recordings with The Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. But to my mind his most intriguing work as a performer is with small ensembles, like the trio at the Lily Pad. Parker is one of the best listeners in jazz. Even when he is the leader of a group, he aims to be a guiding rather than a dominating presence. His phrases, as they did at the Lily Pad, might begin a piece, but the notes somehow manage to be both incisive and inviting, suggestive and elusive rather than dictatorial. He enthusiastically encourages his band members to join in on the compositional mix, and learns from them as they go along.

At the New England Conservatory, Parker played along with and listened to a succession of informal student groups, and then answered their questions. First though, he talked about the difficulty of teaching free improvisation in an academic setting. He argued that it is essentially a contradiction in terms. After describing himself as a “surviving improviser, not an expert improviser” he recalled his first attempt at talking to conservatory students. First he played and then he asked for comments. There was the inevitable cautious pause, and then one doubtful young musician bluntly asked, “Do you get paid for doing that?” He thought it was a reasonable question.

A 2009 album featuring Evan Parker

A 2009 album featuring Evan Parker

So were the questions at NEC. Parker’s answers generally illuminated his fascinating practice. A pianist asked him how a keyboard player can contribute to a free improvisation without controlling the group with his suggestions of harmony. Parker pointed him to his frequent collaborator Paul Bley (Time Will Tell, ECM 1537), who manages to imply two tonal centers at the same time, thereby allowing his fellow improvisers a choice, what Parker termed “an escape.” Another student, seemingly frustrated with his own choices, noted that free jazz seemed to fall into two moods: the frantic and the placid. (At first the saxophonist thought the pupil had said “flaccid.”) Parker responded by saying that the “devil is in the details” and that the student, like many unsympathetic listeners, was focusing on the surface of the music, not getting into what was happening from moment to moment. When listening to one’s own group perform, he added, a musician has a choice: either to join in with what the others are doing or to rebel by playing something counter.(Of course, the third choice is silence, and Parker spoke admiringly of a Wadada Leo Smith performance in which the trumpeter played only six perfectly placed notes.) Essentially it is manner of tact, or what Parker calls “etiquette.” Every successful group that plays together for a reasonable amount of time develops its own etiquette, its own version of civilized musical manners. How does one decide when it makes sense to play whatever one feels like playing or to play something that has been negotiated through a collective wordless agreement? It all comes down, for Parker, to “decent behavior.”

One heard that kind of negotiated respectful behavior at the Lily Pad. In its first set, the trio played two pieces, one featuring Parker on tenor and the other on soprano saxophone. At one point in the first piece trumpeter Nate Wooley played long tones, sometimes squeezed out of his horn by way of half-valving techniques, while guitarist Joe Morris picked frantically on his barely amplified instrument. It felt as if Wooley, by sounding so tranquil, was trying to calm a storm. It worked. Wooley’s contentment subtly invited Parker’s participation. The saxophonist entered first by imitating a kind of braying noise that Wooley had – among many other un-trumpet like sound effects – managed to make, and then he picked up on Wooley’s long tones. Repeatedly during the set, one saw the horns made way for each other. The piece with Parker on soprano saxophone piece began with Morris playing an engaging pattern that clearly interested the trumpeter, who jumped in and complicated the conversation. The emphasis then switched to Wooley, until he finished a scurrying pattern by holding a long note that invited Parker into the fray. It was as if he had held out his hand and asked his partner for a dance.

The pair, Wooley and Parker, listened to each other, at times playing sounds that seemed to violate the nature of their instruments. In an inconceivably rapid tempo Wooley alternated between rumbling like a wind storm and blaring out traditional trumpet notes. Each player also seemed to be commenting on his performance as he played. Parker sometimes played what sounded like a succession of repeated patterns, but the repetitions always came with some striking differences. He varied some of the pitches, or the accenting, or at times seemed to be impatiently interrupting himself, cutting off his own phrases with quick interjections. All three musicians played intensely, inventively, and with ‘good manners.’ Free and fluid as it was, the set made memorable sense to the packed crowd at the Lily Pad.

Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.

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