Evan Parker is a lot. He is one of those artists who has become impossible to quantify, as unstoppably off the beaten track as he is totally essential to a dozen different movements. True to his position as one of the European underground’s most notable artists, his story veers off in a thousand different directions, down the strangest, most uncovered corners of avant-garde music into scenic B-roads. His discography reads like a dusty volume of history, and unfolding it feels unseemly. In a way, it is best told through encounters; in those chance collaborations Parker has experienced, and in the unbelievable ensembles he has brought together. Parker has been generous with his music: it has sprawled through lives as they have sprawled through his.
The first encounter we should talk about is John Coltrane. When Parker started playing sax as a teenager, he coloured every choice in his adventure as if it depended on the truths of jazz’s most famous player – his most important influence. He notes that his chosen instruments became phantoms of Coltrane’s, attempts to replicate his famous tenor sound and the mellifluous soprano playing that emerged in his 1961 recording of My Favorite Things. The choice was a signal of Parker’s own future as a vivacious polymath: he would be one of those artists, able to do things in the plural, bringing the mood with the mayhem. Growing up on jazz radio, Parker was absorbing a wide range of sounds, unable to connect any of it, incapable of determining its quality – he counted on Coltrane’s free jazz to cut through the miasma.
There have been enough formative collaborations in Parker’s career to fill and breach this piece’s word count, but none come more important than his early experiences with Derek Bailey. Another member of the British underground’s first wave, Bailey floated about the scene’s hotspots, playing as part of John Stevens’ aptly named Spontaneous Music Ensemble. It was here Parker first encountered Bailey, and through this connection that they would ring in the 1970s as notorious collaborators, founding the Incus imprint and bringing about the Music Improvisation Company. These early collaborations saw them make three records, including their opus, The Topography of the Lungs. A frenzied, hyper-aggressive and everywhere-splaying set, the duo was joined on it by drummer Han Bennink, partnering up for a record that remains a landmark in experimental music around the world.
Parker’s early output was confident and uncompromising, embracing as many different corners of experimentation as possible. He welcomed the chance to play with the players, publishing his findings with jazzers such as bassist Barry Guy through Incus – while simultaneously pursuing his own solo attempts at circular breathing and hyperspeed tonguing. Parker and Guy made an appearance at hcmf// in 1992, continuing their long-standing partnership with a performance of typically loose definitions. They called it Improvisation!, the exclamation mark nodding to, well, jazz, those early Impulse! releases that suggested the genre as a whole, and the restless pursuit of catharsis that carries through all of its idioms. From there, the list of collaborators quite literally goes on: greats like Joe McPhee, John Zorn, Milford Graves and Thurston Moore are a microscopic sample of people who have shared a moment in history with Evan Parker.
Parker’s relationship with hcmf// serves as a microcosm of his work, bringing together snapshots of his experiments as a composer, and the collaborations that made them happen. In 2002, Parker visited hcmf// to present Memory/ Vision, a large-scale project that cast a group of familiar friends as the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. The group had been active since the early 1990s, formed as a free jazz band with some soft concepts about ‘real time signal processing’ – suggestive directions that saw Parker embrace the growing role of computers in music. As a composer, Parker built on a trusty foundation of improvisation, instructing members of the ensemble to respond, in a daisy-chain, to pre-recorded improvisations, sparking a fervent series of interrelated events.
In embracing new music types, Parker has been factoring his instrument into the now, considering what sense the saxophone might make in a world where sound meets information. He’s delivered a rich new series of works, and amazingly, they have sounded unlike anything else in his career. In 2011, he brought Trance Map to hcmf//, a collaboration with plunderphonics artist Matt Wright. Ahead of Trance Map, Parker had already been working with electronic musicians and DJs, but the work had been largely responsive, taking stems of his improvisations and inserting them into a familiar framework. His collaboration with Wright presented a challenge: could Parker perform with a musician of this type, and achieve something like equilibrium?
In Trance Map, Wright’s use of tape samples, field recordings and record scratch had the same pulsing unpredictability as Parker’s saxophone lines, jerking and careening as if both were travelling on – and off – the same tracks. Live, the piece has been performed with many different collaborators, often erupting into a group freak out worthy of a noise rock band like Boredoms. Trance Map is the kind of communal adventure Parker has been going on since he started out, indicative of his love of being within other people’s music. He started out emulating the exuberance of Coltrane; now, he thrives off the sound worlds of collaborators. He recently partnered with David Toop for Sharpen Your Needles, a piece that considers the politics of listening, positing record collections as a somehow radical act. At hcmf// 2019, he presents another group work; along with familiar creative partners and a ragtag roster of musicians, he’ll deliver a frenetic improvisation to close down the festival. As he turns 75, there are few better ways to celebrate his career than with this: a collaborative revolution.
© Caroline Forbes