One of the many benefits of being a music fan in London is the opportunity to see Evan Parker perform regularly. Parker is one of the giants of improvised music, with a career that stretches back to the dawn of the music in the mid sixties. But he is always pushing forward, and appears in a wide variety of contexts from solo performances up to large ensembles such as the London Improvisers Orchestra and the Dedication Orchestra. In January, he was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of the Spring Heel Jack national tour that also featured Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Han Bennink and Jason Pearce. On February 19th, Parker appeared at the (packed out) Vortex in an amazing quartet with Steve Beresford on piano, John Edwards on bass and Mark Sanders on drums. Spring Heel Jack (Ashley Wales and John Coxon) were in the audience, and there was talk of them appearing at the Vortex with Parker soon.
Two days later, I met Parker for this interview. We met in the cafe at Ray's Jazz shop, one of the best in London, which has recently relocated to Foyles bookshop in Charing Cross Road. This meant that music was playing over the sound system, some of which occasionally distracted Parker.
AAJ: I'd like to start off talking about the Spring Heel Jack tour, as it is comparatively recent. Talking to them at the Vortex the other evening, their reaction was that it had exceeded their wildest dreams.
EP: They are fantastically enthusiastic guys. They are definitely a breath of fresh air in their open mindedness and their voracious appetite for music of all kinds. It reminded in some quite fundamental way why I got involved in music myself. For such a long time it has just been what I do. It was nice to be reminded of that state of jumping around enthusiasm, and even to be infected by it to a degree. Plus they are very interesting characters apart from their relationship with music. They are great as individuals and then you put the two of them together, a quite unlikely pairing in many ways, and you get the synergy which is precisely what Buckminster Fuller says you should get. They are a nice illustration of that. It was a real pleasure to be with them for ten days, or whatever it was.
AAJ: How did that work out? Because it wasn't just them you were with?
EP: We had one day's rehearsal. And we had done the recordings [ Masses and Amassed ], although I don't think that impinged very much on the material we prepared for the tourthere may have been a couple of samples. It suited me very well, because in one rehearsal I could memorise everything I needed to know. So I didn't have to bother with music stands and bits of paper and all of that for the first few gigs or for the whole tour. Sometimes that is necessary because there is just too much to memorise. In this case there was a real minimal amount of fixed material and even what was fixed was open to fresh interpretation every night. Probably the one who freshly interpreted the mostas you might guesswas Han Bennink. He never takes a great deal of interest in what is supposed to be fixed and what is supposed to be free anyway, which is good because he knows his own temperament very well indeed. That one rehearsal didn't even last all day. We had set it for about ten or twelve hours but we just did a sensible minimum and went to Bath, the first concert, with just that edge you need of not being over-rehearsed. From there, we just consolidated the material each night. The Queen Elizabeth Hall was the second gig but everybody knew what were the things that were supposed to happen and what the degrees of flexibility of interpretation were. It was good in that way too.
AAJ: As far as your own playing was concerned, what were the constraints?
EP: There were certain key elements that could switch from one area to another or from one predominant player to anotherI wouldn't really say soloist. Sometimes it was a bit like that, but they never really described anything as being a solo as such. There were different areas that were defined very simply ... [Parker slowly drifts into silence, distracted by the music coming over Ray's sound system.] (I'm listening to Coltrane. Not all the records they play will catch my attention so much as this one)... The first set had an opening clang, a sample from Ashley of some bells, something he had prepared as the opening of the set. Then a two-note guitar response that was repeated a few times. Then it was up to people to find their way into whatever that set up. Then a period of collective improvisation with the saxophone as a lead voice. After a good deal of playing, there was a transition to a piece with three chords that were given, that set up an almost kitsch mood. OK, now we all know where we are again. That was open for me to play around on those chords. The set finished with a figure that John played on the piano that was like a ballad feel. In rehearsal, I had worked out a kind of counter melody or response to that figure. So that was it. If you tried to write these things down, you would be struggling to fill more than about three lines. But because, from the rehearsal, we had a good sense of how that stuff would be used to generate and influence improvisations, there was no trouble making that into a set. It was all we needed.
Of course, I play a lot of times in other contexts where the only preparation is that we all know one another. It is so hard to talk about this stuff. You sort of contradict yourself whatever you try to say about free improvisation you turn out to be saying something that is true but also not true at the same time. It is very ...