A few years ago I was teaching music appreciation classes when I happened upon a book called Tuva or Bust. It was an account of how the author was inspired by the renowned physics professor Richard Feynman to investigate (and eventually visit) the remote central Asian land known as Tannu Tuva. Tuva, as it is commonly known, had attracted international notice during a brief period of independence (before being swallowed by the Soviet Union) with its flamboyant postage stamps. It was also the home of a phenomenon generally known as "throat singing," in which the singer, by an arcane arrangement of palate, actually sounds two different notes at once. Tuva or Bust came with a recording of this feat that I used thereafter to disgust my music students, who were accustomed to Sheena and Madonna and their ilk. Tuvan singing is about as remote from any Western sense of the term as can be imagined. On that particular record the two tones simultaneously produced by one man consisted of a deep growl (not a bluesy growl, folks, but just a plain old growl) and an unearthly sound something like a telephone dial tone, only higher in pitch. Its charm was only local or anthropological.
But my students would have been wrong to condemn throat singing altogether, for I’ll wager none of them had then heard the wondrous Tuvan Sainkho Namtchylak. Evan Parker, the master of free saxophone (in the late Coltrane tradition), recorded an album entitled Physics with the Schlippenbach Trio a few years back; did an interest in the great Feynman lead him to Tuva or Bust as well? In any case, by some mysterious process unknown to me, Tuvan throat singing in the capable form of Ms. Namtchylak has met the freest of free jazz (Mr. Parker’s sax playing), and it’s a happy marriage. Mars Song, recorded in the Canadian free jazz mecca Victoriaville in 1996, contains five duets between Parker (on soprano and tenor) and Namtchylak; it is a breathtaking, disturbing, fascinating, illuminating success.
To my knowledge this is the first time Evan Parker has recorded with a vocalist (both musicians appeared on a 1993 Leo double-CD, Synergetics / Phonomanie III, but performed together only briefly, and not in a duet setting). But don’t expect Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Evan Parker Songbook. Like Chick Corea, now Namtchylak sings, now she sobs. Not metaphorically, but really. Now she cries, growls, hums, chatters, chirps, and, yes, throat sings, producing a weird high tone in harmony with herself. Anyone expecting anything resembling conventional Western singing need not look into this one.
Yet it is a striking artistic statement. Parker’s playing is precise and empathetic. Namtchylak produces a huge array of sounds that intertwine with the sounds of Parker’s instrument to create a hypnotic tapestry. A thousand moods and emotions are evoked and transmuted. Parker is a paradox: he always sounds like himself, and to the casual listener might seem to be forever recycling a few formulas. And yet the intricacy of his attentiveness to whomever he is playing with, and his adaptibility, is on a level with the very greatest tenor and soprano players, even his mentor Coltrane. While Mars Song is not for those who cannot do without established song forms and traditional patterns of tension and release, it is an immensely rewarding musical document.