Evan Parker: Solo
“ It's an absolutely untheoretical music but there are a lot of theories about the lack of theories. ”
As jazz has developed since its inception, it has always centered on individuals working with each other. Over time, the music unit has gotten smaller, from the big band era to the time of small combos and the modern era where solo performance has flourished. What was first only the province of the piano has come to include innovators on virtually every instrument. The saxophone, be it in the hands of Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton or Roscoe Mitchell has proven itself a worthy contender. During an interview with English reedman Evan Parker, he makes the bold claim that "The limits seem only to come from the player, the player's imagination and the player's technique."
This month, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (as part of an annual concert series of over 50 events of classical, jazz and world music), will present Parker, one of the modern pioneers of the soprano saxophone, in solo performance. This will be in conjunction with the final stop of an exhibit tour of German photographer Thomas Struth. Parker's appearances in the US are special events, particularly in the context of a genre he helped create.
Evan Parker's career began in the fertile period of mid ‘60s London. Drummer, bandleader and free jazz übermensch John Stevens' Little Theatre Club played host to most of England's first free improvisation generation. Parker met Stevens, played in duo with him and later became a part of the legendary Spontaneous Music Ensemble group that at one time or another featured bassist Dave Holland, trumpeter/flugelhornist Kenny Wheeler and reedman Trevor Watts. Numerous associations developed over the period of 1966-1967, including groups with trombonist Paul Rutherford, guitarist Derek Bailey and bassist Barry Guy.
It would be a few years later that Parker began his work in a solo context. "You know I was very keen on the distinction between improvisation and composition at that time, consequently I've come to realize it was a false kind of distinction, but for me the special problem was to distinguish between solo improvising and composing, precisely because it was one mind at work and none of those qualities of group improvisation. But subsequently I've come to think rather differently about the whole thing. I don't think it’s accurate to speak about an improvisation as something different from composition...it’s more accurate to speak of it as opposed to notated music.”
The groundwork for solo improvisation had already been laid and it was from previous examples that Parker would forge ahead. "You have to relate, make a coherent line for yourself. You can't just be bouncing ideas around with somebody else - you have to generate something which starts, develops and ends and there is specific challenge to that...the big attraction is you have all the space. Not only do you have all the responsibility but you have all the space, the acoustic space. And some things really come out of doing, certainly in my approach to solo playing from very specific response to the specific acoustics and specific resonances of a given space."
For all its history, most listeners have probably had little exposure to solo playing which, it must be stressed, is vastly different from playing solos. The musician is responsible for the structure that is already in place when a person plays a solo over a set of changes with a band accompaniment. Parker's solo work is dense and hard to fathom the first time one hears it. There seems to be so much going on. Parker explains: "I try to give them a sense of dialogue with myself anyway, you know the way I move lines around in the overtone structure against lines in the lower register of the instrument. There is still some sense of a dialogue in the music but it’s just one person speaking to himself. Solo improvising should be a good introduction for listeners who are not so familiar with players. It's a way to understand the approach of a given player that might feed through to the way they approach group playing."
It seems so logical that a person must adapt to playing in a group but, since most musicians play solo infrequently, the listener can only imagine the internal process. Though the average person can easily identify a Coltrane solo, to gain insight into what his own personality brought outside of the contributions of the rest of the group is near impossible.