Anyone fortunate enough to hear British free jazz icon Evan Parker deliver his solo performance at this year's Ottawa International Jazz Festival got to hear him at his most exposed. While much has been written about his extended approaches on the soprano and tenor saxophonesincluding circular breathing that allows him to create virtually endless waves of soundParker's significance and impact on the world of free jazz can only be truly appreciated when you have the chance to see it live.
But that's only a small part of the Evan Parker universe, which has been represented on nearly seventy albums as a leader and over two hundred recordings in total, ranging from small group outings to larger ensembles, since he emerged on the European free jazz scene in the mid-1960s. Arguably his most daring and long-lasting project has been his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, formed in 1992 to explore the meeting place of free improvisation and real-time sound processing.
Over the course of three albums for ECM, Parker's ensemble has grown in literal size and scope, developing one of the most forward-looking examinations of modern technology's potential. In Parker's eyes, the artists who take the acoustic signals provided by the ensemble's "real" instrumentalists and interpret them to broaden the ensemble's sonic scope are equal players in the processan innovative philosophy in and of itself.
For the ensemble's fourth outing, The Eleventh Hour, Parker expanded the nonet from 2003's Memory/Vision to an eleven-piece group. Interestingly enough, the added members are sound processors, leaving Marco Vecchi free to do what Parker terms "sound projection"improvisationally creating a three-dimensional image of the acoustic and electronic sounds, an increasingly complex and challenging task.
The five-part title suite, which takes up 55 of the album's 72 minutes, is a live recording from the first night of the ensemble's residency at Glasgow's Centre for Contemporary Arts' 2004 Free RadlCCAls concert and workshop series. It's as challenging as anything the ensemble has done, owing aesthetic debts to contemporary classical compositiondespite its keenly improvisational naturemaking it difficult to assess by conventional musical standards. The suite ebbs and flows, with more spacious smaller groupings of the ensemble emerging, only to again become periodically swallowed up in the full group's greater density. While it is possible at times to distinguish specific instruments, the recording is more about creating texture and collective aural landscapes than working within established musical traditions.
The opening "Shadow Play" is the best piece to demonstrate on a smaller scale what the larger ensemble is about. With only Parker playing soprano, sound sculptors Lawrence Casserley, Joel Ryan, and Walter Prati demonstrate just how far Parker's endless variations can be taken, massaging and enhancing them to create sonically richer terrain.
While The Eleventh Hour is not an album for listeners tied to conventional musical approaches, it remains striking and strangely compelling, if for no other reason than it demonstrates just how far the creative mind can expand even well-established concepts into completely new territory.
Personnel: Evan Parker: soprano saxophone, voice; Philipp Wachsmann: violin, live electronics; Paul
Lytton: percussion, live electronics; Agusti Fernandez: piano, prepared piano; Adam
Linson: double-bass; Lawrence Casserley: signal processing instrument, percussion, voice;
Joel Ryan: sample and signal processing; Walter Prati: computer processing; Richard
Barrett: sampling keyboards, live electronics; Paul Obermayer: sampling keyboards, live
electronics; Marco Vecchi: sound projection.