Evan Parker: Alder Brook & Birds and Blades

Andrey Henkin By

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Evan Parker, perhaps the John Coltrane of English music, has made a career of lending his utterly unique approach to any number of long-standing groups and individual recordings. By virtue of his complex musicianship and extremely open approach to group playing, he fits seamlessly in any configuration into which he is drawn, never dominating or flashy, always bludgeoningly tasteful - one could not write better parts for him than he seems to snatch out of the air.

Evan Parker and September Winds

Alder Brook



Alder Brook finds him in a relatively new sphere, that of contemporary classical music; it must be said though that much of his previous output has already visited this realm and that September Winds, the Swiss horn quartet, is fully capable of working with both forms and freedoms. In 2000, Parker and the group made their first recordings, a duo between Parker and clarinetist Peter Schmid and a double album of Parker in various permutations with the quartet members and as a full quintet. Two years later, the group has reconvened for this record, 11 shortish arrangements and free improvisations.

This is difficult cerebral music. The fact that it is short doesn’t make it easier on the listener (it seems the longer avant-garde music goes on, the simpler it is to disregard it). One piece will stop and another very different piece will begin. The instrumentation - Parker on soprano, tenor and contrabass saxophones; Schmid and Reto Senn on bass and contrabass clarinets (Senn also plays taragot); Hans Anliker on trombone and Jürg Solothurnmann on alto and soprano - is unusual and, despite being familiar to jazz listeners, has little to do with that form. The space and sophistication of the textures, usually very somber and solemn (though Parker does get one exhilarating circular breathed workout), make even Anthony Braxton’s most esoteric work seem almost swinging.

Evan Parker and Barry Guy

Birds and Blades



Birds and Blades: Studio/Live is a new step in the development of the duo album. Its format, two CDs recorded in the studio and live, solves the dilemma so often stated in the expression “you should hear them live” or “the record is much better than the concert”. Listeners can now make that determination for themselves and the two musicians, Parker on tenor and soprano and Guy on bass, cannot hide behind the spontaneity of performance or the stability of the studio. The opportunity to hear improvised music in these two settings, recorded one day apart to maintain some continuity of theme, is unique and lends the recording an air of journal entries or correspondence reporting.

The album is actually antithetical to most other duo albums. Typical examples can be leader and follower (particularly when one instrument is a bass); attempts to match generally disparate instruments (see the Jim Hall/Bill Evans duets); or two of the same instruments to highlight either similarities or differences in approach. Where Birds and Blades differs is that Guy and Parker both are capable of determining a piece’s direction. Even more compelling, both have such advanced technique that during the more frenzied moments, instrumental timbres coalesce. The two have the same approach on drastically different instruments. That they have played together since 1971 highlights this. Careful attention should be paid to Guy’s recreation of Parker’s singular circular breathing or Parker’s mimicry of Guy’s sophisticated extended bass method.

Disc one, recorded in a Zurich studio, is seven tracks ranging from the opening melodic “Alar” at under four minutes to the closing title track at 14-and-a-half. The second disc, recorded in a Zurich club, is four longer pieces averaging 16 minutes apiece. It is unclear whether there is some significance that the studio tracks are credited to “Guy/Parker” and the live ones to “Parker/Guy”. Listening to both in order, the listener is struck by how the live performance seems more introverted, as if the duo realizes that much of the delicate interplay will be lost.

The studio tracks are rich in detail - Parker and Guy have the solitude to really take in each other’s playing whereas the live performance has in some ways to include the audience. Whether there is a conscious effort to make the performance the conclusion of the encounter or if the studio time was the real fire of the two days is up to the individual listener. Taken alone, each is a compelling document of two giants of their respective instruments. In tandem, Birds and Blades is a series of snapshots entered lovingly into Parker and Guy’s decades-thick photo album.

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