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Evan Parker at the The Vortex

Sammy Stein By

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Evan Parker, John Edwards, John Russell
The Vortex
London
November 21, 2013

Outside the Vortex a man turned to me and said, "Well, I was expecting something, you know, a bit radical but nothing quite like this!" I knew just what he meant. We had just come outside for some air after the first half of improvised music played by Evan Parker (saxophones), John Edwards (bass) and John Russell (guitar) and I had to agree with the guy—I was expecting something radical but nothing quite like the sounds delivered by the trio inside. This was pure improvisation and, for me, it made the long trip from home worthwhile.

The evening began well, with the volunteer staff at the Vortex making everyone welcome, directing people to their allocated tables and generally showing a degree of warmth in sharp contrast with the cold night outside. The Vortex suits jazz gigs—it is warm, big enough to comfortably take the sound of musicians in full flow, yet small enough to still remain homely. The lighting is gentle and the atmosphere convivial, with a well stocked bar.

Parker opened the set by saying that he appreciated the audience members coming to the gig because there was a lot going on around London with the London Jazz Festival, not least an event at Cafe Oto, just around the corner, so he appreciated the fact we had chosen to come and hear him play. The first half consisted of two freely played pieces, the band members picking up cues from each other, tuning into the muse; playing, falling silent when needed, playing loud, soft, fast or slow depending on where the music took them. These are three masters of improvisation and whether picking up on Parker's lead or following the rhythms laid down by Russell's guitar, each musician soloed, dueted or joined in to make a trio. In the second half they played for around 45 minutes, but it felt like a few brief moments. A whiff of a riff kept making its appearance, but then the players set about creating their own patterns—either individually or as part of a duet or trio, depending on the sense of what was needed at the time.

This was improvisation as it should be—players completely attuned to each other and their instruments—yet aware of the listeners' reactions as well. Parker is well established—and with good reason—as one of the best improvisers of our time. He plays intuitively, his changes, movement and sense of need completely right. Sometimes he sat as if entranced, at others he was animated and completely engrossed. He played with intuition, dexterity and a speed to take your breath away. Russell played non-stop even when changing a string! He altered the style, rhythm and chords to support and set the tone of the music. He led, followed and supported at different times, totally in tune with the other players. At different times he formed a duet with Edwards, played a tune back and forth with both the other players, or soloed. Whatever was needed, his guitar was there, speaking, flowing or providing thrumming under-rhythms.

Edwards was completely mesmerizing on double bass. He plays as if he is one with his bass, twining around it, his fingers working hard, or the bow grating across the strings. The bow was also used to change the tone and octaves, as a rhythm stick and sometimes just to thwack the frame. Edwards was magical to watch and played his instrument with love, at times caressing the strings, teasing delicious notes, at others forcing chords and notes with great twangs and thumps to the strings, as if he were taming the strength and ferocity of the bass. The bassist improvised with innate intuition, understanding just what he needed to do and when. He was animated like a puppet at times, jerking, jumping and playing with such effort, then he would switch to delivering the sweet, dulcet tones teased from the strings.

Parker, Edwards and Russell—three names to watch for if you want to hear improvisation at its best.

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