Evan Parker/ Paul Dunmall Quartet Live at the Vortex, London

John Sharpe By

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Evan Parker/ Paul Dunmall Quartet
The Vortex
February 26, 2009

If anything was guaranteed to banish the late winter blues, a two-tenor face-off looked to be just the ticket. Saxophone master Evan Parker's regular gig at London's Vortex Jazz Bar on the last Thursday of each month sees him hit the stage with a changing roster of British talent. While Parker and reed titan Paul Dunmall have lit up the stage together before, in ensembles such as the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, and even in small groups (I saw them at the old Vortex back in 2000), what made tonight's gig particularly special was the appearance alongside Parker of three-quarters of the improvising supergroup Mujician, with bassist Paul Rogers and drummer Tony Levin filling out the quartet.

Ever since Rogers succumbed to the economic climes of rural France, chances to hear his customized 7-string bass being put through its paces have proved few. A view widely shared it seemed, as the Vortex was full to the gunnels with several musicians among the standing room only crowd. With Dunmall and Rogers arriving only 20 minutes before the off, there was no time for discussion, which mattered not one jot to these veteran improvisors. Though not frequent collaborators (even Mujician gigs are rarities) there was empathy to spare and the group aesthetic of listening free improvisation meant that they could turn on a sixpence with only the merest cue apparent. Together their two sets comprised some 80 minutes of seamless group interplay towards the jazz end of the free spectrum, which Parker in his introduction dedicated to trumpeter Ian Carr who had died two days previously.

After a thunderous cymbal crash, the two tenors chuntered effectively for a gentle start, moving through the gears as Levin increased the intensity, until they were both flying by the seat of their pants in an intricate dogfight. Dunmall was the first to break free, spiraling above Rogers' gut-wrenchingly deep-bass twangs, and Levin's sometimes in and sometimes out accompaniment, becoming increasingly animated, ending each phrase with an upward squawk. At the conclusion came one of those seamless transitions with both the saxophonist and Rogers stopping to allow Levin to take drum solo, working slowly around his kit, extracting sharp sounds, with an almost quiet desperation. Rogers added an alternating pattern on his 7-string bass, which gradually lured both horns back to the fray for some near melodic dialogue, before it was Parker's turn to fly with abstracted mid-range lines, larded with tonal distortion. And so it went on, with an organic ebb and flow fascinating to witness.

At the start of the second set a conversational quartet evolved into a duet between Dunmall and Rogers, with Levin adding an insistent cymbal pattern. As Dunmall went for broke, Rogers grabbed his bow to saw manically, while bending his strings at the same time. Dunmall worked out of the depths, repeatedly building and then rebuilding, shimmying and rocking as the emotion poured out in a continuous stream of notes, stoked by Levin's powerful crescendos.

The saxophonists egged each other on, with their dual journeys morphing from empathy to madcap tag chases, only to end on the same sustained long note. Parker's tone was the thicker and throatier of the two, but each excelled in the avant saxophone idiom, leavening multiphonics, high chirrups and blurts, with delicate keypad pattering and sinuous sonic tracery. Parker introduced Dunmall as "Alice Coltrane's second favorite saxophonist" (in reference to the reedman's formative time spent working with the late pianist/harpist), pausing before quipping, "After me that is," for which he quickly apologized amid the laughter. Fact is both men dig into Trane's bag on occasion and unashamedly so, notwithstanding their experimental work elsewhere, with Parker almost bluesy at times.

Paul Rogers covered every inch of the fingerboard, and then some, on his custom-made 7-string bass, which resembles an unholy cross between a lute and a small canoe. He worked a panoply of innovative technique, strumming one way with his lower hand and the opposite way with the upper to produce a variable drone, or koto-like sounds, by flicking the strings with his fingers, but it was his arco work that really captured the imagination. High harmonics contrasted with lines in the cello range as his quicksilver bow flashed from side to side, while he stepped from foot to foot, intense concentration imprinted on his face.

At the end of the second set, the two tenors sparred in an accelerated call and response, where a phrase was barely begun before the other was onto it. Levin grinned as he listened, while Rogers stood, eyes closed, bow poised hovering, until they launched in to create another wall of sound. Finally repeated drum rolls signaled an imminent conclusion, the tenors quietened and the rhythm stilled for uproarious applause from the packed house. As they were packing away, Parker glanced out at the audience who were still lingering. "Didn't we play for long enough?" he commented. "As Ronnie Scott used to say, you don't have to go home, you just have to get out of here." Eventually we did, their wonderful concatenation still ringing in our mind's ear.

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