Evan Parker Residency with McPhee, Shipp, Zorn, Courvoisier, et al. at The Stone, NYC

Gordon Marshall By

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Evan Parker Residency
The Stone
East Village, Manhattan
New York, New York
October 1-16, 2009

Rivaled only, in recent memory, by Cecil Taylor's 1988 "Kongresshalle" collaborations in Berlin,* Evan Parker's residency at The Stone in East Village, Manhattan was, like those, a string of assorted and inventive pairings. In this case the participants were largely fixtures of the "downtown scene," the term given to a loosely associated scattering of Manhattan jazz, and post-jazz, musicians challenging fixed form and genre in the idiom—rather than the veteran "free" European artists who accompanied Taylor at his storied festival. Though the Parker outings will doubtless be the stuff of fable for those fortunate enough to have witnessed them, apparently the press saw fit largely to bypass the genuinely historic occasion.**

A shame? Or a blessing? Depends on your point of view. It was all unflaggingly challenging, exhilarating, and raw; raw to the quick, and naked. Parker played his soul out, to the point of literal exhaustion—but at each point bounding forth again out of what he calls "musician narcolepsy," and rising to the occasion of mixing and matching his style to that of his accompanists. He went from crystalline with new composer Wu Fei, to outright bluesy with Matthew Shipp and William Parker. If it was concert, it was also drama, of the most human, highest order.

October 7

Drama as such, Joe McPhee stole the show when he traded sax licks with Parker on Wednesday the 7th. He was Parker's most exuberant partner throughout the entire festival. McPhee played against type, restraining his sometimes ferocious approach for a gentle, warm, calibrated—and even humorous—pas de deux with the feature legend. To be sure, McPhee is a legend in his own right, and he (re) demonstrated the fact that night in early October. Toni Morrison once said that the black artist must never show a sweat, however excruciating the effort that goes into their art. In his duo with Parker, this creator was like the manager of a busy store on a hectic day, harried to the max, but never failing to keep a smile on his face, as if to make the customers happy.

October 10

The Shipp/Parker trio fell on the 10th, almost two weeks into the festival. Evan introduced the set with a hoarse voice, to the point where one worried for his health. There was no sign of ailing in his dialogues with Shipp and Parker, however. This was Parker's single best performance of the nine I caught. On tenor, he belted out roller-coasting scales like dissonant field hollers, but with a touch of melody—and a touch of premeditation, too: Parker is known for his ethical aesthetic of spontaneous structuring, but those up close could see him fingering silently the stops on his instrument as he laid out for bass and piano. Throughout, bassist Wiliam Parker calm, durable and funky; and pianist Matt Shipp slipped, skipped, and clustered in bluesy, impressionist pastels.

Milford Graves, George Lewis, Mark Dresser, Gerry Hemingway, Evan Parker, John Zorn

Other highlights—and shades of blue—were evoked in the duo with veteran percussionist Milford Graves, which brought us back to the hard-edged sound of pioneering sixties "free." Graves mysteriously implied beat with seemingly random slaps of cymbal and kit, while Parker gave a possible meaning to that definition-resistant concept of Ornette Coleman—harmolodics—by breaking up melodic fragments into a kind of sonic schrapnel.

The set with trombonist George Lewis was downright magical, with the latter processing both of their lines through a computer, echoes and distortions creating festive bell tones; appropriate, considering this was a festival. And the trio with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Gerry Hemingway was grand and classic, with a heavy swing feel coming from the ensemble, soldered by Parker's trademark circular breathing. It was like the prow of a great ship rocking.

The duo with John Zorn was everything you would have expected, formidable and impressive; and to be sure, not even its brevity detracted from it. That said, it was more of an effervescent treat than an indelibly memorable act of soul-searching, as were the evenings with McPhee, Shipp/Parker, and Lewis.

Sylvie Courvoisier, Evan Parker and Wu Fei

Sylvie Courvoisier reminds me of an action painter. Watching her splash notes and chords on the keyboard is as wonderful as hearing what she plays. Her rapport with Parker was certainly astonishing, though a little chilly. And when Parker performed with Wu Fei, it was a fascinating exhibition of East meets West— although they didn't quite meet in the end. There was a lack of confluence: sometimes haunting, sometimes idyllic, but overall uneven. At the same time, it marks a new challenge for both partners. We are as privileged, perhaps, to see this working-out of kinks in communication as we are to hear finally lacquered products: it may mark new beginnings for both the gifted new artist, and the massively accomplished master.

Fait accompli

The grand gentleman truly let himself go for this two-week event, shooting new colors out like a Roman candle, fresh ones to which even his dedicated listeners may not be accustomed. Parker has gone through many fixed periods of focus during his four-plus decade career, but he has never stopped evolving.

*John Zorn's 50th Birthday celebration was of equal stature, but of a different nature: a reunion of sorts with familiar (though fabulous) faces.

**I should except the redoubtable Martin Longley's coverage in this very publication...

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