Evan Parker Trio The Vortex
July 16, 2009
"Support your local heroes!" is an injunction that should be familiar to every jazz fan. And that's what the Vortex Jazz Bar does on a regular basis by giving saxophone master Evan Parker a slot, usually on the last Thursday of every month. Though he has redefined the art of the possible on the saxophone, particularly the soprano, it is usually the tenor which Parker wields on these monthly gigs. Parker is at liberty to choose his line-up and rotates around a growing roster of British talent in his selection. Sometimes other commitments affect the timing, and that might explain this mid-month performance with one of his more regular settings in a trio with John Edwards on bass and Tony Marsh on drums.
Though he records prolifically, Parker's releases rarely feature these bread-and-butter assemblages. A Glancing Blow (Clean Feed, 2005), by the trio of Parker, Edwards and U.S. percussionist Chris Corsano, is one of the few to have made it to disc, although Foxes Foxed, with Steve Beresford, John Edwards and Louis Moholo-Moholo, occasionally appears and has been previously documented on its eponymous album (Emanem, 1999) and Naan tso (psi, 2005). But it seems the exception. For instance, Parker has fronted bands with fellow saxophone giant Paul Dunmall on several occasions, but none of these small groupings has made it past the record producer's door since 1993.
That shouldn't be taken as a sign that the quality is insufficiently high, but more that Parker is perhaps looking for exceptional reasons for unleashing new recordings on an overwhelmed record-buying public. For sure, none of his recent outings, such as The Moment's Energy (ECM, 2008) by his Electro- Acoustic Ensemble or Free Zone Appleby 2007 (psi, 2008) by a trio with Ned Rothenberg and Paolo Angeli, would have prepared the audience for this night's two continuous 40-minute sets of absorbing unfettered improvisation informed by the syntax of jazz.
Both Edwards and Marsh are well-versed in this vernacular. Edwards is now a mainstay on the London improvising scene, following his emergence in the early 1990s. He has become a regular collaborator with Parker in many groupings and recently released a well-received album of solo bass on the saxophonist's own imprint Volume (psi, 2008). Marsh first came into view in the 1970s with jazz-rock band Major Surgery alongside saxophonist Don Weller, but has since featured with a diverse cast including Harry Beckett, Howard Riley and Paul Dunmall. He first appeared on record with Parker in some of the Freedom of the City documents from the early 2000s, and can be heard on the reedman's label to good effect in duet with saxophonist Ray Warleigh on rue victor masse (psi, 2008).
Marsh was set up early and on-stage, putting his kit through its paces even before the rest of the band arrived, so self-absorbed that he was seemingly unaware of the audience drifting in. Listening intently to the sonic signature of each of his cymbals when struck edge on, and their relationship one to another, it was like a bonus solo percussion concert. Such concern with timbre formed a keystone of the trio's approach with each man carefully manipulating his own sound while in full awareness of what was going on around him.
After a slow start mingling three conversationally contrapuntal lines, no one held forth more than anyone else, and each paused and resumed as naturally as breathing. For his part, Parker traded in dense thick tendrils of sound, graced with occasional squeals at the end of a phrase, until Marsh increased the heat, and the saxophonist's lines blurred and merged into an unbroken flow with truncated phrases spat out with venom. Parker's musings were abstract even when the phrasing was conventional. His chirruping lines were finished with a burnished filigree tracery.
Parker almost touched on Trane at one point, but veered off before the quote became explicit, with his sinewy utterances full of muffled shading. Largely concentrating in the middle register of his horn, Parker rarely overblew, but still colored his lines using multiphonics and alternate fingerings.
Finishing his statement with a few almost melodic lines, Parker subsided to leave a bass and drum duet. Marsh and Edwards combined in a propulsive momentum independent of foot-tapping time. On occasion, both raced full pelt into oblivion creating almost a wall of sound. Though within it, little motifs and rhythmic flurries appeared briefly only to mutate and disappear.
Edwards bounced with an irrepressible energy as he played. As the going got intense, the bassist strummed and slapped with both hands. Though he used his bow sparingly tonight, on one occasion he drew out some tremendously vocally expressive lines by fiercely pulling the strings as he sawed. At one point he leavened his muscular pizzicato with bursts of slaps, double stops and strums in a fantastic rhythmic attack, alternated with slapping the body of his bass in time for an explosive energizing solo.
All three integrated extended technique into their flow without the slightest hint of grandstanding, as when Marsh was modulating the tone of his mallet on his snare by pressing with his stick and Edwards was vibrating his bass like a giant rubber band. Parker was drawn inexorably back in to circular breathe a distorted drone like a pesky giant mosquito, before breaking out into more conversational territory. If you hadn't been watching Parker carefully you might never have realized how the ability to select those particular sounds were the product of years of shedding before they could be so casually deployed.
In music such as this the players are always on the lookout for a suitable ending (and sometimes the mechanics of this are more exposed than others.) Marsh thought he had found one towards the end of the first set. Another passage of trading in fragments and thinking as one evolved into a feature for Marsh in his continual search for unconventional textures. He rattled a stick between the two halves of his hi-hat while holding them in close proximity with his other hand, then ended the section by tolling his sticks on the edges of his cymbals, just as he had in his preset warm up. It would have made a lovely ending. But Marsh wasn't sure if they had played for sufficient time so, in a wonderful combination of the sublime and mundane, checked his watch while continuing his strokes. It obviously wasn't a suitable juncture, as he moved into a fuller solo with stick in one hand and mallet in the other.
Although there was ample space for solo features, they arose naturally from the flow of events rather than by rote. In truth this was a trio music by three equals based on an almost preternatural communication. It was well illustrated by an episode stemming from a dense ensemble passage, suddenly quieting to leave Marsh rattling the shells of his drums. He was quickly joined by Edwards, plucking high squeaky harmonics from near the neck of his bass and Parker pattering on his keypads, leaving the listener to wonder where on earth such a change of direction came from and to marvel at the speed of thought which actioned it.
A solo spot for Marsh ensued, logically built up from the shell rattling, embroidered with a booming tom-tom motif, constructed in such a way that, though there was nothing remotely like tune or tempo, it still hung together as a coherent statement. While on occasion it might seem that Marsh steered the group interactions from the drum chair, he was so responsive to the others that the question of who was leading and who following became irrelevant, and changes of direction could come from anyone.
It was a great evening of music. Nothing out of the ordinary, perhaps, by their standards but remarkable nonetheless. And suitable reward for those who did choose to support these three local heroes on a quiet Tuesday evening in north London.