Evan Parker's Psi: Fifty Not Out

John Eyles By

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With its three latest releases, saxophonist Evan Parker's Psi label has reached the significant milestone of having put out fifty CDs. In their way, the three latest CDs typify the label's output since its first release in late 2001; that output has several strands running through it, and each of these releases continues one strand. Over the years Psi has maintained a fine balance between new releases and reissues (many of the latter being former Incus label releases), between Evan Parker's own music and that of others, and between better-known names and up-and-coming performers. In the process, the label has built up a catalogue that would be the envy of many labels and developed a highly distinctive niche for itself.

Evan Parker
Conic Sections

The first of the new releases is a reissue of a Parker solo soprano sax album recorded in 1989. Unusually for a Psi reissue, it was not originally released on Incus but on the Ah Um label; it is described as "the follow up to The Snake Decides" (Incus, 1986)—itself one of Parker's finest solo albums, reissued by Psi back in 2003. Conic Sections was recorded live in the Holywell Music Room in Oxford. Opened in 1748, this high-roofed room was the first purpose built concert hall in the world, and has its own distinctive acoustics. Parker remarked back in 1993, "I was pushed away from the kind of playing I had in mind; it seemed as though the room itself had something in mind too."

In each of the five pieces here, Parker engages in a dialogue with the room, in response to the selective reflections bounced back at him. Each piece ends up having the feel of a struggle as much as a dialogue, as Parker employs circular breathing to generate a barrage of notes in response to the room. Along the way, there are subtle twists and turns, feints and parries, as Parker seemingly extracts every potential nuance out of each situation before eventually—inevitably—letting the room have the last word.

In its relentless forward momentum, driven on in response to the reflections from the room's surfaces, this album is a portent of things to come, notably Lines Burnt In Light (Psi, 2001), the extraordinary Parker solo performance that was Psi's first release. There is a view that Parker's solo soprano albums became formulaic around the time of Conic Sections; pay it no heed. Taken as a whole, Parker's sequence of solo albums from Saxophone Solos in 1975 through to Lines Burnt In Light in 2001 remains a monumental achievement, with Conic Sections a vital part of it, as essential as all the others. Listen and wonder.

Furt Plus

Next up is Equals by Furt Plus, the second part of the SWR radio recording that featured on 2007's wonderful Spin Networks. Furt—the duo of electronicists Richard Barrett and Paul Obermayer—is one of Psi's success stories; this is their fourth release on the label, all excellent. The "plus" indicates that the duo are here joined by six highly experienced and individual improvisers. Rather than them all playing together, Furt use sound samples of the six as source material that they then manipulate...often out of all recognition.

On each of the six "Solution" tracks, Furt are joined by only one other player; in effect each piece is a mini concerto for one of the six, giving them very different sounds and moods. The two that immediately grab the attention are those featuring the vocalists—"Solution A" with Phil Minton, "Solution D" Ute Wassermann—testament to the enduring appeal of the human voice as well as to the panoply of extraordinary wordless sounds that these vocalists can conjure up. Minton sounds as endearingly demented as ever—at times one could believe he suffered from Tourette's Syndrome! Furt provide a suitably madcap setting that fits Minton's contribution like a glove.

Over a longer time, the other "Solution" tracks reveal their more subtle delights, and all show themselves to be excellent. The featured instrument is allowed some space, enough to colour a piece, but Furt compete with it, sometimes drown it out and never treat it with respect or reverence. So, not your typical concertos. The final track, "Zagreb," is Furt alone, live. It is a typical Furt piece—rapidly changing, unpredictable, hyperactive, funny, fun. This isn't easy listening. Thank God.

Fred Van Hove

The last of the three—and maybe the best, time will tell—continues a strand of Psi releases by under-recorded veteran European improvisers, all long time associates of Parker; these have included Gerd Dudek, Kenny Wheeler, Paul Rutherford and Rudi Mahall. Pianist Fred Van Hove first played with Parker some forty years ago on Peter Brotzmann's classic Machine Gun (BRO, 1968). Journey, a solo piano recording, was recorded in concert in 2007 at Jazz Mulhouse. The music consists of one unbroken fifty-two minute improvisation. It crackles with energy and vitality as Van Hove pours out torrents of notes—yet the music often has a sense of calm and tranquillity that belies the rapid-fire delivery. Certainly, the piece has a clear structure and order without losing its spontaneous feel.

As a pianist, Van Hove is not immediately reminiscent of any other pianist. If anything, his relentless energy reminds one of Parker's own solo sax playing, the difference being that Van Hove's two hands sometimes play together, but sometimes diverge, with his left hand venturing into the lower reaches of the piano to great effect. Even passages of prepared piano are integrated into the whole, never sounding—as they can in less practised hands—like an obligatory interlude; rather, Van Hove's prepared piano displays the same drive and verve as the rest of his playing.

These three releases reveal Psi to be in rude health after some seven years of existence. Roll on the next fifty.

Tracks and Personnel

Conic Sections

Tracks: Conic Sections 1 - 5.

Personnel: Evan Parker: soprano saxophone.


Tracks: Solution A; Solution B; Solution C; Solution D; Solution E; Solution F; Zagreb.

Personnel: Furt (Richard Barrett and Paul Obermayer): electronics; John Butcher: soprano and tenor saxophones; Rhodri Davies: Celtic and concert harps; Paul Lovens: percussion; Phil Minton: voice; Wolfgang Mitterer: prepared piano and electronics; Ute Wassermann: voice.


Tracks: Journey part 1; Journey part 2.

Personnel: Fred Van Hove: piano.


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