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Evan Parker's Psi Label Celebrates First Ten Years

John Eyles By

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November 2011 marks the tenth anniversary of saxophonist Evan Parker's Psi label. Its first release, the fine Parker solo album Lines Burnt in Light, was recorded on October 11 2001 and released within a month of recording. In the following decade, the label released a total of 83 CD's of which 14 were re-releases including 13 that first came out on Parker's former label, Incus. In the past five years, the number of re-releases has steadily dwindled, although some significant Incus recordings still remain to be re-released.

Of the label's output, roughly half features the playing of Parker himself, in a variety of settings from solo to large ensembles such as London Improvisers Orchestra (LIO) and Hans Koller's big band. Over the decade, releases on Psi have gradually become more adventurous and exploratory with an increasing number including electronics and manipulation.

Psi's four latest releases provide a snapshot of the label's output and a timely reminder of its quality and eclecticism:

Tony Marsh

Quartet Improvisations



Quartet Improvisations was recorded at St Peter's, Whitstable, in recent years a favourite recording location for Psi because of its warm acoustic. As always, the sound quality here is exquisite. For his second Psi album, percussionist Tony Marsh put together a quartet that is a subset of LIO. The blend of Neil Metcalfe's flute, Alison Blunt's violin and Hannah Marshall's cello with his restrained percussion creates a soundscape in which all four instruments are distinctly audible throughout. It retains a gentle beauty without sacrificing variety or invention.

The album lives up to its title; on a programme of 12 relatively short pieces—the longest six and a half minutes, the shortest one and a half—the players engage in four-way improvisations in which not one of the instruments is tied to a particular role. In particular, the strings come to the fore as often as they play a supporting role. Marsh does not just act as a time-keeper but improvises as an equal member of the quartet. His interjections ensure that the exchanges between flute, violin and cello do not become too polite or genteel—not that there is any great risk of that, lyrical as their playing is.

The overwhelming impression that the music leaves is of four musicians who are comfortable together and know each other's playing well; their years together in LIO and on the London improv scene show. No one player is dominant, with the focus constantly shifting onto different members. Simply lovely.

Misha Mengelberg & Evan Parker It Won't Be Called Broken Chair Psi


The Psi catalogue is liberally sprinkled with albums by musicians from continental Europe who are veterans of the first generation of free improvisers—notably, Gerd Dudek, Han Bennink, Alexander von Schlippenbach, Fred Van Hove—reflecting Parker's own links with the continent. So it was no surprise to come across this 2006 duo performance pairing Parker on tenor with Misha Mengelberg's piano, recorded at Bimhuis, Amsterdam, in February 2006.

The album's two extended tracks together provide over an hour of music. The absence of any other instrumentation allows the two to engage totally in each other's playing. Without bass or drums, the music retains its pulse throughout with both players sustaining it, something seemingly second nature to them. The music flows continuously as an ongoing dialogue between piano and saxophone, with the two players matching each other's peaks and troughs, neither being leader or follower.

There are prolonged passages where the pair simultaneously explore similar territory in parallel, sparking ideas off each other; but the music then subtly evolves onto new territory with neither seeming to force it in a particular direction, each going with the flow. Both players are models of economy, spinning out a succession of well-formed phrases without a wasted note between them—two master musicians on top form. The end result is highly satisfying

There are so many fine releases in the Psi catalogue that it is almost impossible to select the ten best. However, in time this disc will surely be seen to merit its place in any such list.

Kolkowski Wassermann

Squall Line



The pairing of Aleks Kolkowski and Ute Wassermann is a fitting one, as each of them is an idiosyncratic musician and performer, with Kolkowski favouring such historical instruments as Stroh violin, musical saw and wax cylinder recorder while Wasserman's versatile voice is augmented by her extensive collection of bird calls and whistles. (Squall Line's packaging includes photographs of the horned violin, and of that collection, which numbers close to 30 whistles.) Since they first played together as an improvising duo in 2006, the duo have appeared in many different contexts and developed the sort of understanding of each other that leads to tight improvising.

Recorded in St Peter's, Whitstable, (again) in July 2009, Squall Line consists of 14 tracks varying in length from two to seven minutes. Interestingly, the titles of the album and some of its tracks—"Sudestada," "Squamish," "Pamperos"---refer to the names of climatic phenomena, making this the second Psi album of 2011 for which this is true, the first being Vents by Agustí Fernández and Joan Saura. Unlike Vents though, Squall Line does not feature music that is as tempestuous as some of those titles.

The relative brevity of many tracks means that the musicians have time for one idea to be developed and that they often do not evolve (in contrast, say, to those of the Parker-Mengelberg duo, above). At worst, this can give the album an episodic, disjointed feel. In addition, the combination of wordless vocals, whistles, strings and musical saw favours higher frequencies resulting in a soundscape that could often be mistaken for electronically generated tones, making it quite emotionally chilly. On the credit side, the empathy between Kolkowski and Wassermann is evident throughout, making their reactions to each other rapid and appropriate, so that their different strands of sound become entwined and occasionally indistinguishable. As with so many Psi releases, both intriguing and pleasing..

Grutronic and Evan Parker

Together In Zero Space



In 2009, Essex Foam Party, the first Psi release by Grutronic, was part of a wave of albums which emphasised the extent to which electronics and manipulation had entered the label's catalogue. Later that year, the foursome was joined by Evan Parker in concert at Zero Space in Bratislava as part of the tenth Next Festival of Advanced Music—hence the somewhat odd title of this album.

The four members of Grutronic employ a range of instruments, predominantly electronic, to generate a constantly shifting array of sounds. At its fastest, the focus shifts between the different members very rapidly, requiring lightning fast reflexes of the players—and the listener. There is rarely a moment's rest or tranquility as short notes and phrases flash around. As an aural spectacle, it is hugely impressive but—even in concert—it can often be difficult to divine who is responsible for a particular sound. Just as entertainingly, such hyperactivity is offset by more sedate passages, sometimes characterised by electronic farting sounds and twittering. In his sleeve notes, Richard Scott draws parallels between Grutronic's music and that of John Stevens' Spontaneous Music Ensemble, coining the phrase "molecular improvisation" to describe it.

On Essex Foam Party, the quartet was joined by guests including Orphy Robinson on vibes; these served to add acoustic sounds—and, hence, a touch of humanity—to the otherwise electronic soundscape. The addition of Evan Parker serves a similar purpose here. With his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, Parker has become adept at blending acoustic instruments with electronics, to the benefit of both. Here, although his soprano saxophone is not processed or treated, his playing becomes an integral part of the totality, its tone clearly distinguishing it from the surrounding electronics; in this respect, it acts as a welcome human voice. To play this album back to back with the Mengelberg duo, above, is to hear how versatile and flexible a player Parker is, always recognisably himself but always fitting into his surroundings.

After ten years, it is onward and upward for Psi—and for Parker.

Tracks and Personnel

Quartet Improvisations

Tracks: Quartet 112-5; Quartet 101-1; Quartet 103-3; Quartet 204-7; Quartet 102-2; Quartet 207-9; Quartet 203-6; Quartet 208-10; Quartet 206-8; Quartet 111-4; Quartet 209-11; Quartet 209-12.

Personnel: Neil Metcalfe: flute; Alison ~Blunt: violin; Hannah Marshall: cello; Tony Marsh: percussion.

It Won't Be Called Broken Chair

Tracks: Broken Chair; At The Magician's.

Personnel: Misha Mengelberg: piano; Evan Parker: tenor saxophone.

Squall Line

Tracks: Skvala; Sudestada; Squamish; Weiße bö; Boorga; Pamperos; Polar Low; Blunk; Bow Echo 1; Bayamo; Brubru; Nor'easter; Derecho; Bow Echo 2.

Personnel: Ute Wassermann: voice, whistles; Aleks Kolkowski: Stroh instruments, musical saw.

Together In Zero Space

Tracks: Filigree And Circuitry; Mesomerism In Rhythm.

Personnel: Stephen Grew: keyboard, processing; Richard Scott: wigi, buchla lightning, blippoo box; Nicholas Grew: transduction; David Ross: drosscillator; Evan Parker: soprano saxophone.


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