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Marc Ribot / Evan Parker / Han Bennink at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, June 14th

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Marc Ribot / Evan Parker / Han Bennink
Queen Elizabeth Hall
London, England
June 14, 2009

The Moment's Energy, a new ECM release from Evan Parker, may be a slight disappointment from an artist who has been acclaimed by some as the heir apparent to John Coltrane. Yet this appearance, part of London's Ornette Coleman-curated Meltdown festival, saw the sixty-something tenor and soprano player in first-rate form, particularly during an unaccompanied solo on the latter instrument. And he wasn't even the star of the show.


In visual terms, that honor went, somewhat predictably, to impish improv icon Han Bennink, surely the only man on the planet who can get away with sporting a bandanna in 2009. His playing, from textural brush- flicks to isolated, full-volume snare-thwacks, was inspired, though as usual in danger of being overshadowed by his famously exuberant stage act. One portion of the set saw him stage-left, pounding rhythms on a railing, before hurling a drumstick back at his kit from a full ten paces. Elsewhere, Bennink played cymbals with his feet and bounced sticks off the floor, before proceeding to deconstruct his own kit by way of a finale.


Even in the face of such antics, however, the most visually inconspicuous of the three musicians remained the prime focus. Hunched over his guitar opposite the upright Parker, Marc Ribot drew together diverse strands from what may appear a schizophrenic CV, incorporating as it does both experimental, punk- inspired work in the New York Downtown scene and session gigs stretching from Tom Waits and Elvis Costello to McCoy Tyner and Allen Toussaint. Tonight's arsenal included blues-rock noodles—not too many of those, thankfully—alongside primitivist scuzz chords and deceptively simple, repetitive motifs that recalled systems music. Loudest in the mix, Ribot also employed the most varied palette of the trio, and came closest to dictating the overall mood.


The true strength of the performance, however, lay in its musical democracy, a genuinely collective dynamic prevailing throughout. And despite the size of the personalities at work—musical or otherwise—the playing remained tremendously sensitive, ebbing and flowing to such an extent that several passages could have been pre-composed. Endings, too, were on more than one occasion near-simultaneous (unfortunately, the grand finale was not just simultaneous but rather premature, just shy of 10 P.M.).

Yet the relative brevity of the set remains the sole complaint regarding a performance that featured some of the most accessible free improvisation this reviewer has ever witnessed. If that sounds pejorative, it's anything but; economy notwithstanding, there was certainly no dumbing down in evidence, the intensity levels at times reaching those of the most ferocious Brotzmann freak-out. Indeed, the performance served as an effective reminder that interminable macho free-blowing sessions, viscerally powerful as they can undoubtedly be, are only one way for free jazz to approach transcendence.


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