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Organ duo releases from St. Peter’s, Whitstable

John Eyles By

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St. Peter's church in the English seaside town of Whitstable, Kent, has become one of the favourite recording locations for saxophonist Evan Parker's Psi label. Reasons for this center around the acoustics of the church plus the presence in Whitstable of ace recording engineer Adam Skeating, who repeatedly demonstrates his ability to perfectly capture the church's characteristic resonances. Now, two duo recordings in Psi's latest batch of releases shift the focus onto another of the church's attractions—its organ.

According to the St. Peter's church website, the organ was installed in 1930, having originally been built in 1902 for the notorious mental institution known as Bedlam (actually the Bethlem Royal Hospital, which now houses the Imperial War Museum in South London). The cover photographs of Sten Sandell and Veryan Weston at the organ reveal the instrument to be on a homely scale, small in comparison to many grander church organs, a factor which is conveyed in the resulting music.

Evan Parker & Sten Sandell

Psalms

Psi

2010

In keeping with its title, all six of the album's track names are psalm numbers. But atheists, agnostics, humanists et al can safely enter; these tracks are all instrumental and bear no relation to the psalms of David. So, thankfully, this "Psalm 3" does not declare, "O Lord how many are my foes! How many rise up against me!" Instead, it opens with Parker and Sandell in restrained mood. Parker's short phrases on tenor leave plenty of space for Sandell. Knowingly or otherwise, the organist avoids any music with religious associations—no swelling vox humana here—mainly opting to explore the upper registers of the instrument, conducting a dialogue with Parker. The piece coheres and gathers pace as the two become attuned to the space and to the sound of each other within it. Church organists have usually been able to improvise, but typically in a more stately, slowly-evolving manner than anything here.

The resonances of St. Peter's are heard to best effect when a phrase is given time to resound without overlapping interference from further music. There are fine judgments to be made in that process, with the possibility of erring in either direction. Mostly, Parker and Sandell walk the tightrope perfectly, exploiting the acoustics to enhance their playing without breaking their flow. Only on the closing track, "Psalm 8," do the acoustics not get space to be heard fully. By then the pair are positively playful together, gambolling their way through a jaunty seven minutes that radiates their pleasure, with Sandell making the organ sound closer to a cinema or fairground instrument than anything ever heard in church. Lovely.

Tony Marsh

Stops

Psi

2010

Although Stops is credited to drummer Tony Marsh alone, he is joined on 11 of the 15 tracks by Veryan Weston playing organ, an instrument on which he has history. Those duo pieces are punctuated by four Marsh solo tracks that were recorded a week after them. The duo playing varies between the two engaged in equal exchanges and Weston being more in a lead role supported by Marsh's drumming. As an album, it is varied and hangs together well.

The pairing of Marsh with Weston makes for an interesting comparison with that of Parker and Sandell. Whether as a partner or as support, Marsh is an energetic hive of activity, constantly filling-in, probing, goading and commenting. Weston responds in kind . Like Standell above, he avoids churchy music and favours the organ's higher notes, which he explores extensively. Unlike Standell, he will slip in rapidly articulated passages of play which give his music an appealing sense of busyness and excitement. A perfect example is Weston's opening salvo on "Stop Off." (Well done to whichever creative minds came up with all the track titles containing the word "stop.")

There is not as much music that resounds in the way it did with Parker and Standell, but Marsh's use of his tom-tom and the occasional sustained chord from Weston give their music sufficient gravitas for the location

Separately, each album is recommended, but as a complementary pair they are irresistible.

Tracks and Personnel

Psalms

Tracks: Psalm 3; Psalm 4; Psalm 2; Psalm 5; Psalm 6; Psalm 8.

Personnel: Evan Parker: tenor saxophone; Sten Sandell: church organ.

Stops

Tracks: Stop Time 1; Stop-Go; Stop Off; Glottal Stop; Stop Time 2; Stop Down; Stop Out; Stop Time 3; Stop Thief!; Stop At Nothing; Stop Press; Stop Watch; Stop Time 4; Stop Short; Full Stop.

Personnel: Tony Marsh: percussion; Veryan Weston: church organ (2-4, 6, 7, 9-12, 14, 15).

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