If you've never heard Evan Parker play a saxophone, there is little by way of comparison that can prepare you for his visceral, otherworldly sound.
The way Parker tells it, it was science fiction that first drew him into the orbit of free improvisation, the challenging, rarified musical form of which the 73-year-old Englishman is one of the world’s leading exponents. As a young saxophonist in London during the swinging sixties, he was approached by a friend to record a soundtrack for a student film at the Royal College of Art.
“It was a science fiction film,” says the genial musician, “and the director said ‘I want some futuristic music’. So we did some what I suppose you would call ‘free’ playing, just exploring every possibility of abstraction, thinking that was our best guess about what music in the future would sound like.”
It turned out to be what Parker's future would sound like. The film brought him to the attention of drummer John Stevens, founder of the influential Spontaneous Music Ensemble, and the young saxophonist was soon drawn into the febrile free scene that was developing among a core group of British jazz musicians. His first recording with Stevens in 1968 also featured guitarist Derek Bailey, bassist Dave Holland and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, all musicians who would play major roles in the development of the art form in the coming decades.
In many ways it was a dream start, but even in the halcyon days of the British welfare state, there were easier ways for a musician to make a living than as a free improviser. So what drove him towards the avant garde?
"We were using the term 'modern jazz', and the 'modern' aspect was just as important as the 'jazz' aspect. If it's going to be modern, it has to say something that hasn't been said before. Originally, I took my direction from trying to play like John Coltrane, and then I realised that this won't do, because the whole point about what makes Coltrane great is that he found his own voice. You're going to have to find your own voice if its going to mean anything at all to you, let alone anybody else. So I started to dip my toe into the idea of 'What remains to be done?' 'What comes next?' 'What are the emotional next steps?'"
He compares the process to the trajectory of one of his literary heroes. "I know everybody likes Samuel Beckett now, but back then, you had to work a little harder to find his stuff or to know about it, and that was a powerful influence. How does that translate into music? I don't know, but you're talking about somebody that just needed to go beyond being a bit like James Joyce. "
So would it be fair to say that Evan Parker is to John Coltrane as Samuel Beckett is to James Joyce? Parker bursts into self-deprecating laughter.
“Ha. You’ve got your headline. What more can I tell you?”
The life of a free improviser is certainly a precarious one, and though Parker may be regarded as a minor deity in free jazz circles, it hasn't exactly made him rich. His father, a hard-working man with little interest in music, would have preferred if his son "got a proper job", but Parker remembers the moment, after a concert he performed in the mid-1970s with US saxophonist Steve Lacy and Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg, when his father seemed to resign himself to his son's career.
“It was the only concert of mine that he ever came to,” Parker says, without bitterness. “And I don’t consider that a problem. It was fine. I only want people to come that want to come. Anyway, after the concert, he was talking to Steve and Misha, and he asked them quietly, was I any good? And they both quietly told him, ‘Yes, your son is really quite good’, and then I think he was relieved.” Parker pauses for a moment before he adds, “Mind you, it didn’t make him come to any more of my concerts.”
If Parker still regularly performs in ensembles and duos (such as his upcoming collaboration with Irish pianist Paul G Smyth on March 12th), he has also become particularly noted as a solo performer. But if a free jazz ensemble is all about the communication and interaction between the players, where does the inspiration come from in a solo performance?
‘Sense of layering’
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately,” he says. “And the fact is that the solo music I play usually develops through a quite complex sense of layering, so two or three things happening at the same time, and I think that’s how you substitute for the other players; somehow you have two voices, or two of three different elements of your own voice, speaking to one another, and that generates the situation that requires a willingness to improvise, to change the plan.”
A Parker performance is not for the faint-hearted, an intense experience, requiring effort and concentration from the listener as well as the performer. But like his beloved Beckett, it’s the sort of art that, once you get it, you really get it.
“Some people have no ear for music at all,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’s all noise to them anyway, so to them, I’m okay. I’m just another musician who’s up there making a noise, showing off and making a fool of himself. I think that’s about half the population, really, if they’re honest.
“But the ones that like music, mostly think that what I’m doing isn’t music at all. And in a way they’re right. It’s music that’s trying to find out what music can be.”
- Evan Parker plays with pianist Paul G Smyth as part of the Spectrum festival on March 12th at the Opium Rooms, Wexford Street, Dublin. Earlier in the day,at 2pm in Whelan's, he will participate in a public discussion with fellow British free jazz pioneer bassist Barry Guy. improvisedmusic.ie.