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Evan Parker at Cafe OTO

Evan Parker solo and in conversation

(Cafe OTO. 22 May 2021. Review and drawings by Geoff Winston)

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Evan Parker at Cafe OTO. Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2021. All rights reserved 

To celebrate the launch of the limited edition reissue, on Cafe OTO’s OTORUKU label, of Collected Solos, the original 1989 box set compilation of 4 Incus LPs and a cassette, Evan Parker performed solo sets of remarkable, undiluted intensity and invention at Cafe OTO either side of his illuminating conversation with John Coxon. In fact, what had been programmed as two sets and one discussion, expanded as the evening took off to become three sets and two dialogues.

This was only the third time he’d played to a live audience in over a year, so he’d been somewhat apprehensive. ‘It’s a very strange feeling to be playing for human beings in the same room,’ Evan explained. ‘I don’t really know what’s going to happen. I’m going to play two shorter sets …’ But once he started playing, confidence and concentration were fully in evidence and by the third, unscheduled set Parker was barnstorming on soprano sax, playing at the top of his game.

After the performance we chatted briefly (one of several conversations Parker had with those lucky enough to get tickets) and confirmed what he’d said to Coxon, that ‘practicing something is quite different to playing’.

There was scant let-up of Parker’s rapid flowing, multi-textured multiphonics which, with whirlpool intensity, drew listeners in to its vortex. Parker simultaneously played differentiated rhythms, figures and reps, and spontaneously introduced brief episodes of relaxed calm, with drops and leaps in register, all bound up in a route entirely unplanned. The demands of his bird-like call-and-response passages (avian and Parker, as in Charlie) and the need to maintain the integrity of the art of performance, perhaps the ultimate justification, were sustained by his total immersion in its execution. He told the audience that he’d been so absorbed in the playing that he’d lost any sense of time passing.

Evan Parker at Cafe OTO. Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2021. All rights reserved 

The conversations with Coxon were between two like-minded musicians, with Coxon responsible for a handful of Parker’s key recordings, notably Evan Parker with Birds on his and Ashley Wales’ Treader label. Coxon guided the discussion sensitively, ensuring that Parker spoke about each of the four albums as well as his journey and the impacts of other musicians and recordings. Parker notably described Monoceros as a completely honest album, recorded by direct-cut process, straight to the disc master, in situ.

The discussion was joined by occasional collaborator with Parker, radical saxophonist, Seymour Wright, who, as his bio says, ‘grew up listening to Evan Parker’s radical reshaping of the saxophone’ and who, Evan mentioned, ‘takes an interest in minutiae’. This led to, amongst other things a discussion of how cane and synthetic reeds can affect sound quality, noting that late in life, Steve Lacy shaved cane reeds right down to be very soft, whereas ‘classical players prefer harder reeds’.

Evan explained that the red design on the cover label of the box set is a Taoist talisman to vitalise the tongue made from drops of blood, similar to the patterns on the floor made by blood which flowed through Evan’s saxophone after his tongue was lightly cut by synthetic reeds while double tonguing, which he thought well represented the music.

He offered insights in to the techniques he has striven to perfect to achieve his unique musical language, including triple tonguing, cross-fingering, overtones and what he calls the broken column process. He explained how the relationship between a musician and their instrument shapes a performance. There is ‘a way that you can allow the instrument to make suggestions to you .. [by] listening to how it is responding to what you are doing.’

He gave credit to Derek Bailey for his part in the evolution of his practice, and cast John Stevens, whose generosity to emerging musicians was unstinting, as the lynchpin in his career. ‘Without John Stevens I wouldn’t be here.’ He picked out Bird and Diz, the 10 inch on Clef – ‘Not one moment in this record is wasted’ – Jimmy Giuffre’s Free Fall, Braxton’s For Alto and Bach’s cello suites – ‘I love that music.’

Coxon touched on the ‘mystical appeal’ in Parker’s playing which lent a metaphysical twist to proceedings. This allowed Parker to mention a hero of his, the visionary biologist Lynn Margulis whom he felt deserved a Nobel Prize. This led to consideration of left and right side of the brain activity, with an amused reference to Donald Rumsfeld’s statement, ‘There are things that we don’t know we don’t know’!

When asked about the physical toll over his career, Parker replied, ‘loss of control’, saying that the recent long period of inactivity (as in live performances) meant that in the final set, he was ‘going beyond the limits.’ Endurance was clearly the name of the game, and he mentioned the masking of inevitable ’moments of incompetence’, one of which was his struggle to define Dolphy’s Far Cry on this outing, which he happily quoted just before he put his sax back in its case!

LINK: Cafe OTO’s OTOROKU label

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