April 8, 2014 1:07 pm

Evan Parker: Special 70th Birthday Celebration, Kings Place, London – review

Parker’s soprano saxophone blended with a 17-piece orchestra in this improvised performance

It’s nearly 50 years since a group of London-based jazz musicians dedicated themselves to the outrageous conceit that music of substance can be created entirely on the fly. Saxophonist Evan Parker was at the heart of it all, forging an exacting personal style rooted in American free jazz, yet investigating contemporary European influences and ancient world-classical traditions.

Parker is now an improvising iconoclast who avoids the routines of a well-established niche. Improvised music is generally associated with screechy horns, the clatter of drums and beepy electronics. But the centrepiece of this through-improvised 70th birthday performance was Parker’s soprano saxophone blending with a 17-piece orchestra dominated by strings. And freed from the murky acoustics of clubs and bars by the pristine sounds of Kings Place, they played so quietly that every scrape, ping and sonorous glide was clearly audible.

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The first half featured five ad hoc ensembles, and here established practices came more to the fore. The opening quartet, featuring a string trio and John Rangecroft’s clarinet, presented free improvisation with chamber music sonorities made more plangent by the singing tones of Philip Wachsmann’s violin. Rigorous, sparse and spiky, they set a high benchmark. Parker followed, his tenor sax flutters and stutters joined to John Edwards’ bass and guitarist John Russell’s quiet torrent of abstract lines and discords. The barely audible fade that ended the long-term acquaintances’ intense performance set a pattern that was broken only when the incident-packed last quartet, featuring pianist Django Bates and breathy trumpeter Percy Pursglove, delivered a dead-stop finish.

The second-half orchestral performance opened with Parker’s soprano sax warbles answered by a mutter of strings. Long ripples of notes were taken up and discarded and two bass players thrummed underneath. It was a mesmerising ebb-and-flow spectacle full of eddies and sideshows. Parker often sat out, happy to allow others to emerge from the throng. It ended with a simple clarinet figure hovering over single piano notes resonating in the lower register. Parker returned for a short and astounding solo ululation that modulated in tone without pause for breath and capped a near-perfect birthday bash.


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