ln The Human Province, Elias Canetti writes "lt is not enough to think, one also has to breathe. Dangerous are the thinkers who have not breathed enough." In Evan Parker's music, thought and breath are continuous, each the instrument and measure of the other.
Stuart Broomer, Coda 1995
Evan Parker was born in Bristol in 1944 and began to play the saxophone at the age of 14. Initially he played alto and was an admirer of Paul Desmond; by 1960 he had switched to tenor and soprano, following the example of John Coltrane, a major influence who, he would later say, determined "my choice of everything". In 1962 he went to Birmingham University to study botany but a trip to New York, where he heard the Cecil Taylor trio (with Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray), prompted a change of mind. What he heard was "music of a strength and intensity to mark me for life ... l came back with my academic ambitions in tatters and a desperate dream of a life playing that kind of music - 'free jazz' they called it then."
Parker stayed in Birmingham for a time, often playing with pianist Howard Riley. In 1966 he moved to London, became a frequent visitor to the Little Theatre Club, centre of the city's emerging free jazz scene, and was soon invited by drummer John Stevens to join the innovative Spontaneous Music Ensemble which was experimenting with new kinds of group improvisation. Parker's first issued recording was SME's 1968 Karyobin, with a line-up of Parker, Stevens, Derek Bailey, Dave Holland and Kenny Wheeler. Parker remained in SME through various fluctuating line-ups - at one point it comprised a duo of Stevens and himself - but the late 1960s also saw him involved in a number of other fruitful associations.
He began a long-standing partnership with guitarist Bailey, with whom he formed the Music Improvisation Company and, in 1970, co-founded Incus Records. (Tony Oxley, in whose sextet Parker was then playing, was a third co-founder; Parker left Incus in the mid-1980s.) Another important connection was with the bassist Peter Kowald who introduced Parker to the German free jazz scene. This led to him playing on Peter Brötzmann's 1968 Machine Gun, Manfred Schoof's 1969 European Echoes and, in 1970, joining pianist Alex von Schlippenbach and percussionist Paul Lovens in the former's trio, of which he is still a member: their recordings include Pakistani Pomade, Three Nails Left, Detto Fra Di Noi, Elf Bagatellen and Physics.
Parker pursued other European links, too, playing in the Pierre Favre Quartet (with Kowald and Swiss pianist Irene Schweizer) and in the Dutch Instant Composers Pool of Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink. The different approaches to free jazz he encountered proved both a challenging and a rewarding experience. He later recalled that the German musicians favoured a "robust, energy-based thing, not to do with delicacy or detailed listening but to do with a kind of spirit-raising, a shamanistic intensity. And l had to find a way of surviving in the heat of that atmosphere ... But after a while those contexts became more interchangeable and more people were involved in the interactions, so all kinds of hybrid musics came out, all kinds of combinations of styles."
A vital catalyst for these interactions were the large ensembles in which Parker participated in the 1970s: Schlippenbach's Globe Unity Orchestra, Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath, Barry Guy's London Jazz Composers Orchestra (LJCO) and occasional big bands led by Kenny Wheeler. In the late 70s Parker also worked for a time in Wheeler's small group, recording Around Six and, in 1980, he formed his own trio with Guy and LJCO percussionist Paul Lytton (with whom he had already been working in a duo for nearly a decade). This group, together with the Schlippenbach trio, remains one of Parker's top musical priorities: their recordings include Tracks, Atlanta, Imaginary Values, Breaths and Heartbeats, The Redwood Sessions and At the Vortex. In 1980, Parker directed an Improvisers Symposium in Pisa and, in 1981, he organised a special project at London's Actual Festival. By the end of the 1980s he had played in most European countries and had made various tours to the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. ln 1990, following the death of Chris McGregor, he was instrumental in organising various tributes to the pianist and his fellow Blue Notes; these included two discs by the Dedication Orchestra, Spirits Rejoice and lxesa.
Though he has worked extensively in both large and small ensembles, Parker is perhaps best known for his solo soprano saxophone music, a singular body of work that in recent years has centred around his continuing exploration of techniques such as circular breathing, split tonguing, overblowing, multiphonics and cross-pattern fingering. These are technical devices, yet Parker's use of them is, he says, less analytical than intuitive; he has likened performing his solo work to entering a kind of trance-state. The resulting music is certainly hypnotic, an uninterrupted flow of snaky, densely-textured sound that Parker has described as "the illusion of polyphony". Many listeners have indeed found it hard to credit that one man can create such intricate, complex music in real time. Parker's first solo recordings, made in 1974, were reissued on the Saxophone Solos CD in 1995; more recent examples are Conic Sections and Process and Reality, on the latter of which he does, for the first time, experiment with multi-tracking. Heard alone on stage, few would disagree with writer Steve Lake that "There is, still, nothing else in music - jazz or otherwise - that remotely resembles an Evan Parker solo concert."
While free improvisation has been Parker's main area of activity over the last three decades, he has also found time for other musical pursuits: he has played in 'popular' contexts with Annette Peacock, Scott Walker and the Charlie Watts big band; he has performed notated pieces by Gavin Bryars, Michael Nyman and Frederic Rzewski; he has written knowledgeably about various ethnic musics in Resonance magazine. A relatively new field of interest for Parker is improvising with live electronics, a dialogue he first documented on the 1990 Hall of Mirrors CD with Walter Prati. Later experiments with electronics in the context of larger ensembles have included the Synergetics - Phonomanie III project at Ullrichsberg in 1993 and concerts by the new EP2 (Evan Parker Electronic Project) in Berlin, Nancy and at the 1995 Stockholm Electronic Music Festival where Parker's regular trio improvised with real-time electronics processed by Prati, Marco Vecchi and Phillip Wachsmann. "Each of the acoustic instrumentalists has an electronic 'shadow' who tracks him and feeds a modified version of his output back to the real-time flow of the music."
The late 80s and 90s brought Parker the chance to play with some of his early heroes. He worked with Cecil Taylor in small and large groups, played with Coltrane percussionist Rashied Ali, recorded with Paul Bley: he also played a solo set as support to Ornette Coleman when Skies of America received its UK premiere in 1988. The same period found Parker renewing his acquaintance with American colleagues such as Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacy and George Lewis, with all of whom he had played in the 1970s (often in the context of London's Company festivals). His 1993 duo concert with Braxton moved John Fordham in The Guardian to raptures over "saxophone improvisation of an intensity, virtuosity, drama and balance to tax the memory for comparison".
Parker's 50th birthday in 1994 brought celebratory concerts in several cities, including London, New York and Chicago. The London performance, featuring the Parker and Schlippenbach trios, was issued on a highly-acclaimed two-CD set, while participants at the American concerts included various old friends as well as more recent collaborators in Borah Bergman and Joe Lovano. The NYC radio station WKCR marked the occasion by playing five days of Parker recordings. 1994 also saw the publication of the Evan Parker Discography, compiled by ltalian writer Francesco Martinelli, plus chapters on Parker in books on contemporary musics by John Corbett and Graham Lock.
Parker's future plans involve exploring further possibilities in electronics and the development of his solo music. They also depend to a large degree on continuity of the trios, of the large ensembles, of his more occasional yet still long-standing associations with that pool of musicians to whose work he remains attracted. This attraction, he explained to Coda's Laurence Svirchev, is attributable to "the personal quality of an individual voice". The players to whom he is drawn "have a language which is coherent, that is, you know who the participants are. At the same time, their language is flexible enough that they can make sense of playing with each other ... l like people who can do that, who have an intensity of purpose."
Such intensity of purpose has guided Parker's own work for over 30 years. lt is the main reason he is now widely acknowledged as "one of the music's greatest living instrumentalists" (The Times), "one of the world's finest ensemble improvisers" (Chicago Reader) and "one of the modern era's most original voices" (The Wire).
From Parliamentary Jazz Awards 2013
If you've ever been tempted by free improvisation, Parker is your gateway drug, wrote standup comedian and free-jazz fan Stewart Lee in The Guardian in 2010. He didnt mean Charlie Parker but Evan Parker, the British jazz saxophone revolutionary who transformed the language and techniques of the instrument in the late 1960s and has since become one of the most admired and influential saxophone improvisers on the planet. Parker has been rewriting the book on the sounds that can be made with a saxophone for almost half a century, developing a remarkable post-Coltrane technique that has allowed him to play counterpoint on what was designed as a single-line instrument, generate electronics-like textures acoustically, and build a personal soundscape that avoids conventional tunes but has its own arresting lyricism. Parker has worked with comparable revolutionaries like John Zorn and Anthony Braxton, and played in experimental electro-acoustic groups and contemporary-classical ensembles - but he has also brought a sharp edge to more orthodox jazz lineups led by Stan Tracey, Kenny Wheeler and by the Rolling Stones Charlie Watts, and the celebrated South African orchestra Brotherhood of Breath. He has also recorded with singer-songwriter Robert Wyatt, with TV comic Vic Reeves, and has lent his inimitable sound to the more pop-oriented contexts of Scott Walker, David Sylvian and Jah Wobble. Evan has also curated festivals and run his own record company.
Biographical notes by Steve Lake
Evan Parker (born in Bristol, 1944) took up the saxophone at the age of 14. Early influences included Paul Desmond, Eric Dolphy, and above all John Coltrane. After witnessing the Cecil Taylor Trio with Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray in full flood in New York in 1962 he was, as he says, "marked for life", converted to the intensities of free jazz. Back in England, he gradually found players to share his fervour, including John Stevens and the members of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble - Dave Holland, Kenny Wheeler, Paul Rutherford, Derek Bailey and others - and, importantly, Peter Kowald, who made the introductions to the German scene. Parker played on Peter Brötzmann's still dangerous 'Machine Gun' in '68 and, before the 60s had run their course, had also recorded with Manfred Schoof and Pierre Favre. In 1970 he joined the Alex von Schlippenbach Trio, of which he is still a member, and subsequently the Globe Unity Orchestra. By this point the hallmarks of his unique style were established, his combinations of circular breathing, tonguing, rhythm patterns, overtones and polytones making his sound instantly recognisable.
Free improvised music has accounted for most of Parker's activities over the last forty years, whether playing solo or in groups, but both jazz and art music composers have also deployed the arresting physicality of his sound as a contrasting and energising element. His saxophones have been heard inside jazz big bands led by Kenny Wheeler, Chris McGregor, Barry Guy, Stan Tracey and Charlie Watts and in the chamber music of Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, Frederic Rzewski and others.
A major force in European improvising, Parker has collaborated, too, with American innovators, amongst them Cecil Taylor, Paul Bley, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, George Lewis and Wadada Leo Smith. He has also been sought out by artists on the experimental fringe of pop music, and Scott Walker, Robert Wyatt, Annette Peacock, David Sylvian, Jah Wobble, Spring Heel Jack, and Squarepusher have all called upon the sonorities that only Evan Parker's saxes can provide.
The reiterative, intricately-detailed patterns of Parker's soprano saxophone improvisations can recall the 'loops' of systems music. Aspects of electronics have long interested him; already in 1969, in the Music Improvisation Company, his saxophone phrases responded to the tweaked coil microphones of Hugh Davies. In the subsequent duo with Paul Lytton, raw live electronics were again frequently foregrounded. Since 1990 Parker has led the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble whose radical cross-referencing of improvisation and real-time sound processing has brought fresh sound-colours into the music as well as new ways of working Ð Ensemble member Richard Barrett has spoken of the EAE providing a model for a new kind of improvising orchestra.
Evan Parker appears on more than 200 recordings on labels including ECM, FMP, Emanem, Incus, Ogun, Po Torch, Okka, Island, CBS, RCA etc. In 2001, he founded his own label, Psi.
Biographical notes by Peter Stubley
Born Bristol, 5 April 1944
The sources for these notes have come from various places, but in particular from Martin Davidson's notes to recent Emanem releases and Evan Parker's notes to 50th birthday concert.
Evan Parker started to play (alto) saxophone around the age of 14, being particularly interested in the music of Paul Desmond. At 16 he started to play the soprano saxophone and there followed a period where he concentrated on soprano only, influenced by John Coltrane. Following his undergraduate studies at Birmingham University, he moved to London and, in late 1966/early 1967 began playing in the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) who, at that time, along with Parker, comprised John Stevens, Kenny Wheeler, Paul Rutherford, Trevor Watts and Derek Bailey. The regular venue for these sessions was the Little Theatre Club in London. By summer 1967 the SME had shaken down to two principals (Stevens and Parker), though other musicians played with the duo on an ad hoc basis, e.g. Barre Phillips, Peter Kowald. It is from this period that the earliest recordings of Evan Parker have so far been released (Summer 1967).
Early in 1968, Parker left the SME, though he did play with them on occasions, for example, a 1974 session with Bailey, Watts, Stevens and Kent Carter at London's ICA Theatre (Quintessence 1 and Quintessence 2). He also worked in duo with John Stevens, the latest recording dating from 1993, just over a year before Stevens' death. From this time (after 1968) he started to work regularly with Derek Bailey, as a duo, documented on several recordings, and in the Music Improvisation Company with, in addition to Bailey, Hugh Davies, Jamie Muir and, for the last year of its life, Christine Jeffrey. The MIC lasted from 1968 to 1971. During this period Parker also worked in various of Tony Oxley's groups and it was in 1970 when he formed Incus Records with Bailey and Oxley, the hugely influential label that was one of the few ways of getting the music outside of the capital. Parker was also involved in many of Bailey's Company groupings but stopped working with Bailey in 1985 and left Incus at this time.
While happy to operate in all manner of ad hoc situations, Evan Parker has formed a number of long-term associations that have continued to allow him to grow musically. The first one of these began in 1969 when the Evan Parker/Paul Lytton duo was formed. The first public performance of the duo occurred the following year and, particularly as a result of recent Emanem recordings, has been documented reasonably well. Martin Davidson (notes to Three other stories) points out that 'they immediately incurred the wrath of more conservative commentators thanks to their exploration and use of what had hitherto been considered "noise".' At this time, Evan Parker was also supplementing his standard reed instruments (not, of course, played in an especially standard manner) by, for example, the shêng, a bullroarer, a poll drum, a voice tube and by playing cassette recordings of previous performances. 'Additionally, there were some home made items, notably the Lyttonophone (made by Lytton but played by Parker) best described as a slide contrabass clarinet and the Dopplerphone, a length of soft rubber tubing (activated by a saxophone mouthpiece and manipulated to alter the rate of airflow) attached to a longer length of clear plastic tubing (whirled around the head whilst being played) ending in a plastic funnel' (Davidson, op. cit.). As time passed, so the home-made instruments were dropped and the duo itself ceased to perform, being replaced, from around 1980 onwards by a trio with the addition of Barry Guy. Intermittently recorded in the early days of its existence, the 'Evan Parker Trio', or the 'Parker/Guy/Lytton' trio has achieved particular visibility and popularity among followers of improvised music since around 1994 (with the release of Imaginary Values). The trio has included guests, either on an ad hoc basis or for specific projects and tours, and these have included Kenny Wheeler, Paul Rutherford, Mark Charig and George Lewis. The mid-1990s have also seen the emergence of the Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble formed by enlarging the trio with the sound processing capabilities of Philipp Wachsmann, Walter Prati and Mario Vecchi (see, for example, Toward the Margins). In fact work with electronic projects has taken up more of Parker's time in the 1990s, beginning with a collaboration with Walter Prati in 1990 (Hall of Mirrors) and finding a particularly satisfying focus (for this listener at least) in his work with Lawrence Casserley. Other (acoustic) trios have played on different occasions, featuring, for example, Mark Sanders on drums and Paul Rogers (and latterly John Edwards) on bass.
The other long working association also stems from around the same time as the Parker/Lytton duo. In 1968 Parker was a member of the Peter Brötzmann Octet that recorded Machine Gun and, apart from other work with Brötzmann he also spent some time in a quartet with Irène Schweizer, Peter Kowald and Pierre Favre. Then, around 1971/1972, the Alexander von Schlippenbach trio was formed with Evan Parker on reeds and Paul Lovens on percussion, Parker replacing Michel Pilz. Around the core of this trio, quartets have sprung from time to time, including, on bass, Alan Silva, Nobuyoshi Ino and Reggie Workman. 'I won't be leaving this group unless Alex decides to sack me. Since, as Alex says, "free jazz keeps you young", I'll tempt fate and say, "who knows how long we've got?"' (Evan Parker, 50th birthday concert). Partly as a result of these two long-standing associations, Evan Parker has been a consistent member of the saxophone section of three of the major large scale groups in improvised music, groups that play a mix of compositions, arranged sections and free areas: Globe Unity Orchestra; London Jazz Composers Orchestra; and the Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra. He has also continued for over 25 years his association with the 'Blue Note' musicians, who left South Africa to escape apartheid and settle in London in the late 1960s; a recent example is Bush fire from the Louis Moholo/Evan Parker Quintet. In addition he has continued to work with an extremely wide variety of musicians and groups from all musical areas, from Sainkho Namtchylak, Anthony Braxton, Paul Bley, Wolfgang Fuchs to :zoviet*france.
In spite of this major group activity, it is as the creator of a new solo saxophone language, extending the techniques and experiments started by John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, but taking them away from the rhythmically jazz-related areas and into the realm of abstraction, that Evan Parker is perhaps most recognised. In particular, his use of circular breathing techniques to create extended, complex, overlapping, repetitive and beautiful soundscapes is generally seen as the apex of saxophone virtuosity.
In November 2001 Evan Parker started his own CD label: psi.