For three decades, Evan Parker's mission has been to boldly go where no other musician has gone before. Now he's exploring music's outer limits with a new generation of musicians half his age. Interview by Rob Young. This article originally appeared in The Wire 144 (February 1996).
Sitting for pictures in the cluttered, ivy-walled courtyard of a Covent Garden pub, picnic tables tumbled in winter disuse, Evan Parker suggests a concept for a TV series. "Not How Do They Do That?, but Why Do They Do That?, he chuckles. Brainwhirl: Anthea Turner bursts in on Michael Portillo to ask about his motivations for sitting in office; Anneka Rice points the mic and the finger at Rupert Murdoch; Jeremy Paxman confronts the Shell boardroom. The thought os such a programme revealing lack of reasoning and motivation, or simple greed, appeals mightily to Evan's sense of the value of personal dignity, the importance of individuals to find and work through their own ideals for living and expression.
Having passed his 50th birthday last year (the event marked by a London concert and double CD release on Leo Records), the saxophonist has truly earned the dread appendage of 'veteran'. Since parting company, not altogether amicably, with Incus Records, the label he formed in 1969 with Derek Bailey, he has been granted new freedoms as a roaming freelance player: the last 18 months alone have witnessed a generous handful of good-to-great CDs: The Fire's Tale with American pianist Borah Bergman on Soul Note; the (relatively) contemplative Imaginary Values with regular compadres Barry Guy and Paul Lytton, and last year's chewy Obliquities duos with Guy, both on the latter's Maya imprint; Time Will Tell with Paul Bley and Barre Phillips, amazingly his first appearance on ECM. 1995 also saw the reissue of the monumental 1975 Saxophone Solos set on Chronoscope, and Three Other Stories, a collection of unreleased, otherworldly duets with Paul Lytton from 1971-74 on Emanem which bears witness to Parker's quiver of extraordinary homemade instruments: mouthpieces, hosepipes, the dopplerphone, the lyttonophone...
Not even Evan will deny that the freshness and surprise of those early larks has been suppressed, or at least isn't so readily on show now. "That is the strange thing, the way time speeds up; but all of those [early] things are still very current for me. Especially when you listen back and hear that in some ways you were doing more adventurous things, you were taking more risks, your attitude was looser. Once you discover that you can do anything, nobody can stop you taking any line you want. That is a kind of artistic freedom that comes with your decision to risk living that kind of life. Then you start asking: 'What are the things that particularly interest me among all these things that I know I can do; which are the things I would really like to focus on?'"
It's this kind of obsession with the minutiae of sound - the player's own sound - that can make the improvised world inhabited by Parker and his ilk somewhat forbidding for new listeners, even younger ears for whom the detuned noises popularised by Sonic Youth, Public Enemy and Aphex Twin aren't a problem. ("I'm not crazy about young people," Parker will later claim.) Yet is's possible in Parker's conversation to detect an awareness of audience response becoming part of his method. "There's no point in doing things if you're not looking for a social response, which I think every performer is, whether they admit it or not. And the other factor that would have contributed to the changes, which can be described as tighter focus, would be to do with: Who are we doing thus for? What is the context that this is understood and perceived in, and how can be sharpen that sense of relevance to that context?"
Doing it for the kids, then? Not quite, not yet. Nevertheless, there are ways in which Parker's music is becoming drawn into the liquid reconfiguration of late 20th century sound. Tip Evan into a parallel universe: I'd contend that the response to the solos on Conic Sections or Process and Reality - "the ten-minute egg of hard boiled abstraction," as one writer described such work - is not unlike the sensations inspired by a record such as Autechre's Tri Repetae: both tap into the thrill and terror or unearthly shape, keeping at stake the capacity to harness rogue, unformed sound, adapting it to music while not trampling over its essence. The sources are different, but the destination is the same: music that can only be named in an invented language. "Borlung", "Mothon", "Fleam". "Dael", "Bronchus", "Gnit". The first three are Parker tunes, the last three are by Autechre.
Complex Electronica can resemble the twisting architecture of a seashell depicted by 3D computer imaging; Evan's writhing, worming sax lines might just be the mollusc that could live within. But the connection is a little more concrete than that. Last year, Autechre toured with :zoviet*france:. This month, Even will perform on a London stage with...:zoviet*france:.
"I heard them play live," says Evan, now tucked inside the pub. "They could have been up there playing a tape they'd been working on for months, but I don't think they were. I think they were constructing it live, in the moment." He travelled to the group's Newcastle studio. "We jammed a little bit, you could say; we played together, they took my sound, played it into the mix, and I enjoyed myself. And that's it, that's all that ever happens when you play with any other musicians: you go and play your sound, they use it in some way, and it goes into the mix. he fact that they're working with different kinds of instrumentation - bits and pieces of electronic equipment and not with tubes with holes in them and strings and air -that doesn't worry me at all. They're up there live, working with memory, licks, patterns, bits and pieces that they've looped and stuff they've prepared in advance - I'm also working with stuff I've prepared in advance. I spend every spare moment in my kitchen trying to work out bits and pieces in advance.
Does he also admire the way they conduct their business covertly and anonymously?
"I like that. Also they're more or less invisible when they perform, and I like that too. I've always thought it would be great if I could be invisible."
Why hasn't he tried?
"Because when you get behind a screen, you change the
acoustics." What about switching the lights off? "Darkness I've
tried, but it tends to irritate the audience."
Parker's generation of improvisors - musicians commonly associated with such labels as Incus, FMP, Leo, Soul Note - largely forsook the notion of the studio as instrument; failed to pick up on the extra transmogrifications offered by dub technology or digital innerspace. Sometimes this doesn't matter: the first (1968) Music Improvisation Company recordings, made by Parker and Derek Bailey with Hugh Davies's electronics and Jamie Muir on percussion, sound incredibly fresh even now; igniting space as intensely as Japanese gagaku ritual or the terse village music of Azerbaijan. Although nowadays whole albums can be recorded in a bedroom, the legacy of MIC and similar groups has been to preserve the ceremony of the studio session: getting-in, mic placement, acoustic checks, tweaked levels and all.
"I like the heightened atmosphere of the studio occasion," Evan concurs. "It's just another performance occasion, another kind of real-time in a way. The things that don't interest me about the studio are the multi options, the ability to change your mind after the event. Yet that is obviously for many people the main reason for working in the studio: that you can check whether a [playing] decision was appropriate or not by listening back. I don't like to do that: I like to only make the decision when it feels right, and then not to have second thoughts about it afterwards."
So, despite the all-too brief dabble with overdubs on 1991's Process And Reality, Evan won't be leaping into the digital abyss just yet. Do he and his contemporaries consider the studio some kind of betrayal of acoustic truth, creating unwanted sensory illusions?
"Well, it might be as simple as this: until recently, the studio was an incredibly expensive instrument. You never could afford to find out whether you thought it was an interesting instrument or not. It's like saying: would you enjoy owning a Rolls Royce? Probably you would, but you're never going to have the money to find out."
And yet for many musicians, samplers, compact mixers, sound modules are a means to freedom, spoken of in the same language as Evan used to use for improvisation.
"The freedom to change your mind? Well, I'm not a Stalinist about it. I wouldn't want to stop anyone using a procedure that suits them. It's just that I'm trying to make sense of a whole body of work...which has been driven by a particular kind of...existential performing attitude. It's not an artefact, it's something that is the product of somebody doing something in real-time."
A document of the synapse decisions he makes during a performance?
"Yes, even if those real-time decisions get overlaid through multitracking, there is still a kind of attempt at honesty - don't let's put it any higher than that."
The 'wrong' sort of editing, says Evan, is the kind used in classical post-production ("where there's an edit every ten seconds") and increasingly by Hollywood (when we first met he said he'd been amused by Director Paul Verhoeven's offer to paste a digital erection onto actor Kyle McLachlan in Showgirls). "[They] generate something that appears to have a seamless continuity, which actually never did have that. Whereas editing a juxtaposition of shots, as in film montage, is a different kind of process. And the rhythm, the art of doing that, i supposed to be evident. The art of musical editing is very often not to be apparent: to be seamless, unseen, unperceived. That kind of editing troubles me a little bit."
It's a dirty question, but someone's got to ask it. How did his relationship with Incus break down? "It was like a horse with two heads - a pantomime horse." Surely that's got a head and a tail? "I was never sure whether I was the tail, or the other head of a grotesquely misshapen pantomime horse." So he got out, though he says he misses it enormously: "To see a thing through from beginning to end. I love those little things [ie CDs]."
One association that has remained constant since the early days is his partnership with the trumpeter Kenny Wheeler: they still perform regularly together, although curiously have rarely appeared in tandem on record since 1968's Karyobin, the first Spontaneous Music Ensemble release which also featured Bailey, John Stevens and Dave Holland. Their divergent careers after that moment - Wheeler into the tasteful environs of the ECM label and fully-fledged 'composition', Parker into obliquity - highlight a greater fracture within jazz, one that's unlikely ever to be fully restored. Last year's Time Will Tell attempted some damage limitation, however, and 1996 should see a live follow-up to that record on ECM, plus an electronic project deploying Italians Walter Prati and Marco Vecchi alongside the Guy/Lytton rhythmic axis and violinist Phil Wachsmann. Given that Parker hasn't much time for the electric Miles Davis groups that actually fed the early ECM line-ups for a while, were MIC and SME formed in a spirit of opposition to the encroachment of groove into jazz?
"No, not especially. But apparently Dave Holland took the tape of Karyobin and played it for Miles. And Miles said, 'That's nice, but you're not going to play that with my band.'"
When I suggest to Parker that he managed to avoid some of his colleagues' ideological paralysis during the mid-70s, his answer begins, for this conversation, unusually askew. "I saw a thing in the paper today about what's his name, the bloke in Blur. He says 'I'm not sure about telling people to vote Labour - I once suggested to people about safe sex, and they said Shut up and play Grandad!'
"Music is better than politics. Let the politicians be influenced by our values, musical values, the way we operate, the way we negotiate, the way we compromise, all those things. Politicians can learn the art of politics from watching the way musicians relate to one another. And that's the hierarchy of intelligence as far as I'm concerned. Politics...attracts people of rather low intelligence to it. Low sensibilities, low human values, that's the unfortunate thing: we have to live with the consequences. They've got the power, but they don't have the vision. You only have to read the letters versus the editorial section of a decent newspaper. All the intelligence is in the letters, it's not in the editorials."
Does he think that, by whatever method and whether consciously or unconsciously, the general movement is to devalue music and art in contemporary Western culture; to ensure that, as someone once said, it leaves everything the same?
"I think there must be forces that decided that if music is going to have power, it should somehow tell the same story as fits with the Establishment - what the Establishment wants, in some way. Although...I would want to think about that. That's a complex story.
"That is the final frontier, in a sense: that's what's being attempted by the Murdoch empire and the real global Establishment, to take away that last sense of belligerent resistance to the idea that you really can live in your own values in your own head. Nobody can take that away from you. But that's what they are really trying to find out: 'Is that true, or can we also take that?' To the extent that music resists that effort, then it's an interesting phenomenon. To the extent that it assists, then it's an absolutely less than uninteresting phenomenon. And the kind of question I'm unclear about is: Is all music of mass-media circulation by definition on the side of the oppressor? I don't think it is; I think it's much more complex than that. And maybe the seed of resistance is in those complexities."
That, I guess, is why he does it.