This review originally appeared in The Wire 204 (February 2001).
Jah Wobble & Evan Parker
Passage To Hades
30 HERTZ HZ14 CD
Perhaps this is a disingenuous flash of hindsight on my part, but I'm convinced that when I heard Public Image Limited's first album, back in 1978, I fantasised an addition to the group. That addition was Evan Parker, whose Saxophone Solos and Monoceros releases on Incus (1976 and 1978 respectively) had cut a new seam in the rockface of saxophony. The prospect was very enticing: Parker's unremitting stream of reed shards cutting their own space alongside John Lydon's psychobabble and the acid rain riffing of Keith Levene, all three of them screaming like Brian Jones's hallucinogenic Jajouka panpipes over the dub pulse of Jah Wobble and PiL's drummer of the day (Jim Walker, I believe).
Be careful what you wish for, they say, because here is the nearest we will ever come to that 'what if?' fantasy spawned by the brief convergence of post-punk rock and improvisation in the messy, hectic late 1970s. In full tilt gentleman adventurer mode now that he has his own label, Jah Wobble is setting up sessions like a demon. What both players bring to this particular date (and there is an air of jazz blowing dates about these enterprises) is massive authority. A master of deception, Parker makes a virtue of easing into a piece, assessing the situation, deciding on a course of action. Like a shy man entering a crowded room at a party, he gives the impression that he's going to bolt for that safe spot by the cooker in the kitchen at the first opportunity and hide there all night. Within moments of these tremulous, uncertain beginnings, however, he storms to the centre of the action and holds his ground against all-comers.
As for Wobble, his rhythmic acuity is supernatural. He is on the one, up for the down stroke, rising from the bottom to the top. A clash of two such strongminded individuals can be catastrophic, but Parker and Wobble are tea and chocolate together: Parker's granular, pitted tone on tenor and hyper-glossolalic soprano contrasting magnificently with Wobble's lowdown, rubbery bass. Their rhythmic approach also defends opposite ends of the pitch. Parker worries at phrases, tearing them to thin strips, circling round for another bite, never quite settling; Wobble squats on a riff like the Soto Zen monk Ryokan sitting on a stone, absorbed by the beauty of the moon.
This is not just a lucky jam session, however. Wobble has clearly distinguished two core strengths in Parker's playing and shaped a propitious setting for them. Repetition is the more obvious of these qualities. With his deep explorations into circular breathing, long lines and small yet insistent variations in timbre, pitch and articulation, Parker closely aligns himself to theories and practices of trance. The repetition of Wobble's music, born out of his absorption of dub, Can and Dark Magus (see Epiphanies, The Wire 203), accentuates a delirious intoxication with lyrical movement through air and time, an invisible calligraphy, in Parker's playing otherwise only implicit in solos and improvised groupings. Most people who have the chance to hear La Monte Young's unreleased recording, "Sunday Morning Blues", respond by saying it sounds like Evan Parker jamming with The Velvet Underground. Passage To Hades is not quite that, but there are moments when it's close enough.
The other element that Wobble highlights is Parker's profound sense of connection to a global continuum in reed playing, vocalisation and other remarkable instrumental technologies and techniques documented by anthropologists, sound recordists and travellers. His intercultural Synergetics project is a proactive aspect of that, a practical and social interest in developing a global language of improvisation with likeminded souls, but there is a more subjective web of links to be drawn from the signature of his personal approach. There may be powerful echoes of John Coltrane and Giant Steps sounding throughout this CD, even Pharoah Sanders's "Upper Egypt & Lower Egypt" from Tauhid, but more strongly than those venerable inspirations I can hear the taquara clarinets of the Yawalapiti Indians of Upper Xingu, the free reed bamboo pipes of Cambodia, the giant nadhaswaram oboes of India, the tang-p'iri oboe of Korea, the hichiriki of Japanese gagaku, the sacred flutes of Papua New Guinea and the bagpipes of Eastern Europe.
From the launching pad of Wobble on bass and Mark Sanders on drums, the rest of the group takes off for regions mapped into a speculative world where land masses shift to join Lamaist Tibet and medieval Europe to the Mississippi Delta, the Cardomomes Mountains of Cambodia and the Rif Mountains of northern Morocco. Jean-Pierre Rasle's skirling bagpipes and harsh squalling on rauschpfeife are particularly effective, as are Clive Bell's Pi Saw flute from Thailand and his rather surprising Country blues harmonica.
At times, it's as if bastardised and accelerated backing tracks for Tapper Zukie's Man Ah Warrior have fallen into the hands of the ghost of David Munrow and his Early Music Consort Of London. If that makes Passage To Hades sound like some ghastly p-p-p-p-postmodern genre stitch up then I'm failing in my 'job'. There is a long tradition of this type of 'free jazz rides a groove' thing. Archie Shepp, John Stevens, Albert Ayler, Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Don Cherry, Miles Davis, The Art Ensemble, Sun Ra, Sonny Sharrock, Clifford Thornton and Ornette Coleman all recorded glorious examples. Only last year, Derek Bailey made the disconcertingly fabulous Mirakle, with harmolodic funksters Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Calvin Weston. Jah Wobble and Evan Parker have added another classic to the canon. All things considered, this is my favourite pairing of unlikely talents since the recent reissue of Impressions Of A Patch Of Blue by Walt Dickerson and Sun Ra.