When I, a comedian currently fashionable in broadsheets, and an uncomprehending fan of Free Improvisation, was invited to publicise and programme Freehouse, the Cheltenham jazz festival’s new experimental strand, Evan Parker was the first musician I wanted to contact. For me, the 66-year-old saxophonist is the greatest living exponent of free improvisation. Nearly half a century ago, he played alongside the drummer John Stevens and the guitarist Derek Bailey, in the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, tunnelling under contemporary American free jazz’s exultant innovations, with precise, near silent, collective improvisations, free of tempi or tunes. In 1968, he was part of the multi-horn assault of Peter Brotzman’s Machine Gun album, bringing unprecedented power to the music. And in the intervening decades, he’s become a quiet colossus. If you’ve ever been tempted by free improvisation, Parker is your gateway drug.
At home in Faversham in Kent, Evan Parker has the physicality of a contented honey-bear and the joviality of a real-ale enthusiast. He lives, as artists should, in a whitewashed terraced cottage with the dimensions of a Cornish net loft, each subsequent stage stratified with shelves or records, CDs and books. Economics dictate that Parker, who operates at the upper levels of a music that’s often commercially unsustainable, plays all over the world. “I make most of my living in Germany and Holland,” he says. “Italy’s love of improvisation goes up and down depending on the politics. Mostly I try to do things that make sense in some way. I am encouraged by people close to me to slow down a bit. At my age, the business of air travel becomes very tedious. I am trying to stop commuting to Europe every weekend. But I’ve played every year with the Alexander Schlippenbach Trio, in Germany, since 1972. I think the audience is waiting to see who keels over first.” In between these jaunts, Parker returns to his hermitage, where he is evidently very happy. It’s a relief to meet an artist who, despite producing hugely important work in relative obscurity, seems entirely contented. But Parker’s journey to Faversham has been a long one.
Born in Bristol in 1944 to solidly lower-middle class parents, Parker says he “picked up the saxophone at 14 and went for lessons. I was listening to who my peer group told me to listen to, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Lee Konitz, with a lot of pleasure. But I was a very naive listener. You’re thrown into the pond and you have to find out which way the river flows, and where it’s going, and it may not be the river you’re interested in.” Parker describes a pre-internet era, unimaginable to anyone under 30, when music fans had to do detective work. “I was accidentally listening to all this smooth west coast jazz and then I remember the day Charlie Parker died, and somebody showed me Melody Maker, and it made me want to find out who this Charlie Parker was. I bought the 10in record Bird and Diz – still a very good record – and then I realised, ‘so there’s East Coast and west coast jazz’, and I started to do my own research and put it together myself. By time I was 15 I was listening to new Coltrane and Miles Davis records as they were coming out.”
By his own admission, Parker bungled his botany course at Birmingham University: “At the end of the first year they said to me,’We don’t know what’s happened to you. You knew more about botany when you came in than you do now.'” What did happen to him? “The saxophone. The saxophone happened to me. I had three gigs a week by the time I left Birmingham.” Perhaps it’s fortunate. If Parker’s approach to botany had been the same as his approach to his instrument, one dreads to think what might have happened to the Linnaean system of taxonomic classification.
For Parker, the music known as European free improvisation began in 1966, and he was a witness to its birth. “I remember the first conversation I had with John Stevens when he invited me to come down to the Little Theatre club in Covent Garden. We talked about Milford Graves and Sunny Murray. Very few people would have known who those drummers were then, so it was like showing him a tattoo to prove you were in the club. After that all doors were open.” Parker laughs, as if the full implications of the path he chose to follow have just crystallised for the first time: “But they were doors to very small rooms with very small amounts of people in them. Smaller than I’d been playing before.”
The history lesson over, I explain to Parker that he’s always the person I take sceptics to see. At first, free improvised music will sound like formless, pointless chaos. But the saxophone is an iconic instrument a new listener can relate to; Parker’s ensembles clearly take risks, and the possibility of failure, like a wobbling wire walker, demands attention; and Parker himself, his lungs heaving in endless circular breathing solos, is clearly hard at work, with something of the circus strongman about him. Is his take consciously vaudevillian? “I believe a lot of what I am doing communicates because of those qualities, and when you get two or three things happening, they may not be actual physical solids, but they are the equivalent of balls being juggled. I don’t claim anything higher than that for it really. It’s just something that is meant to be absorbing. For me, the only idea is that it is interesting to listen to, not that it should demonstrate an understanding of anything beyond that.”
An enduring aspect of this music, irrespective of the actual sound, is that it cannot be co-opted. In 2005, in my professional capacity as a comedian, I was emailed by someone asking if I could “provide any content” that was equally suited to internet applications, mobile phones, television, radio. But I am not a content provider. I try to make everything I do appropriate to the medium and the moment. And this unfashionable attitude is even more evident in free improvisation. Every second of every Evan Parker show is a considered refutation of the 21st century idea that a piece of art is a one-size-fits-all product to be cross-platformed into ubiquitous anonymity.
Free improvisation’s political affiliations were formed in the beer-and-sandwiches days of the 1960s and 70s left, and the pioneering trombonist Paul Rutherford saw the music’s emphasis on collective creativity as the embodiment of his own communist principles. Forty years later, Parker remains a romantic, but his politics are more oblique. “John Stevens talked about free improvisation being his ‘other little life’,” he says. “When I close my eyes and I am just playing with other people in a free situation, where we can all do what we want, I am in a utopian space. And I have been very lucky to spend a huge amount of my life in that utopian space.”
Freehouse is at the Cheltenham jazz festival 30 April – 2 May. Details: cheltenhamfestivals.com/jazz/.
Evan Parker also plays at Conway Hall, London on 2 May. www.freedomofthecity.org
STEWART LEE’S TOP FIVE EVAN PARKER ALBUMS
1. The Spontaneous Music Ensemble: Karyobin (Island, 1968)
An unusual major-label outing for a low-key, light-hued set, now impossible to find. You can’t borrow mine.
2. Evan Parker, Derek Bailey and Han Bennink: The Topography of the Lungs (Incus, 1970)
The first release of Parker’s partnership with Bailey remains a cornerstone of free improvisation, not least for its illuminating Parker sleevenotes.
3. Evan Parker: The Snake Decides (PSI, 1986)
A gripping solo set, brilliantly recorded by engineer Michael Gerzon.
4. Evan Parker: Time Lapse (Tzadik, 2006)
A selection from five years of experiments with overdubbing, as Parker improvises with versions of himself.
5. Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: The Moment’s Energy (ECM, 2009)
Parker’s glacial big band is perfect for ECM’s chilled aesthetic.
JOHN FORDHAM’S CHELTENHAM JAZZ FESTIVAL PICKS
Exhilarating Leeds-based trio (the VD is for Valentine’s Day) that combines wailing free-jazz sax, manic grooves, crunching guitar from Acoustic Ladyland’s Chris Sharkey – and a rare succinctness in the world of improv.
Pillar Room, Cheltenham town hall, 30 April
Iain Ballamy’s Wayne Shorter-like sax sound floats ever more hypnotically over Thomas Stronen’s cinematic percussion and electronics in this sublime decade-long partnership.
Pillar Room, Cheltenham town hall, 1 May
Dave Holland/Pepe Habichuela
Unusual world-music setting for bass star and influential bandleader Holland – swinging on Andalusian flamenco music with Spanish guitar virtuoso Pepe Habichuela.
Main Hall, Cheltenham town hall, 1 May
Carla Bley and the Lost Chords
Great American jazz composer Bley’s most coolly quirky group repackages her deceptive swingers, soft Latin grooves, and quirkily churchy blues and ballads. Soft-toned trumpeter Paolo Fresu joins UK sax star Andy Sheppard in the front line.
Main Hall, Cheltenham town hall, 2 May
Guitar hero Scofield has explored gospel music lately, but this looks like a punchy workout for more of a straightahead postbop quartet, with Scofield’s stinging lines supported by pianist Michael Eckroth, bassist Ben Street, and drummer Bill Stewart.
Jazz Arena, Imperial Gardens, 2 May