I think a detailed description of published recordings gives an envelope of different functions, only one of which is the personal artistic development of an improviser, the others being correspondent developments of the closer group of generational and artistic peers, economic and organisational conditions, all influenced by many random factors. In this era of mass diffusion of the equipment for professional sound recording, moreover, recorded tapes circulate more than ever among collectors, and discographies are inflated with recordings over which the musician could not have any control, and from which almost always could not reap any benefit (not to speak of the sleepless nights of the discographer trying to draw the line between published, albeit privately, and unpublished recordings). Finally, the advent of CD and its longer playing time gave way to a flood of reissues with "bonus" tracks, more often than not leftovers discarded for technical or artistic reasons. With all these provisos, anyway, a discography still is a workable tool for someone interested in a particular artist, showing different facets of his career, twists and turns of projects, changes in collaborators, and so on.
From this point of view Parker's discography is rather enlightening. His partnership with guitarist Derek Bailey terminated in 1985 with the aptly named Compatibles Lp after 17 years; in 1994 the Schlippenbach Trio is still working, after 20 years from its first recording. Similar durations can be detected for relationships with players like Paul Lytton and Barry Guy: they are current members of his trio, and they were already in 1972 together in the first London Jazz Composers' Orchestra recording (of which all three are still members). In a word, stability: rather a contradiction for a music that someone sees as a celebration of volatility. This is not to say that Parker, with some cautions, has not been open to new projects and ideas coming from people outside the group of his usual collaborators: in several Company editions, in Festivals of improvised music all over the world, in ad hoc recording or performing projects, he has played and recorded from California to Korea. But the same names keep popping up in the listings, so the fact must be acknowledged and a tentative explanation forwarded.
The saxophonist's carefully worded point of view presented for Derek Bailey's book is somewhat different (Derek Bailey, Improvisation, its nature and practice in music, II Ed., published by The British Library National Sound Archive, p.128):
"Things that are established as known between yourselves probably form as useful a context for the evolution of something new as anything. But the inter-personal relationships should only form the basis for working, they shouldn't actually define the music too clearly, which they very often do. In practice, the closest I would get to a laboratory situation is working with the people I know best. It can make a useful change to be dropped into a slightly shocking situation that you've never been in before. It can produce a different kind of response, a different kind of reaction. But the people I've played with longer actually offer me the freest situation to work in." And later, in a different context: "I think we accepted long ago those aspects of each other's playing that we are never going to be able to change and we work upon the parts that are negotiable". (Ibid, p.141).
In a recent interview by Laurence M. Svirchev published on Coda, Issue 250 (July/August 1993), Parker is more outspoken, and introduces the notion of "intensity of purpose" to define the group of players with whom he feels a stronger affinity: "...if someone has this personal quality of an individual voice, it is almost certainly because they have a method and approach with certain characteristics which endure from context to context...They 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. They can come up with an appropriate music making metodology. I like people who can do that, people who can do it in a convincing way, who have an intensity of purpose". This is very interesting especially at a point where the strategy of keeping the group of player in a state of permanent flux praticated by Derek Bailey in the Company events seems - in the provocative words of Clive Bell, Rubberneck 15 - to have produced a particular style of music, the Company style, "full of flurries and frowns".
Some of these records have been selling, in small but regular numbers, for 25 years now: Machine Gun has been the best seller from the Fmp catalogue for years, and maybe still is; Topography of the lungs has been reprinted several times, licensed in Japan, and who knows what will happen with a possible Cd reissue. The prices for original edition of these Lp at auctions is going steadily up, and now you can't buy one of the classical recording from the sixties for less than £30; limited editions can go much higher, in the hundreds bracket. It's amazing to think that this career developed completely outside the world of major recording companies, only exceptions being the late sixties recordings of Oxley groups, in that rare foray of RCA and CBS in the field of experimental music, and the Charlie Watts Big Band record, no doubt a festive occasion for the players involved and maybe for the audience, but rather disappointing for the record listener.
But then Parker himself gave in print an explanation of this kind of situation: "I've got the option of doing what a lot of musicians do which is to try and persuade some big company that they really need you on their books... Temperamentally, I feel more inclined to do it myself because I'm very poor at the cap in hand routine. Believe it or not that is actually the way the business works. You'd be surprised how many genius musicians are prepared to go cap in hand to some quite indifferent record companies." (Rubberneck 5, April 1989, interview with Chris Blackford). An attitude remarkably consistent with the one expressed with less cautious words twelve years before: "I can't conceive of going back of the old way of running round, cap in hand, to people that quite frankly are beneath us." (Musics 6, 1977, interview with Kenneth Ansell).
Some of these records are loved by some and hated by others, within the relatively small group of people that with this kind of music has a serious and continuous relationship. Some of these people have tried to define the philosophical "locus" of a recording of improvised music. One extreme position mantains that the idea in itself is a contradiction; others accept the recording, but only to be played once and then discarded, to be true to the basic principle that this kind of music cannot and should not be repeated. The record is seen anyway as a different listening experience, which has a rather remote connection with the actual participation, albeit as listeners, in the music making occasion. But then some of the records listed here were made in studios, with the sole purpose of producing one of these objects, hoping - I would think - that buyers would listen to it more than once. I agree completely with the view expressed by Martin Davidson, of Emanem fame: 'Recordings and improvisation are entirely symbiotic, as if they were invented for each other...the act of improvising is filling time (either a predetermined or an open-ended amount) with music - something that could be called real-time composition, and something that has more need and more right to be recorded than anything else' (The Wire 9, Nov. 1984, p. 23). While Steve Lake's standard of record production has been remarkably high in recent times, his remarks in a later The Wire issue about EP's contribution to Scott Walker's Climate Of Hunter Lp "...it will obviously bring his name to an audience that would otherwise never have heard of him" (n. 12, p.5) struck me as rather naive and I think in retrospect they are even more so. The contribution is musically convincing: but it comes only as an episode, an added spice, to a record of music of completely different inspirations, and I doubt that there have been listeners spurred by that record nearer to free improvisation, or even to EPís other music. Much different is the case when Parkerís voice and abilities are integrated in a convincing performance, even when the music has a starting point in some way opposite to Parkerís opinion: examples his contributions to Kenny Wheeler albums, or better still Gavin Bryars' four saxophones piece in After The Requiem, a Cd produced by Lake himself.
Parker's practical attitude about starting Incus records with fellow musicians Oxley and Bailey has been clearly stated:
"The commercial companies obviously weren't committed to what we were doing. We wanted our music treated like art, not like a commodity. For me, the minimum was to document the key phases in the music, and the only way to ensure that was by starting our own thing. It was one of the most important decisions we made, no questions about it". (Down Beat, April 1987, interview with Paul Keegan).
And an evaluation of - at least - the Incus records production was provided in another occasion:
"I'd be kidding myself if I didn't allow a large importance to the records we made early on as factors in survival as performers. Those early records introduced me to key people in different countries around the world and helped to set up contacts with musicians and promoters and people generally interested in furthering this music. There are many people who heard those records and now play this music and make records of this music themselves. The records are like a calling card, your introduction. If people like what they hear they take a chance on hearing you live." (From the Rubberneck interview cited above).
Records by/with EP have recently been published by independent but well established and well distributed labels (Soul Note, Leo, Ecm). The aim for these companies is not the survival of the musicians as performers, but the establishment of a wide and appealing catalogue for a specialist but relevant audience. In this context the role of producers, directors, managers is completely different from what Parker described above, as they are actually interested in creating an object closer to the original aim of the musicians;moreover, the account-keeping and organizing tasks are off the shoulders of the musicians themselves, who can dedicate to them only a small fraction of their time, often with obviously limited professional skills. The combination of these factors could bring the production of records of improvised music to a different level from the 'calling card' and document situation which motivated the establishment of self-managed record companies, getting a real visibility on the specialist record market and having further beneficial effects on the performing careers of improvising musicians.
One idea could be the one implied above in the classification of the records: that is, the context in which the music was produced. For the solo records, availability - if quantitatively compared with production - is really very limited at the moment; this situation may change soon if a project of reissue comes through. Luckily two available CDs are very representative of two sides of Parker solo style: the Fmp Process And Reality Cd, magnificently daring record which is a kind of recapitulation of previous experiences, and the sonically beautiful Conic Sections on the Ah Um label, where Parker introduces a whole new set of different materials, with a special character and atmosphere: some kind of distilled meditation about the melody, in a context where often the luxuriant growth is broken by more dry, burning statements. For the duo records, besides the duo with Braxton on Leo already mentioned, there is Compatibles, the final collaboration with Derek Bailey still available on a Incus Lp, and it kind of sums up a very long and fruitful relationship; another Fmp, Chirps, with Lacy, suggest itself, but the very different Hall Of Mirrors with Walter Prati on electronics would be worth the search: in it Parker is confronted with a processed/ multiplied image built on a fragment of his own improvisation, with very interesting results. For the small group recordings, at least four titles must be mentioned: the latest powerful document of the closely knit Parker/Guy/ Lytton trio, Imaginary Values Maya Mcd 9401; the exhilarating dialogue with Tristan Honsinger and Cecil Taylor live in Berlin, The Hearth, and the rich coupling of studio/live recording in the two Cdís Elf Bagatellen and Physics with Schlippenbach and Lovens, last three on Fmp. Finally, Parker's playing in different big ensemble contexts can be appreciated from most of the recent London Jazz Composers' Orchestra, like Theoria, Harmos or - better still - Portraits on Intakt. a comparison of one of these with the way the music is organized on Joe Gallivan's Innocence on Cadence Jazz Records would show completely different but equally successful approaches to the big ensemble improvisation; special mention must be made of Spirit Rejoice by the Dedication Orchestra on Ogun, a project to which Parker dedicated much time and work: it may not be typical of his production, but focuses with affection the importance of the South African musicians to the english contemporary music, a connection often overlooked but on the contrary of central significance, and the music is truly beautiful: a second volume is due for release soon and mentioned already in the discography.
Another line of choice would be an historical one. Some of the recent reissues can be very helpful. I'd suggest obviously Karyobin: great sound for a music which is at the same time bold and tentative, like looking around in unknown territory. Scott Hacker reviewing this record wrote in Cadence, June 1994, "Parkerís inventions stick in the ears like fish hooks". A simile maybe not too delicate, but then the music has exactly this not delicate but grappling effect. The seminal Brötzmann Sextet Machine Gun on Fmp is completely opposite in its approach and yet so clear in giving an insight of what the musicians might become, in Sunny Murray's words cited by Steve Lake in his re-evaluation of the record (The Wire 13, March 1985, pag. 45). The varied Rumbling is a good sample of the Globe Unity Orchestra, it too on Fmp; Incus luckily reissued - albeit not in their integrity - on a single CD two Company LPs: Company 6 and Company 7, plus the Music Improvisation Company LP on another CD. Several LPs by the Schlippenbach Quartet should be still available to document the different phases of that group, which after the rather unfortunate beginning recorded in the Fmp Box For Example produced the historical Pakistani Pomade; the two Po Torch albums Detto Fra Di Noi and Das Hohe Lied are particularly good despite sonic problems, but maybe I'm partial to the first one, recorded in Pisa during one of the Festival organized by the Center for Research about Improvised Music, CRIM, of which I was a member . This makes a total of essential listening of about twenty records, but then with them comes a cross-section of the best research in improvised music of the last twenty-five years.
All together these documents define a strong musical identity balanced by a real openness, engaged in a research path which goes deeper and deeper without losing intensity. A path which has never been straight, or without twists, turns, dead ends, as all true research, whose purpose is not definitely blueprinted at the start, but defines itself in the day by day unfolding of the work. With the records of EP we are lucky enough to have a partial but significant document of such a story.
Pisa, September 1994