Francesco Martinelli describes the background to his discography of Evan Parker


Francesco Martinelli published the first version of his Evan Parker discography in late 1994. At the end of this, he wrote some extensive 'Afterthoughts' on Evan Parker, his music, groupings, recordings which, as well as giving an insight into Parker's music and methods, provides some very personal and apposite comments on various aspects of the free improvisation music scene. He has very kindly agreed for this piece to be made available over the internet via EFIP, though it should be pointed out that some of his comments, particularly those relating to the availability of certain discs, could have changed in the intervening years. Some of Francesco's other writings can be found at http://space.tin.it/musica/upsma/.

Afterthoughts

There are five sections:

1. WHY A DISCOGRAPHY?

After I started to gather and organize on a computer information about EP's published recordings previously scribbled in notebooks and cards and realized the compilation was useful, I thought that maybe others could be interested in having it available. I hope this publication, coming roughly after 25 years of musical and recording activity, will in some way help to celebrate its relevant accomplishments. Looking through it, several observations came to my mind; I offer them here for the consideration of the reader.

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to speak of the sleepless nights of the discographer trying to draw the line between published, albeit privately, and unpublished recordings).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.

2. SOLO AND ENSEMBLE

The regular documentation of solo work, started in 1975, can be used to look into the question. It is commonly accepted that Parker solos, especially soprano solos, have established something that can be defined as an original, personal language - with its own syntax and lexicon - for the instrument. As a rather startled Tom Johnson wrote in the Village Voice in November 1980, "This is a musician who had transformed these new sounds in a vocabulary that was as familiar to him as major scales are to most musicians" (from The voice of the new music, Collection of articles originally published in The Village Voice, Het Apollohuis, 1989). This is no mean feat in itself, as the same can be said for very few improvisers or composers in Western music of this century. It can not be accomplished without some kind of constructive or at least accretive work, which is capable of taking as a starting point artistic and also technical results obtained in previous occasions, still granting to the improvisor complete freedom. In a music which develops itself without outside conventions like repeating melodies connected to a chord structure, in a group of players you can build something from one session to another only if you count on a network of deep personal relationships within the group. If you're out on your own, that's your problem of personal identity and integrity, as you are mercilessy exposed in an open space; but if you have a group and keep changing people in it, from this point of view you start every time from scratch. Which can be, and is, a rewarding and interesting artistic strategy, relying on different factors and also maybe judging the success of an improvisation with a different set of criteria. Parker's personal inclination does not seem to go in this direction: the process of creating his own language in the solo performances has been paralleled by a similar approach in the group work.

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".

3. PRODUCING RECORDS

In this listing about 150 recordings appear; they can be roughly divided in four groups. Projects in which Parker is the leader or the co-leader; projects lead by musicians with whom Parker usually cooperates; projects by other musicians; occasional meetings. These criteria are far from objective, starting from the definition of "usually". Besides that, surely in some of records where Parker is not the formal leader - for example the Schlippenbach Trio records - there is a substantial amount of co-leadership, and so on. Anyway, my estimate is that the first category accounts for one fourth of the recordings; the second for half of them almost; and the last two categories share equally the remaining fourth. The percentage of records in Parker's own name obviously increases with the years; but the recordings of other leaders in whose groups Parker usually works are far from disappearing, and the (accepted) invitations - sometimes strange - show a tendency to a slow decrease. This is interesting in its consistency with the view expressed by Parker himself, and in substantiating the existence of a close and durable network of collaborations, of relationships that obviously have a strong basis in personal/musical affinities, common interests, "integrity of purpose". The fact that the chance meetings or invitations from outside that network are not growing more numerous, and the recordings of Parker outside his own projects stay limited to a definite circle, can be attributed to his concept of workshop, cited above, where the freedom can be best attained with the people he's closer to.

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.

4. LISTENING TO RECORDS

For what is worth, I'll describe some aspects of my personal relationship with these and similar recordings. Not living in one of the european metropolis, my own path was very close to the type described above by Parker. I heard some of the first LPs published by Incus and Fmp; I already knew Coltrane, Dolphy, Taylor and contemporary classical experimentation, and I did not find particularly hard to relate to the music. I was used already not to give first place to that kind of external pleasantness, or fidelity to established rules of harmony and rhythm, that seems for so many people a prerequisite for listening to the music. As Parker said in the Impetus interview: "The assumption is with Art that everybody knows what the problems under consideration are: They are 'Beauty' or 'The Beautiful'. And we all know what that is." I found free improvisation attractive for a number of reasons, the most important being its conversational quality: the musicians had as only point of reference what the others had already played. This gives an unique - for me - sense of openness, equality, cooperation. This also has a special effect: as if you don't like someone's conversation there are no technical considerations that will make you enjoy it, with this music you find affinities with some players, maybe of different kinds, but other people's music you find uninteresting, uninvolving, regardless of style, instrument played, technical virtuosity, all qualities that come to be perceived as external, secondary, not pertaining to the core of the music, whatever that is. I will for example point out that Anthony Braxton and EP, as diverse musicians as can be, but together at the forefront of the music in the past 25 years, share an unlikely admiration for saxophonist Paul Desmond as a starting point of their musical career. This should mean something, I don't know precisely what, but exemplifies a kind of connection working at levels much different from the outside pigeonholing in "styles" very useful to sell music as a commodity, but not true to its inner developing. The recent duo recording of the two saxophonists is a testimony not only of a deep affinity, but of the shared knowledge and respect for what Braxton calls in his book "the lineage of the white improvisors", with natural understanding of atmospheres strikingly similar to some recording of Tristano, Marsh or Giuffre. For my personal taste and inclination, I find usually interesting, often amusing and sometimes absorbing the music of these two musicians; the same cannot be said of others that should be moving in the same "area" of avant-garde or experimentation. Even in a bleak evening, at the end of an exhausting tour, or when too many things went wrong at a concert, I find myself connecting with their music, listening to its creation like I'd listen to a friend when he's depressed or sad. Other things that I find happening to me when I listen to this music are more difficult to describe, but can be usefully compared to the sense of being lifted in a different reality, in a different time-scale, that can be experienced looking at a painting, a great painting that captures completely the attention. The final thing I want to mention is a kind of physical pleasure given by the sound, the voices of the instrument, that have personality, body, everchanging nuances, just like the voices of people you love and respect. This is a primary source of interest, and the first thing that - to me - is relevant in the listening to this music, because if you like the sound, the texture, the shapes, that's the basic thing - as has always been in the African-American tradition and for jazz lovers everywhere in the world. Now, how does all this translate through the recording, and what happens at repeated listenings? The thing is rather simple: if you think, or feel, that you are attracted at the idea of finding something new, or different, deeper or pertaining to the general shape of the music, you listen to it again, it being a fixed object, not different - from this point of view - from a recording of a particular rendering of a composition. In this case, repeated listenings can be rewarding. For example, in Parker solos, I often find, behind the luxuriant tapestry of timbres and rhythms, some kind of strong, methodic armonic exploration, often sounding to me like an organic or crystalline growth germinating from fragments of a Coltrane improvisation, or another source in the jazz tradition. Other times it's the inner working of action and reaction within a group that can be fascinating, and better detected every time you listen to it; the lightning speed of interplay in some improvisations of the Parker trio with Guy and Lytton, and the way they make the music flow; or, in a Globe Unity or Jazz London Composers' Orchestra recording, overwhelming sometimes, it's possible to better assimilate the mass of sounds little by little, a bit more at every listening. On the other side, if you find an improvisation dragging, boring, usually the more you listen to it the worse it gets; if usually the musicians involved are interesting, to understand why it did not work becomes mostly a matter of study and analysis.

5. RECORDS TO FIND

Which nicely brings out the last point I wanted to make: is it possible to compile a classification of these records, a "list of best recordings"? I think it is, but so highly personal that of more or less no value to anybody else. If you know that the improvisor himself thinks that a particular record is not very good, not successful, you tend to listen to it with a negative bias, and the reverse is true; but the author's point of view is not necessarily the only one, or even the best one. More sensible would be, as a guideline for someone interested in checking out this music, to suggest some of the possible paths to be cut inside Parker's production, keeping in mind all the time that in a way they make sense only in connection with a direct experience of this music.

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.

Francesco Martinelli
Pisa, September 1994