Schlippenbach’s trio (with bassist Paul Lovens) that he has most regularly, and explicitly, explored his inner Bechet. The trio has a history dating back to the early 1970s, and Parker says they’ll tour once a year “until one of us drops”. Schlippenbach himself states unambiguously in the sleevenotes to the group’s latest CD, Winterreise (psi), that “es ist Free Jazz”, a categorisation Parker feels content to embrace. “I go with Alex’s idea about that,” he confirms. “Apart from the generic implications of ‘free jazz’, the music obviously comes out of the very specific tradition of the Cecil Taylor-Jimmy Lyons-Sunny Murray trio.” How does Parker feel about the everpresent danger of ‘Wyntonising’ that model, of imitation rather than inspiration? “The most articulate statements on the hardening of a classicised language of ‘modern jazz’ came from Steve Lacy, who coined the term ‘re-bop’, and it opens up many problems of definition,” he explains. “For some people, clearly, the language of licks is the language of jazz. Other people think, ‘If we don’t do that, what’s left?’ That’s obviously where Cecil comes from, but there are still those who would insist that’s ‘not jazz’. A lick is something very solid and easy to teach. Go away and learn your lick in all keys. That’ll keep you busy. But at the end of three years what you’ve got is stuff that was already known. Other things, like creativity, thinking of something that hasn’t been done already, are not so easy to teach. “Alex’s definition does, in a certain sense, limit the places where appropriate growth is left,” Parker continues. “The life of that particular group steers a course between the attractions of siren calls from the rocks of improvised music and the safety of the known. There are overlaps – Lovens plays with Axel Döörner, I play with computers and electronics, and Alex has started collaborating with George Lewis and the Voyager program. But that group represents a deliberately restricted set of priorities. The further we move away from that, the less it becomes appropriate to call it ‘free jazz’.”
and learnt emotions by mistakenly divorcing the technicalities of the music from its politics. Parker, however, thinks the politics that drove Coltrane have not gone away in 2007. “To think anything else would be to accept an end of history scenario, which I don’t for a minute,” he affirms. “I don’t think the music’s meaning in terms of personal liberation for the players has changed at all, and striving for liberation should communicate itself to the audience. As soon as people realise that these hierarchies that rule us depend on a mass of people at the bottom doing what they’re told, then the Emperor’s Clothes aspect of our so-called leaders will be seen for what they are. It can’t happen soon enough for me. If you look at the rather portentous notes I stuck in with The Topography Of The Lungs back in 1970, I still think those ideas remain relevant. That tradition of socialism has – has – to come back. Tony Blair can’t wish it away, because it’s a grand tradition. We don’t need to worry about the failures of Marxism, because in this country we have a robust socialist tradition that goes all the way back to the 17th century. “Politics is often underrepresented in discussions of Coltrane,” he avers. “The emphasis is always put on the manic saxophone practice and the super technician, and not enough attention is paid to his philosophical inclinations. While he was still with Impulse! he was already looking for opportunities to help younger musicians and do something for the community. That’s more important than any ideological label like ‘Marxist’ or whatever. When his Impulse! contract came to an end and he was selling enough records to bargain, he put out the first version of Cosmic Music by himself. He was prepared to take it to that point, to say to Impulse! that ‘I’ll sign a new contract if you’re prepared to do these extra things, if not I’ll do it myself’. A very brave decision at that stage in his life – and that’s real politics.” When it comes to having power and heading up hierarchies, Evan Parker himself, of course, reigns supreme over the European improvisation scene. With the launch of his own label, psi, in 2001, his patronage and ability to grant honours have escalated. How does he view those responsibilities, and the truism that power ultimately corrupts? “There are ways to use power positively,” he rebuts.
“Employing musicians in contexts which I think will be favourable to their work is one, and through the record company I can offer things to people, maybe before anybody else can.” Like Peter Evans, the wunderkind New York trumpeter who issued his debut solo recording, More Is More, on psi in 2006? “Perfect example, and doing that record has had a remarkable effect. Of course it’s horrible that a ‘fast track’ exists and that I – somehow – have the ability to confer this advantage. But what else can you do? The guy’s exceptionally talented and you’re not sure any other label will respond. If he wants it out – yeah, I’ll put it out. It’s perfectly possible that the benefit is all mine, because I look good in relation to that, but the future of the music is there. Responsibilities are privileges seen the other way round, and I’m looking outwards. “The thing I struggle with, though, is finding a formulation to thank people who buy the CDs. There’s a problem – the people who steal most music are the people who buy most music. You can’t demonise people for copying CDs. All you can do is thank them for buying the bit they buy. Buy ten and get one free? How would I do that? I’m not sure, but if you’re buying psi CDs, thank you, because you make it possible for us to carry on.”
The Topography Of The Lungs, Parker’s defining 1970 trio record with guitarist Derek Bailey and percussionist Han Bennink, unwittingly became the Clockwork Orange of improvised music – an essential document snatched from circulation because of extra-musical skullduggery. The relationship between Bailey and Parker was fraught and angry by default, and eventually their irreconcilable differences led to the sour break-up of Incus Records, the company they had co-founded with drummer Tony Oxley. But perhaps a divorce was always somewhere on the spectrum between probable and inevitable. Bailey – the arch proponent of ‘non-idiomatic improvisation’ – who in September 2004 claimed that jazz “died in 1955” (The Wire 247), was necessarily going to have issues with the Coltrane-absorbed Parker. A condition of the Bailey-Parker division of Incus was that Topography Of The Lungs was not to be reissued as long as Bailey remained a director. “That was a strange extra clause Derek wanted,” Parker
Caroline Forbes (glasgoW); Jak kilby (WaTTs, qeh)
Parker’s grounding in the music of John Coltrane – particularly the saxophonist’s tumultuous Impulse! era – seems so absolute that other inspirations are sometimes overlooked. Dave Brubeck saxophonist Paul Desmond is often cited as a formative inspiration, and Parker corroborates that at the start “I very much wanted to play like Desmond – he was a very considered builder of lines.” But then other figures beckoned. “Desmond was never especially interested in throwing himself over the cliff edge, and that’s the difference between him and Lee Konitz, for example,” he continues. “They’re working broadly in the same language, but Konitz is more of a risk taker. Then with Coltrane you’re going to a different room in the house, one with many more danger signs on the doors.” Coltrane’s revolution transcended strictly musical preoccupations because his work demonstrated forceful awareness of the social conditions surrounding its creation – he led rather than followed, with the fabric and structures of his music symbolising his vision of change. 40 years after his death, too many disciples have reduced Coltrane’s legacy to patterning
At London Queen Elizabeth Hall, 2006
EVAN PARKER The Wire 39