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Martin Longley’s Music Blog



Tim Berne blows in front of Buffalo Collision...

PHOTO: Martin Longley

English saxophonist Evan Parker recently hosted a two-week collaborative residency at The Stone in New York City. One of his key improvising partners was Tim Berne, who turns up at the CBSO Centre in Birmingham on Tuesday night, fronting Buffalo Collision. Martin Longley reports...

Evan Parker/Wu Fei/Joe McPhee

John Zorn's intimate venue, The Stone, bases its calendar around selections made by invited curators, but few of them elect to actually perform on all dates of their given stint. English saxophonist Evan Parker chose to appear at every gig of his two week residency, mostly in a duo setting, but occasionally expanding into a trio format. Audiences were at full capacity for the duration, and musical landscapes were significantly varied.

Parker's duet with the Chinese guzheng player Wu Fei offered a rare chance to hear the saxophonist in a spacious, near-minimalist habitat. Wu Fei has been living in the States for nearly a decade, and released the Yuan album in 2008, on Zorn's Tzadik label. She too has been a curator at The Stone.

The guzheng has much in common with the Japanese koto, and is a large, bridged zither-like instrument. The player wears fingertip pluckers, and also has the option of using a slide device.

This meeting was high on empathy. The development of each piece, as Parker switched between soprano and tenor horns, took on the quality of pre-composed music, so precisely attuned were the pair. Wu Fei kept her eyes on Parker, echoing or doubling, sometimes prompting a fresh direction.

She could strike quite violently, but this action might be followed by a silken stroke. Parker united fingers and breath into a furred tenor whisper, or keened sharply on soprano, rippling out shrill co-habiting frequencies, sustained into a pure tonal presence. Parker was leaving more than the usual quota of pauses in his lines, found at his most meditational.

The second set provided a fitting contrast, as well as sharing certain facets. Parker was reviving an old partnership with Joe McPhee, deliberately limiting himself to single horn, thus creating a twin-tenor format. Once again, the pair's pieces were so organised, so instinctively united in their sudden conclusions, that a sense of controlled composition pervaded.

Parker and McPhee were working through conjoined tonal and rhythmic patterns, springing very much from a jazz foundation, but still maintaining abstraction. Their combined tones reminded the listener just how good these horns sound within The Stone. Its ceiling is just the right height, the simple space perfect for cosseting its inhabitants.

Often, the two would share a sound, either showering fleet linear runs, stuttering pocked half-lines or just fingering without mouths being involved. Alternatively, one player would step aside, contrasting his mode with the other's, setting up a variance. During the last fifteen minutes or so, there was the feeling that they were beginning to exhaust their possibilities (wilting in the heat), but this was largely a set to be savoured intently.

Evan Parker/John Zorn/Ned Rothenberg

A keen sense of anticipation was in place for Parker's duet with John Zorn. The gig was at capacity around thirty minutes before its very prompt start.
Once again Parker left his soprano downstairs, set on being the abraded-velvet counterpoint to Zorn's rattling alto. There was only one plastic chair left in the performance space, and Zorn grabbed it, momentarily making Parker believe that he desperately needed to sit down for the set.

Not so, as Zorn hasn't quite become the elder statesman of squall. He just wanted an aid for his characteristic leg-up/horn-into-thigh posture. Their launching salvo was in reality the epitome of youthful raging, though directed with a supremely controlled old-guy precision.

Zorn was self-limiting sounds with his camouflage trousers, clipping curt blarts, throttling in a contained manner. Parker was being more lyrical, more avant-Coleman Hawkins, but at a racing pace.

This first improvisation made the audience tense and breathless just as bystanders. Once again, Parker found a new mood, playing in a very different fashion when compared with his McPhee duet the day before.

This was getting back to the roots of what probably inspired Zorn in his youth. They couldn't possibly sustain such extremity for the second and third pieces, so these explored at a slower rate, drawing phrases out further.

Reedsman Ned Rothenberg was booked for the night's second set, but decided to guest on the first set's climactic number. All three players were seated for this one, transforming into an instant chamber group, as Rothenberg hoisted his bass clarinet.

Zorn revealed how he's chosen these particular white plastic chairs for their non-squeaky properties. This last piece turned to yet another side, as the trio poured out warm, harmonious layers, accumulating a gradually thickening blanket.

Zorn had been religiously checking the time after each improvisation, and at barely forty-five minutes he led the retreat, even though the audience were heartily clapping for more. Time is money, but this was a rich delicacy indeed, so maybe there shouldn't have been too much complaining...

Evan Parker/Fred Frith

This was a particular highlight of the season, given English guitarist Fred Frith's elusive nature on the live platform (at least in many cities). Also, he was one of the less likely playing partners in this run. And there was the music too!

The pair appeared immediately relaxed, and more prone to having a guffaw than most of the previous teamings. It's not clear whether this is a natural vibration between the two, or if Parker was now becoming more settled at The Stone after two weeks in residence. By the time the second set took off, they were even more at home.

Frith's being is so visually and sonically active that he had a tendency to remove the attention from Parker, particularly during the first set. He's a blur of utter resourcefulness, switching from the usual guitar position to laying it on his knees and applying a vast array of extraneous devices, aiming to transmogrify the sound of the strings, yet retain an essentially distinctive tone.

He slipped off his slip-ons, going barefoot on his extended semi-circle of effects pedals. Frith has a volume fader for each foot, and presumably one of them is linked to the pick-ups attached just below his machine head.

Over the decades, Frith has evolved a complete alternative vocabulary, and even though other guitarists might utilise some of these common practices, none can deftly amalgamate his entire language. It's an extremely cutting combination of dexterous string-attack, distortion, sampling, waggled attachments and volume swoops.

Initially, it was as though Frith wasn't listening to Parker, but this might have been caused by the audience still coming to terms with the guitarist's dense event-catalogue. Only after a certain period of adjustment could the viewer impart a democratic spread of attention.

The second set found Parker becoming increasingly dominant, as Frith toned down the visuals (with their resulting sonics), playing more in the conventional position, and even playing more rhythmically and riffingly.

Parker swapped between soprano and tenor with unvarying inevitability, but his actual output was anything but predictable. Each of the extended improvisations could change shape in turn from fractured gabbling to ambient texture-laying, the latter tendencies once again seducing Parker into an area that's not particularly his natural home.

Every micro mood-change made by Frith produces a continually shape-changing rush of sounds. Parker was snuffling soprano bell into kneecap, or emitting high peals that instantly joined up with a Frith feedback manipulation.

Frith spread out tin lids, bowls and paintbrushes on his prone strings, then clattered harshly as he dropped a chain sharply onto whichever metal receptacle. He'd e-bow an organ tone, then sample a palm-beat or a harmonic finger-pattern. Parker would chatter at an even greater speed.

This was improvisation of magnificent substance.

Evan Parker/Tim Berne/Earl Howard

The set was originally billed as a saxophone trio, but it turned out that Earl Howard was more interested in probing his electronics side. He was playing a synthesiser, but creating sounds that would be more commonly found within an electro-acoustic computer program.

The remaining horns were handled by Parker and Tim Berne, one of the more unusual couplings in this Stone residency. The meeting of these two stringent strategists produced some resonant harmonies, particularly when Parker chose soprano to clash with Berne's alto.

They were working in an entwined fashion, very conscious of the music's whole. Howard was padding around them, sometimes capturing their sonic matter and shaping it anew. His electronic palette was particularly strong in its avoidance of any warbling clichés. At one point, Howard decided to pick up his alto, joining in as the trio formulated a precise interlocking of high frequencies and rippling accumulations.

Once again, Parker found himself experiencing a completely different journey with the evening's chosen partners. This was the season's key success: that the saxophonist could constantly renew himself each night, consistently finding fresh musical zones to inhabit.



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