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Evan Parker/Joe McPhee: Chicago Tenor Duets

Harsh, splintered tone, notes pulverized into tiny fragments of sound, brutal lines that flow with infernal logic: that’s the Evan Parker tenor sax style. Or is it? In the first of the Chicago Tenor Duets the English master and Joe McPhee almost breathe together, in uncustomarily (for Parker) longer note values and straight sax sounds, without overtones or multiphonics. Shocking! There is more relatively mellow Parker in several other duets, too, even, dare I say it, instances of melody by the pair in “Duet 9.” On most of the CD you can hardly tell who is playing what, especially since McPhee now and then appropriates Parker’s distinctive techniques. The American is by nature a much more discursive player, and Parker’s response is to move with him, abandoning large designs and gaining some rhythmic variety. If the disc has meandering passages, there are also plenty of successes in which lyricism and complexity twine (and for all their stylistic extremes, there are lyrical strains in both players). Recorded in 1998, this session is the most recent among these five CDs.

One reward of considering these albums as a group is hearing Evan Parker change characters for each setting. His best sustained playing and grandest designs are on Nailed; at least as much as Cecil Taylor, he makes this disc valuable. In keeping with the endlessly hyperactive momentum of pianist Taylor, bassist Guy and drummer Oxley, Parker creates flowing lines of shattered phrases that yield long, convoluted sonatas. The first few minutes are soft while Taylor, especially, quietly adds layers of density to the textures. Great tension emerges almost imperceptibly; somehow the quartet becomes a maelstrom of fast, virtuoso intensity. Guy and Oxley are especially supportive of Taylor’s tornados. The bassist works extensively in high tones while Oxley rat-tat-tats a wide range of sounds, in constant colorful activity. The content of this 1990 concert is mostly exhilarated violence, with much repetition in Taylor’s extensive high spatters and swoops. By comparison, another Taylor-Parker meeting, The Hearth (FMP, 1988), conveyed a wider range of feelings and velocities.

The three CDs on Parker’s Psi label first appeared as Incus LPs some years ago. Collective Calls (1972) is from an early stage in his long, immensely rewarding partnership with the wonderful percussionist Paul Lytton. More sensitive than Oxley, Lytton develops solo and accompaniment lines from his wide-ranging sounds and dynamics, rather than from rhythmic elements, as well as layers of low, long electronic tones and organlike crashes. On “Shaker” and “Some Mother Blues” his playing reflects static into true, if abstract, interplay rather than mere shock value-in this he was an improvising pioneer. Lytton frees Parker to create quite varied sonic and structural responses, mostly on soprano sax, on tenor in “Peradam,” which rises to a sonic phantasmagoria. These lines of surreal development have their own intrigue-here reflective, there extroverted and worlds removed from pre-Ayler tonality.

On From Saxophone and Trombone (1980), George Lewis plays a lot of vivid trombone in very mobile lines; for instance, much of “Three” is lively argument that moves to his low growls versus soprano spits and quacks. I like the flair of his swooping curves in “Four” and his low-flying airplane sounds in “Five.” But this CD also includes an unusual amount of restrained Lewis, with lengthy muted or split tones and low mutters. Often it sounds like the two are feeling each other out, and Parker is forced into the foreground. There’s virtually a catalog of his soprano techniques-slap-tonguing, key-clicking, circular-breath twittering and so on-along with some genuinely musical playing and some more hellish tenor, too. Generally fine interplay between these two.

Six of One (1980) is all solo soprano sax. The solos are twittering machines – the familiar Parker circular-breath, perpetual-motion exhibitions that begin and end arbitrarily, possibly when he becomes exhausted from using his mouth as a bagpipe bladder. The fast, repeated cycles have tiny consonances and squabbles whirling away in minimalist, almost-repeating patterns. Since the solos move at rocket speed, it’s probably inevitable that his fingers keep falling in similar patterns. One solo is pretty much like another and, as I believe Ornette Coleman once remarked, Parker sounds like the saxophone is playing him. Six of One is an obsessive kind of virtuosity, free improvisation without freedom. Nevertheless, Evan Parker is a major figure in today’s jazz, and Nailed and Collective Calls are especially rewarding albums.

Originally Published