Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Sensible Spontaneity

Evan Parker Quartet, The Vortex, London

I can't admit to having much of a taste for, or even much knowledge of, completely free jazz. This comes in spite of (or perhaps because of) being a trained jazz musician myself. I am frequently stunned by the recorded improvised concerts of pianist Keith Jarrett, but this may well be more because of the hypnotic reverie of the style and sound than any technical mastery in the performance. Group free improvising can sometimes feel rampant, excessive and indulgent, without the restraining influence of composed melodic and harmonic structure. It's also frequently difficult to connect with on an emotional, rather than theoretical level. I definitely felt this at Wayne Shorter's highly acclaimed London Jazz Festival perfomance late last year. Although there were moments when everything clicked, and the musicians seemed almost divinely inspired, they were ultimately just moments, and the concert as a whole felt stuttering and tetchy, with the group mostly failing to complete the good ideas they started.

Watching Evan Parker's quartet at the Vortex tonight, just one in a series of monthly performances at the venue, certainly challenged some of my ingrained prejudices against the genre. Predictably, there was plenty of fast and furious blowing, at times an unfathomably intricate barrage of notes being emitted from Parker's saxophone like some unpleasant discharge. Like other free performances I've seen, there were two sets of continuous, unbroken music but, unlike lesser performances, Parker and his technically adept group varied mood and texture with consideration and impeccable timing. As a result, the performance was never anything less than engaging, and frequently even inspiring.

For me, some of the best moments were completely unexpected, such as when the band almost dropped to a ballad tempo mid-way through the second set, and the pianist ushered in an audacious solo with some distinctly bluesy chord patterns. Similarly, during the first set, an eerie calm descended, and Parker's playing suddenly became gentle and lyrical, before returning to the fiery, muscular style for which he is renowned.

For a drummer, the set proved particularly illuminating. Tony Marsh played with palpable sensitivity and control, producing a bewildering array of sounds that made the kit seem positively orchestral. Whilst he demonstrated a comfortable fluency around the kit, the two noticeable occasions he settled back into marking time enabled the group to shift to a different gear, and his phrasing, often mimicking or reacting to the ideas generated by the melodic instrumentalists, felt musical and considered throughout. It's exactly this kind of careful integration and contribution that I strive to achieve with my own ensemble playing, and it's always great to hear when someone has it nailed!

Thanks to James Partridge and Tom Millar (two future stars of composition and performance I have no doubt) for persuading me to listen with an open mind. Parker is the most significant contributor to freely improvised music in Britain - and it's an honour to be able to see him perform in an intimate venue.

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