FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 1989-2004


Victor Schonfield


Evan Parker is a star of free jazz.

Firstly he is a virtuoso. This is not to say that he relies on excitement; in fact he lacks the kind of extrovert temperament which would allow him to do so. Nevertheless you can be pretty sure that in the course of an Evan Parker performance he will do a few things which are not only extremely difficult, but also absolutely spectacular.

Next, he is remarkably consistent. Many improvisers - even the greatest - find it hard to reach their optimum level, so that the selective listener ends up keeping relatively few of their recordings. Yet although Evan Parker has become one of the most frequently recorded jazz musicians, in a wide variety of contexts, he still maintains a high batting average. Out of sixty-odd records where he is prominent which have come my way, I have held on to a good two-thirds appreciate the full extent of his recorded output, the Evan Parker Discography by Francesco Martinelli is required reading.

Above all, he is creative. By 1970 he had found a unique and compelling voice on both his instruments, and. more than a quarter century later it stands out as much as ever.

Just the same there is a case for saying that at this is more or less irrelevant to his greatest achievement, which is not finding and exploring a personal style, but helping to develop a whole new musical idiom. This idiom, of course, is the distinctive conception of collective -Improvisation worked out by the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) in 1967 under the leadership of the late John Stevens, as documented in the SME CD Summer 1967 (by the Stevens-Parker duo, and a Stevens-Parker-Peter Kowald trio) on Emanem 4005.

At first the conception was extremely rigorous. Not only did the musicians aim at true spontaneity, without copying, and without prearrangement - they also tried to make solely ensemble music, with every musician playing an equal role the whole time, and no leaders or soloists. John Stevens used to advocate that everyone should be an accompanist, and that the best approach to both playing and listening was to focus on the relationship between the performers.

Those involved with pure "group music" remained few, but in due course they also took up a looser less demanding version of the same basic approach. It is this informal type of free collective improvisation which has become accepted as a common language for an army of improvisers throughout the worId. Here is not the place to discuss how far this language derives from John Stevens and his colleagues, and what other sources should be taken into account. But what seems reasonably cIear is that whenever two or more set out to make music together in this way, they are taking part in an activity of which Evan Parker was one of the pioneers.

Although they had all played together before, these musicians did not perform as a quartet unfit late 1996, since when they have done so several times. According to Evan Parker all the members come from the London school associated with John Steven's Spontaneous Music Ensemble, and the whole record reflects that influence. Having said which, the listener will of course quickly recognise that four tracks start with an unaccompanied solo, after which the soloist drops out, and the three remaining performers play together. But except for this frame work the improvising is unconstrained. It should be emphasised that everything you hear is exactly as it was played. There has been no cutting or splicing - only a selection of some pieces rather than others, which included some duo performances.

John Russell, whose solo opens Half and Half; was born on 19 Dec 1954 Brought up by his grandparents in Kent, his first gigs were as a rock guitarist while he was at Ashford Grammar School. He had a year's private lessons in conventional guitar but otherwise is completely self-taught. At the age of 17 he moved to London, aImost immediately finding his way to the Little Theatre Club sessions presented by John Stevens, and starting to take part. Apart from his 1996 duo CD with Roger Turner Birthdays (Emanem 4010), John is most satisfied with his recordings alongside John Butcher and Phil Durrant - Conceits (Acta 1 - a 1987 trio LP), News From the Shed (Acta 4 - a 1989 quintet LP), and Concert Moves (Random Acoustics 00I - a trio CD from 1991/2). John plays acoustic guitar exclusively.

The soloist of the title track, John Edwards, was born in Hounslow, West London, on 30 May 1964. He started as a drummer with rock and pop groups, and as a maker of wooden instruments. The first time he heard free music was at a concert of Company in 1985, and he did not take up the bass until 1987. He appears on several recordings as a member of B Shops For the Poor; God, and the Pointy Birds, but the enclosed is the only one representing his current work.

Mark Sanders, who opens the proceedings on Mayday, was born in Beckenham, South London, on 31 August 1960. Mostly self-taught, he too began as a drummer in pop groups, and his first gigs were at RAF bases in Germany when he was 18. He was introduced to jazz and free music by Paul Rogers, and the main influence on his playing has been Will Evans. He continues to play in a variety of contexts, and has recorded with Elton Dean, Roswell Ruddy, Spirit Level, John Lloyd, and playing compositions for dancers (the Cholmondeleys and the Featherstonhaughs) by Steve Blake.

Each title was given for a reason. Fly Vision is what Evan Parker thought he heard John Russell say this made him think how the world night look broken up to a fly because of the way its eyes are made, and how this is analogous to the way a quartet brings four different points of view to bear on the music. However what John Russell actually did say was `'fly fishing" and this too gets: Evan's imagination working. He compares sitting behind the desk in a recording studio to fishing on a river bank. The fish are the musicians and their music. To catch them, the bait and hooks are the microphones. The line is the cables, the reel is the controls, the net is the tape ... Evan forgot to find a role for the fishing rod in this flight of fancy, but he did say that he finds record producing extremely satisfying, in fact as satisfying as playing in its way.

London Air Lift of course, is a reference to the 1948 Berlin Airlift, when Russia blockaded the land approaches to West Berlin, and Britain, France and America kept their occupied zones of the city supplied by air. Half a century later the help is going in the opposite direction: London musicians have to thank a Berlin record company for the chance to make the enclosed CD. London Air Lift also has the further implication of lifting the air of London - which could suggest either that the air is oppressive, or else that it is simply massive. Either way, Evan feels that both the titIe and the music have an "up" feeling, reminding him of what Thelonious Monk told Steve Lacy during Lacy's time in his band: "You have to raise the bandstand!"

The Drop, a titIe supplied by John Edwards, folIows on all too obviousIy, as this is the simplest way to transfer goods from air to land. Once again, though, the titIe has more than one meaning. It also suggests the idea of a drop to drink, and a coming down to earth, a return to reality.

Next comes Evan Parker's turn to start things off on his own. Neighbouring Instances is a name from John Russell, who says he was thinking of hyperspace travel, and the notion that one instance immediately- instantaneously - leads into another.

Mayday, the international cry for help, is in the first place a call to Jost Gebers of FMP: please record our band! The double meaning here is that May Day, the 1st of May; is celebrated by the Labour Movement to affirm the solidarity of workers throughout the world, and their determination to resist their attackers. May Day had a special significance for Britain in , when the titles for this CD were decided, as it was the date of the General Election which overturned eighteen continuous years of Conservative governments.

One Thousand CIicks - for John Stevens is really the name of a performance which does not appear here, a performance inspired by John Stevens's composition CIick Piece. Because of the desire to pay tribute to John's memory, however the name was retained, even though it was decided not to use the music.

Half and Half was named in honour of Mark Sanders's parents: his father comes from Deptford (London), his mother from Belize (Honduras).

Finally Rough Diamond- Harry is a tribute to a jazz fan. This is Harry Diamond - photographer, Bohemian, and artist's model, subject of a welI-known portrait by Lucien Freud. Harry Diamond is still around in Soho, and Evan Parker describes him as "a very precious little part of the London jazz scene".

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