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Evan Parker Live at the Western Front

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It was a privilege to hear Evan Parker play last night, Friday March 22nd, at The Western Front. The concert was a return to a venue that has become a Vancouver landmark for the avant garde, presenting cutting-edge music, dance, film and visual art for 40 years. It also marked the release of Vaincu.Va!, an LP version of a recording from The Western Front’s archives of Evan Parker’s first solo concert there on November 8, 1978, which was the last performance in his North American tour that year,  a tour that Alexander Varty credits as “the first of its kind to be undertaken by a European improviser, paving the way for an invasion of exciting new music.”  In the unfolding of this music, its trans-Atlantic dissemination, last night’s concert was a significant moment, reinvigorating an important improvisational archive, making a history happen. Again.
Evan Parker played two sets, each under three-quarters of an hour: one, an extended solo improvisation on soprano saxophone (echoing the 1978 concert), and the other in an improvising trio with Gordon Grdinaon electric guitar and oud and Kenton Loewen on the drumkit. The Front’s recently refurbished Grand Luxe hall, upstairs, was packed to capacity; there must have been close to 150 people in the palpably supportive and expectant audience, a mixture of neophyte listeners for whom this would be a first experience with Parker’s music live and others who had been following Parker’s music for decades, some of whom I even overheard saying that they had attended the first concert there 35 years ago. I felt a very real sense of a listening community, not only because I was able to reconnect with friends I’d first encountered years ago at events like this, a fairly dedicated long-standing following for improvised music in Vancouver, but also because, before the concert and at the set-break, people seemed genuinely keen to talk with each other, not just about the music they were hearing, but about themselves; it seemed to me that, whatever the aesthetic gifts and challenges that this particular music offered us, it also occasioned a sense of bonding, a coming together, however briefly, of good shared human energy.
The solo soprano set was a single continuous piece that was sui generis for Parker. “Well,” I think I heard him say quietly before he began, “here we go.” Hearing his solo soprano music feels to me like stepping into a thick stream of layered arpeggios, intersecting torrents of 32ndnotes and harmonics that Parker sustains without pause through circular breathing for half an hour or so, at which point he stops; when he plays he doesn’t produce a finished work so much as enter into an ongoing process, a rivulet of shared aural time. The rapid shifting among at least three registers on his horn produce a kind of counterpoint not unlike the compositional practices of Steve Reich (who, like Parker, acknowledges John Coltrane as an early influence), but where Reich’s music seems marked (and this is not a criticism, but an observation) by sculptural calculation, Parker’s polylinear music seems to me not so much an effect of abandon or looseness, but more accommodating than Reich’s to the unpredictabilities and small excesses, the momentary remainders and overflows, of body and breath. I could hear, I could fell the fleeting intensities of those cascading lines resonate and pulse in my ear canals. Resonance: that’s exactly the right term, I think, for what Parker’s solo music seeks, and moment by moment what it finds. He stopped playing as unceremoniously as he had begun, just taking the horn out of his mouth (as Miles Davis had told Coltrane to do back in the heyday), and was met with huge applause for that small room. I have never attended an Evan Parker performance that was less than great, but this short improvisation felt tremendous. He returned to the centre of the stand for what seemed like an encore, but instead of more, he played a 20-second head of a Thelonious Monk tune – I’m not sure what it was, maybe “Ugly Beauty,” though I’m sure that’s wrong – during which his tone shifted markedly, more rounded and plainspoken; he was hearkening back, if only for only a passing instant, to Steve Lacy. At the set break, James Coverdale (I was sitting beside him and Lynn Buhler) said he thought of Lacy too, and that it was something like an invocation to Lacy’s spirit, Lacy who has played the same room so many times, solo and in duo with Irene Aebi and others, in the past. Again, he had sounded an improvisational historicity, in the present, in our presence.
At the beginning of the break D. B. Boyko, the Western Front’s artistic director, presented Parker and artist Eric Metcalfe with copies of the LP, which they autographed for each other. (Metcalfe’s artwork adorns the album cover. He mentioned that he was one of those present who had attended the original concert.)
The second set consisted of two improvised pieces by the trio. For the first, Grdina on hollow-bodied electric guitar sometimes traded flexible lines with Parker, now on tenor saxophone, and sometimes provided resonant string texture; his tone, I thought, was sometimes reminiscent of Joe Morris, although his melodic and harmonic conception was certainly all his own. Kenton Lowen’s percussion – speaking of echoes and allusions – recalled for me the multi-directional playing of Sunny Murray (as on his sixties recordings with Cecil Taylor or Albert Ayler). Loewen started the second piece with sparse bowed metals (although I was back in the audience and couldn’t actually see what he was doing with his hands). Grdina switched to oud, and the idiomatic character of the instrument seemed to affect the playing; Parker offered what I think were largely Phrygian lines, a sort of Spanish-Moroccan tinge: lovely, moving, instantaneous world-music. There was no encore.


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