"History will bear this out," wrote Downbeat critic John Corbett, an insightful Chicago-based jazz scribe not prone to hyperbole. "Evan Parker is the most important saxophone innovator since the late '60s." Next question: Just who is Evan Parker, anyway?
If you're unfamiliar with one of the most mind-bending sounds ever to leap out of Adolphe Sax's cantankerous invention, there's no need to apologize; Parker has yet to cross the great divide separating global pop stars from bona fide musicians. Needless to say, Parker belongs to the latter contingent.
As an unrepentant practitioner of no-holds-barred improv for nearly 40 years, this inspired Englishman is a hero within the once-exclusive culture of the aural avant-garde. At the vanguard of all post-Coltrane saxophonists, Parker blows with coarse texture and athletic intensity, shouldering a stylistic trick bag worthy of a virtuoso, specializing in split-tones (in-between notes) and multi-phonics (two or three notes at once). Close your eyes and you'll hear a wolf howl--or a baby whimper. Parker's zigzag sax cuts every which way. And when he stands alone on stage in Carrboro this week with back arched and horn thrust forward, locals will witness Parker's trademark technique of circular breathing, which allows him to play on and on without pausing to draw in fresh lungfuls of oxygen. Only the gasping audience will emerge breathless.
Thanks to the unflagging efforts of fellow musicians, as well as grassroots organizations such as the Triangle-based AIM (Alliance for Improvised Music), free jazz has experienced a surge in popularity. With his titanic tenor and serpentine soprano saxes in tow, Parker's not-to-be-missed solo gig at 8 p.m. on Thursday, April 19, at the new Carrboro Century Center signals that there's something in the air.
Born in 1944 in Bristol, Parker began playing the saxophone at age 14 and soon fell under the potent spell of John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. Daring experimentalists, Trane and Dolphy were fast-forwarding jazz past the conventions of their musical contemporaries, and Parker was intrigued. In 1962, the budding saxophonist was lucky enough to witness Dolphy in action at the legendary Birdland club in New York City, an event he recounted to Downbeat magazine.
"I was astonished at how easy it was to see him," Parker said. "It was like being in the presence of God." Parker was soon off and running, first as a cog in Britain's then-burgeoning improv scene and, by the '70s, a recognized pioneer alongside like-minded free-spirited European players. Coincidentally, longtime Parker associates, drummer Han Bennink (Holland) and saxophonist Peter Brotzmann (Germany), have recently graced Triangle stages courtesy of AIM--indicating, if nothing else, that jazz is not, and never has been, the exclusive property of Americans. Whatever handle you hang on the music that Parker joyously creates, it is delivered in a universal tongue, exotic yet surprisingly accessible.
Parker chatted with me on the phone last week from a sweltering hotel room somewhere in the Southwest, perhaps a hideaway frequented by the ghost of some legendary Texas-born saxophonist like Arnett Cobb or King Curtis--cats who blew horns filled with equal parts gusto and grit. If so, Parker's clipped Brit-tones betrayed no distraction but rather a warmth gained over many miles traveled in search of the muse.
The Independent: When you play solo, are you playing the room? Are you aware of the acoustics or the vibe of the room in general?
Parker: Yes, all of those things are important, and I'm aware of all of them. The sound that the reed makes is dependent upon the character of the room. The size. The shape. The effect of the room's acoustics can be quite subtle or very obvious. In certain rooms, there's quite a lot of resonance, and certain things become possible which wouldn't be possible in an ordinary place.
Also, what the whole business might mean to those who are listening goes into the pot as well. If I have a feeling that what I'm doing has meaning for somebody else, I play better.
Are there situations where the room becomes almost like a duet partner?
Well, yes, that would be a way to describe a place that produces very interesting resonances.
Can you describe the preparation that you go through before a solo concert as opposed to, say, a date with your trio?
There's really no difference. The preparation includes [everything], the whole of my life that has come before the concert. There is nothing that I would claim to do specifically to prepare. Sometimes circumstances don't permit it, but I do like to visit the room where the concert will take place an hour or so before the show and get a sense of what the read of the room is like. It's nice to know how I feel in the room.
There seem to be many saxophonists playing solo these days, yet that's something you've been doing for decades.
When I started, there were only a few people who were doing it. I was only aware of Anthony Braxton and Steve Lacy. Now it has become almost--oh, I don't know--a rite of passage or something. You almost have to do it.
Would you look at that as part of your legacy, that you've influenced others to play solo?
(Laughing) Oh, I don't know. It would depend on what they were doing and if it made sense.
If they're playing well, you will take the credit?
Of course I will (laughs).
Lately, there also seems to be an increased interest in more adventurous forms of improvised music, an interest in players who improvise with intelligence and abandon ...
Intelligence and abandon? Not those two!
Help me. I'm trying to come up with a description of those who play freely. Is there an increased awareness internationally of that certain kind of music?
Yeah, I think there is. In increasing numbers, people are unhappy with the idea that they are merely well-trained consumers of something that has been prepared for them on high, far away from where they live. They are unhappy choosing from things that have already been chosen for them. People are now seeing that life is more complicated than that. And more interesting than that. People are examining their own appetites and interests more closely.
There are probably technological explanations for some of this. Certainly the Internet has the potential to be an enabling device. If you're looking for one reason why a taste for things un-prepackaged seems to be evolving so rapidly right now, I would start right there.
Will you be playing both tenor and soprano saxophones in Carrboro?
Do you generally like to play unamplified?
Yes, if the room supports that, I much prefer it.
OK. Thanks for letting me interrupt your reading.
No, don't worry. I'm truly looking forward to coming to North Carolina.
For more information on Parker's April 19 Carrboro gig, call 968-0478 or visit baobabcomputing.com/aim/, the AIM homepage. For e-surfers, a neat Parker Web site also resides at shef.ac.uk/misc/rec/ps/efo/mparker.html