Why the Met? Evan Parker is the closest thing to a celebrity that the European improvising scene has thrown up, but the high art world has always been much slower to pick up on this less prestigious and less trendy little world that has, in large part, been funded by arts councils rather than by patrons or prizes. The last time he was in New York, Parker played at the Tonic, much more in line with his audience and with those he has influenced (that would be Zorn, among others). So how did he end up with a considerably higher profile show at the Met? Through an association, it seems, with photographer Thomas Struth, who was having a retrospective there, and evidently managed to snag a show for his friend as part of his exhibit. The Met was half-hearted about the presentation; here’s the program blurb:
Hailed by the authors of The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD as “one of the finest and most virtuosic instrumentalists working in improvised music today,” Evan Parker creates mesmerizing, spontaneous music using the technique of circular breathing pioneered by saxophone legend John Coltrane [sic]. Both precise, free, controlled and relaxed [sic], Parker’s uninterrupted sheets of sound share a special spiritual affinity–in terms of concentration, focus, and openess [sic]–with the photographs of his friend Thomas Struth, whose work is currently the subject of a major mid-career retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum.
I get it; they don’t care. I overheard a few other downtown types ridiculing the text as well as most of the audience, but I was more worried that indifference and antipathy on the part of passholders and Struthians would make the large, cavernous auditorium completely unconducive to the focus and intimacy required for Parker to soar above his technical skills. (In an interview I can no longer locate, he speaks about nights where his playing hooks on to some higher plane, and nights where the audience must be satisfied with a merely technical performance.) And after the second piece, having realized that the rest of the show would be of a piece with what had gone before, a few dozen people fled the concert hall. (One guy stuck around just to force Struth, who was in the audience, to autograph a book at the end of the concert.) But most of the audience, who probably filled up about 2/3 of the orchestra, were receptive, and Parker managed to fill the room without having to fight them. He was cheered on to three encores and given a standing ovation, and it didn’t seem so much out of obligation as appreciation and surprise. I found it uplifting.
It’s true that most of Parker’s solo work is more accessible than most everything else that emerged from the British scene at the same time. It has repetition, it has flow, it has its own harmony and rhythm. It also is still not to most people’s taste, and I believe that after the show, most of the audience remained people who would not want a Parker album in their house. But this isn’t so bad, since under the right circumstances, it came off for them. It became, briefly, a public music, and I think it’s Parker’s ability to at least adapt to that situation that has let him in for some criticism by his successors and old cohorts. It’s true that Parker’s solo style has settled in the last 15 years on one particular mode of performance, while the 15 years before that were far more varied, but his route towards being an inimitable icon led to that place, and to rest at one unique pinnacle–to become a reference point–is not a creative fault. He’s still instantly recognizable, and the two players who I feel come closest to mimicking his style at points–Ned Rothenberg and Jon Lloyd–exist far more in the jazz world than in Parker’s freer idiom. The free players that followed him–Urs Leimgruber and John Butcher are two of the more paradigmatic–always run the risk of being defined in relation to Parker, but it’s Parker’s clear identity that helps define their own idioms. It works both ways.
Parker being Parker, it is the forceful, concentrated presence of the man that provides much of the meat of the performance. So while I was worried that seeing Parker do his thing would seem a bit predictable after listening to dozens of his albums, the public nature of the event and the specificity of that night, that concert hall, and that audience marked the performance emotionally, even if I couldn’t have detected that from a recording of the performance.
And since High Fidelity had been on television earlier that day, here’s my top 10 chronological list of Parker albums that tower over their peers (based on Parker’s playing, not always as albums in themselves):
1. Monoceros (solo, 1978)
2. Tracks (Parker/Barry Guy/Paul Lytton, 1983)
3. The Hearth (Parker/Cecil Taylor/Tristan Honsinger, 1988)
4. Elf Bagatellen (Parker/Alexander von Schlippenbach/Paul Lovens, 1990)
5. Nailed (Parker/Cecil Taylor/Barry Guy/Tony Oxley, 1990)
6. Portraits (London Jazz Composers Orchestra, 1993)
7. Duo (London) 1993 (Parker/Anthony Braxton, 1993)
8. Sankt Gerold (Parker/Paul Bley/Barre Phillips, 1996)
9. Most Materiall (Parker/Eddie Pré¶¯st, 1997)
10. Live at Les Instants Chavirés (Parker/Noel Akchote/Lawrence Casserley/Joel Ryan, 1997)