Meetings with Remarkable Saxophonists — CD Series Volume 1
John Edwards double bass, Evan Parker tenor saxophone, Eddie Prévost drums
Network Theatre, London Monday 30th May 2011
I have known Evan Parker for most of my musical life. Over this (nearly) fifty-year span we have played together — although not frequently. The context of our meetings, however, has been diverse. I recall Evan drafting me in to deputise for Jamie Muir on a Music Improvisation Company gig (together with Derek Bailey and Hugh Davies) in Coventry during the late 1960s. In a rare and memorable extended AMM performance he and Christian Wolff joined with Rohan de Saram, Keith Rowe, John Tilbury and myself at a concert at St Matthew's Meeting Place, Brixton in June 1984. There have, of course, been other occasions but these particularly stick in my mind. And, I rather suspect this recording will be another such distinctive moment.
For me, the sheer joy of touch and movement is a significant part of making music. It is physically stimulating. This is what I feel is at the heart of this CD. And, I hope a sense of this energy and tactility is translated to audiences who get to hear this (albeit disembodied) performance via the medium of recording. What you will hear is the complete performance — all told — but from the microphonic point of view. It has all the attributes of a spontaneous performance. There were no pre-conceived plans but there is an attendant tension. Within the music there may indeed have been tentative suggestions and protean moments of uncertainty. These, for me, give the occasion a creative authenticity. Anything too tidy suggests contrivance or the avoidance of risk. The too cleanly ready-worked-out takes us down the road towards commodity. The (near) perfect object perhaps attempts to requite the aural appetite. I want life and am happy with some of its accompanying messiness.
Discussions about the nature and practice of music improvisation have been rehearsed frequently and variously. I have done more than my fair share in this department. A commonly offered (if unhelpful) truism is that not everything musicians do — even self-avowed improvisers — is improvised. If a situation was wholly spontaneous musicians could not have instruments readily at hand and, of course, occasions for performance are mostly pre-meditated. What the improvisational practice does require in abundance is openness. The more often a musician encircles the musical moment with predictable responses the less creative — no matter how technically competent — they will be. A repeated jazz solo has incrementally less validity (as an improvisation) as time goes on. To remain aware of — and constant to — creative ideals a musician must discourage recurring patterns (within themselves as well as those of others). They have to be conscious of habitual responses and the curse of reiteration. The discipline requires a metamusical approach; one which revels in personal discovery and surprises as well as being sensitive and active towards incoming signals from others.
If true to the enquiring spirit of a music — which knows itself as improvisation — musicians should luxuriate in what Seymour Wright has coined the 'awkward wealth of investigation'. (fnt. 1) This might seem to follow from Derek Bailey's avowed preferred situation of working with musicians before a common language has time to evolve. However, conscious dialogue is just as challenging a medium (perhaps more so) and as exciting as making new instrumental discoveries. Dialogical wealth can be an even more awkward — if rewarding — specie.
When I conceived the series of concerts with saxophonists I had in mind to play the drums. This side of my musical life has, in effect, taken a back-seat to my explorations of percussion within AMM and its metamusical extensions. Many (purists) seem to think modern kit-drumming (owing much to jazz history) is too inflexible and its performance standards too formulaic to be a potential vehicle for exploration. In experimental music sounds, or textures derived from percussion sources, are preferred to percussive rhythms. I wanted to test this proposition and see how far I could embrace the history of jazz without being a slave to its blandishments: to get beyond being 'a jazz drummer' without (at the same time) undervaluing, or undermining, its most cherished attributes.
As a young man I was held in thrall by the work of two people: Max Roach (the jazz drummer) and George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (an Armenian mystic). If the Melody Maker quote used in the promotional literature of the series is to be believed I may have respectfully transcended a musical hero of my youth; Max Roach.(fnt 2) And, if this was done, it was through attention to my other and silent mentor, George Gurdijeff. His teachings were not wholly to my personal or social taste. Nevertheless, having got beyond the mystique which attracted some of our early to mid-20th century English upper-middle class aesthetes and intellectuals, I found a source of inspiration in the ideas he espoused and the practices he advocated — especially in relation to consciousness, self-awareness and 'being in the moment'. Attributes which, in my opinion, no improvising musician should fail to embrace and develop.
Thus, those with an eye for such things will have noticed, the title of the series draws a parallel with one of Gurdijeff's books: Meetings with Remarkable Men (fnt 3.) My conceit was to invite saxophonists who had different creative approaches to meet with my own less than conventional musical mien. These engagements — it was hoped — would bring forth lots of 'awkward wealth'. And, if the first CD in this series is anything to go by, we were not disappointed. Clearly, the instrumental line-up suggests the classic free-jazz setting, made most famous, perhaps, by Ornette Coleman. However, a lot of horse-hair has flowed over the bridge since. There is nothing artistically emulative in the playing on this CD. It is self-sufficient and confident. It neither embraces or avoids the age-old jazz imperative to swing. Even though there are echoes of such things this music is not primarily concerned with such matters. Questions and explorations of the nature of sound and instrumental technique abound and resound beyond anticipated 'jazz' responses. And, of course, this is not to devalue the heritage and the cognitive value of jazz: things which I am confident Evan Parker and John Edwards (another long-time, if not regular, musical colleague), as well as myself, are proud to be associated. But we remain respectfully outside of what has become its mainstream (and perhaps orthodox) considerations.
Curiously, in retrospect, I see that when I first began to make music in the exploratory fashion — which I think is now accepted as the unique characteristic of AMM — I felt the need for extra-musical explanation, or help. This desire, to some extent, was inspired by the life and work of Max Roach and his like and requited by the ideas, teaching and disciplines advocated by G.J. Gurdjieff. Now, many decades later, I can confirm the practice of making music is a unique way to being. Music, although subsequently lost through the complications of cultural life and the entertainment economy, is I believe, an expression and maybe a reprise of humanity's early moments of self-awareness. As I have tried to explain and develop within my book The First Concert, this may now be most helpfully described by the application of the twin analytical propositions of heurism and dialogue.(fnt 4) This makes for a comprehensive creative act combining exploration of materials and sociality which, at its most productive and civilising, combines both qualities with equal and complementary strength. This amalgam is perhaps sufficient to achieve creativity but it might not be a necessary condition. We are required to be open and alert to what might be possible, useful, advantageous and, of course, enjoyable.
But, of course, dear reader you may safely ignore the fore-going theoretical justification. For, I believe, the sheer joy in playing (as we may observe in a young child) is evident in the music from this concert. I speak mostly for myself, of course, but I suspect that Evan and John would not contradict the notion. Our enthusiasm for making music retains a compulsive, if elusive, character. For me, more than in my percussion work (eg as with AMM) in which tactility is perhaps a defining physical attribute, drumming also gives me the bodily buzz of movement — sheer dancing for joy. My thanks to the remarkable musicians who (stimulating by their playing)came together in this concert and allowed me to experience this feeling to such a high level of intensity.
Eddie Prévost — November 2011