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Dusted Magazine

When generations meet, wisdom usually gets passed in one direction or the other, and avant-garde musicians are no exception. Ken Vandermark has shared a conversation he had with percussionist Paul Lytton, an enduring partner with one-third this album’s core trio, in which Lytton talked about what the first generation of English improvisers had to give up to play the music they played. He wasn’t just talking about the sacrifice of stability that goes with making art on the edges but a personal and artistic sacrifice. To make something authentically their own these improvisers felt they had to abandon the jazz they loved. Decades on, self-restriction is still in play; Evan Parker (b. 1944) sticks to tenor saxophone here, eschewing his soprano, and Eddie Prévost (b. 1942) plays a conventional drum kit instead of the diverse percussives he uses with AMM. But in other respects, this music is affirmation that you can always go back home.
Mind you, this isn’t a new development for the parties involved. Both Parker and Prévost have kept space in their practice to engage the sound of jazz (as opposed to its impulse for growth, change and surprise, which they took so seriously that they ported it with them as they strayed from free jazz in the 1960s and 1970s) for some time. But there’s still something about an album this hefty that declares its own importance. 3 Nights At Café Oto comprises three CDs, one well-shot DVD of highlights from the CDs and a hardcover book of photos that documents a long May weekend in 2013 when Parker, Prévost and bassist John Edwards (b. 1964) played at Café Oto. Oto has been one of London’s havens for the good stuff since 2008. Over the course of the weekend two guests, one an enduring ally and the other a relative newcomer, each joined the trio for a night.
Back in the day, Parker and Prévost were perceived as coming from different improvisational schools, one micro-interactive, the other more parallel and laminal. But that was then. They first recorded together in 1985 on the excellent (and recently reissued) Supersession, whose very name suggested that the notion of super groups was old hat, and whose music confirmed that whatever strategy Prévost and Parker employ at any given moment, they’re all about hearing, responding and making the most of the music that is instantly at hand. The shape that takes on each of these CDs is a pair of sets, each a bit over half an hour, which whip up and die down like weather systems. Parker draws on the more linear side of his playing, stretching long lines that tug and retract in response to Prévost’s swift peregrinations around the kit and Edwards’ persistent instigations to consider all alternatives. Edwards has played with both parties for years, and his work here is a reminder that he is one of English music’s treasures. When things need anchoring, he’s there, and when they get locked in, he is ready to break them open with a strum. And when the rhythm shifts from flow to overt swing, he provides the spring.
The breakdown of the three CDs involves one night with just the trio, one with pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach (b. 1938), and another with trombonist Christof Thewes (b. 1964). The contrast involves more than just the sound of a different instrument, of course. The pianist is known to all, especially Parker, with whom he has shared a trio since the early 1970s. His role here is as an amplifier, weighting the rhythms and elaborating the quieter dialogues. He and Parker easily settle into two-as-one joint improvising, which presents a challenge to the rest of the group. Prévost plays like fast water, flowing into and around what they do, while Edwards stands outside and challenges. Paradoxically Thewes, who had never played with Prévost before, seems more like an instant member of a new quartet. His adroit, querulous voice not only draws Parker into similar territory, but also rides the rising bass-drum energy that rises in the second set like fish in a torrent. Here the exchange of wisdom goes both ways, and while there is history behind the music, it is new again.
Bill Meyer January 2016