Obliquities (liner notes)

It was John Stevens, drummer, catalyst and talent scout, who brought them together. The bassist and the saxophonist who would develop into the most consistently astonishing virtuoso players in European improvisation first played alongside each other at the Little Theatre Club in 1967 in early versions of John's ever expanding and contracting Spontaneous Music Ensemble. That most amorphous of bands would grow extra limbs to meet the demands of Stevens's concept-of-the-week, and although Evan Parker and Barry Guy were in and out of the SME until 1970 they were only occasionally in it at the same time. Barry went off to launch first Amalgam with Trevor Watts and Paul Rutherford and then Iskra 1903 with, originally, Rutherford and Derek Bailey. He also worked extensively with pianist Howard Riley. Evan left the SME for the Music Improvisation Company and the beginning of a long association with percussionist and live electronics man Paul Lytton.

Although Parker was to be a member of Guy's London Jazz Composers Orchestra from its inception in 1970 the two musicians played together only infrequently in small groups through the 1970s. In the era of the London Musicians Cooperative, a period when England's most radical voices banded together in sometimes uneasy alliances to confront public apathy and critical hostility – it was a time, let us not forget, when journalists routinely sneered at the "burps and squeaks of the British avant-garde" – Guy and Parker recorded with Tony Oxley's groups on sessions for the Norddeutscher Rundfunk, for RCA and for Incus. Later in the decade there were more or less impromptu trio blows with John Stevens at the Plough, a pub in Stockwell where the drummer had a Friday night residency and where the stormy music baffled the barman and the regulars. But mostly, through the 70s, Barry Guy and Evan Parker were preoccupied with finding the solutions to the musical problems they had set themselves, independently of each other.

If the late 60s had been a period in which members of the "first generation" of English improvisors were engaged in that rigorous pursuit known as "developing a vocabulary" then the 70s, to oversimplify, was largely given over to consolidating these vocabularies by any means necessary. In Guy's case this involved discovering what the bass was capable of in the apparently divergent contexts of free improvisation, contemporary composition and baroque music (from another perspective of course it is all "chamber music"). Jazz gigs which another improvisor might have deemed unpromising also served useful functions. Bob Downes's Open Music, for example, provided a relatively unpressured setting in which Guy could evolve and refine his extraordinary arco techniques. Evan Parker seemed, to most listeners, to be working a much narrower compass, restricting himself to unyielding, hardline free improvisation – even members of Company sometimes asked, "Where's the melody?" – and probing the physics of sound through the medium of the straight horn in particular. But the release of his Saxophone Solos album demonstrated where all of this pushing of the envelope could lead – to "another little world" (Stevens) where the sonic possibilities proved limitless, inexhaustible.

According to the discographies, the first recorded instance of a self-contained Guy/Parker duet is to be found on one track of an Australian-distributed 1980 Jon Rose cassette on the Fringe Benefit label. I must have missed that one. The duo proper begins, anyway, with the FMP LP Incision of 1981. Recorded in Berlin at a time when the LJCO was going through a period of internal turmoil and dissent (such episodes, part of the life cycle of every group, are more fraught in a band comprised entirely of fierce individualists), Incision was, for Parker, a means of confirming a musical and personal commitment to Barry Guy.

The FMP session set the stage for the formation of the trio the saxophonist calls Parker-Guy-Lytton – in deference to the spirit of egalitarianism which (at least ideally) informs free music – and which everybody else calls the Evan Parker Trio. Evan has often said that he founded the group primarily to showcase Barry's instrumental resourcefulness. Over the years the distinctions between the musical languages of the group members have become blurred; in the trio's speeding sound-world the voices overlap. As Parker put it to John Corbett: "The music is based on such fast interplay, such fast reactions that it's arbitrary to say 'Did you do that because I did that? Or did I do that because you did that?'(...) You develop an understanding about timings in terms of speed and dynamics which helps to give a sense of coherence to the performance. It may be interesting for the listener to be able to see why everything happens; that the process be listenable has a use. But I think that what is even more interesting is when the process is lost and things happen that are clearly the basis for an understanding but the understanding is no longer worked through at the overt, explicit level. That's an important qualitative transition in improvised music. You have improvised music where it's pretty clear what kind of things can happen and why and when. And then you have improvised music where the fact there's an understanding is clear, but quite how it works is moved to a level of mystery again".

Why and how Obliquities works is not easily explained (how do you explain the oblique?) but it has to do with the ways in which the bassist and saxophonist have learned, through the years of trio activity, to adapt or translate each other's "material". In this session the instruments are matched in pairs on all tracks save one, the double bass with the tenor, twinned voices of gravity, the soprano aligned with the smaller chamber bass whose higher tessitura permits, as Guy says, "easier access to the upper echelons of saxophone technique". The tongue and the bow apply their gradations of pressure to reed and strings. Parker's circular breathing patterns find their echo in bowed arpeggios. Conversely, Guy's percussive assaults on the big bass will often trigger, instantly, slap-tongue tenor responses. Almost 30 years after the first SME encounters it is difficult, today, to say where Evan Parker's "vocabulary" ends and Barry Guy's begins.

Answering a question about changes in his conducting techniques over the years, Pierre Boulez recently said, "I'm much more 'dancing' now as opposed to the 'cutting' attitude I had then". The changes in the music Guy and Parker have made together strike me similarly. The "cutting attitude" of Incision (!) could hardly be overlooked. Most of the first round of Little Theatre Club alumni maintained their determination to stay on the cutting edge,at all costs, well into the 1980s. Somewhere along the line the gestures of supposedly "non-idiomatic" improvisation began to harden into a recognizable style, at which point the more astute improvisors began to ask themselves: How free is free music anyway?

This is not the place to raise that conundrum, but Barry Guy and Evan Parker have reckoned with it on the stand, year in, year out, and, in the process, the music has grown up: it has gone beyond the need to prove its orginality. Now that its idiosyncratic virtuosity is a given, it need no longer be stressed. The manifestos of "extended technique", like Saxophone Solos or Barry's Statements have already been made. Many years ago, Parker spoke of wanting the music to be "a simple play of acoustic energy", free of neuroses and ego and hidden agendas. Obliquities, for much of its duration, is just this, a dancing, breathing play of energies and ideas that invites us to share its creators' pleasure in the sensuousness and physicality of its sounds.

Steve Lake

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OBLIQUITIES - Maya RecordingsMCD9501

"... As a duo, Evan Parker and Barry Guy investigate a range of detail in their music that is only hinted at in the trio formation with drummer Paul Lytton. Obliquities shows these two instrumentalists at the top of their craft. Barry Guy and Evan Parker share a telepathy for this music that goes back to their first encounter as members of late John Steven's Spontaneous Music Ensemble in London circa 1966. Their discourse here has been honed to a brilliant edge, the communication born out of a deep listening, allowing them to dance through complex figures at lightning pace. Parker's comments in the liner notes are indicative of how far the music has grown over the last twenty years, and the state of global improvising in this period: 'You have improvised music where it's pretty clear what kind of things can happen and why and when. And then you have improvised music where the fact there’s an understanding is clear, but quite how it works is moved to a level of mystery again.'"

DIVIDUALITY - Maya RecordingsMCD0101
The United Kingdom musicians Evan Parker and Barry Guy have met and collaborated on many a project over the. From the early days (1960s & 1970s) with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and London Jazz Composers Orchestra to a myriad of present day projects, they have defined and refined European creative music. In the late 1990s Evan Parker’s interest in electronics brought Guy together on Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble records, Drawn Inward and Toward The Margins, for ECM records. Parker mixed saxophone-bass-percussion with several live electronics and sound processing artists.

For this project on Barry Guy’s Maya Records, the Parker and Guy pare down the electronics and sound processing to a single voice from the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, that of Lawrence Casserley. This somewhat simpler approach doesn’t spare the complexity and the boundless possibilities made available through electronic sound processing. For the most part the recording keeps things austere playing trios and duets with either Parker or Casserley or Guy and Casserley.

Dividuality is all about 'man-meets-intelligent-machines and more like machines-meet-intelligent-man'. Casserley re-engineers sounds and tosses them back at both, giving the musicians something to respond to. Parker’s soprano saxophone hesitates on the pyrotechnics because Casserley seems to always provide his next thought. Guy’s bass finds a mirror and at times a response in the process.

Electronics seem the natural extension of what both Parker and Guy have been working through these many years. This is an excellent recording.

Mark Corroto

When personnel and personality so closely determine the characteristics of an improvisation, the performers' capabilities define the music's possible parameters. The high level of instrumental virtuosity that saxophonist Evan Parker and acoustic bassist Barry Guy bring to Dividuality not only establishes a more complex web of musical details than the other discs discussed here, but also increases the layers of intensity – not necessary through volume, but with a nearly palpable physicality of purpose (similar to, but on the opposite end of the spectrum from, the music on 'Dach').

Parker's sophisticated development and breathtaking control of extended techniques – including circular breathing, whereby he can assemble and sustain endlessly looping patterned phrases, and sharp, precise fragments of notes connected into angular phrases – allows him to direct the musical flow into highly articulated streams of pointed sonorities, mirrored by Guy's thrashing pizzicato and whirlwind arco. Then, Lawrence Casserley adds live electronics and sound processing to, as Cage liked to say, "thicken the plot." The electronics maneuver in and around the acoustic instruments, as the sounds ricochet and rub up against each other in "Shifting," coordinate a co-dependent relationship with the saxophone in the duo
"Aulos," and erupt with roars and rips in the brief, energetic bramble of sound that is "Spinney."

Art Lange

... For almost four decades, believe it or not, Parker and Guy have been performing their high-wire balancing act between ethereal otherworldly ghost music and organic earthen free firmament. Whether in the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, their long-standing trio with Paul Lytton, or Guy’s London Jazz Composers Orchestra, this rich pairing has yielded up consistent pleasures. Only rarely, however, have they played as a duo: Incision, the very rare Tai Kyokyu, Obliquities and now this fine double-disc (graced not only by superb music but by a long informative interview with Bill Shoemaker).

There has been a lot so discussion lately about the influence that first-generation European players like Parker and Guy currently have on junior generations of players. While their skill and power is not questioned, there are many who wonder if the old masters are simply playing in the same styles, sending out messages with the same tone and idiom, simply finding new templates on which to inscribe the same phrases. Even if this were the case (and I’m not entirely sure it is) it wouldn’t mean that the music wasn’t supremely enjoyable. Indeed, there is something to be said for long-standing partnerships as well as for the raw discovery of first-time encounters.

This two-disc set – the first studio and the second live – stands as a definitive document not only of where Guy and Parker now stand but of their cumulative wondrous contribution to modern improvisation. A blow-by-blow narrative of the proceedings is neither useful nor desirable, but suffice it to say that highlights abound. On the studio disc, you can delight in the pizzicato frenzy of “Alar”, the tough “Swordplay” (which is almost a combination of Parker’s more recent return to Jazz phrasing and his familiar slashing darting style, all amid Guy’s veritable symphony of arco overtones), the crazed musical double helix of “Froissement” (with sawing and circular breathing) , and the muscular contrast of “Cut and Thrust”. One key to this music is the ways in which these players use layers of sound (not to say sheets, of course) and generate several different structures at once. For all the force and determination, the seemingly inevitable course of this music, it’s not a power session; there’s a good deal more subtlety than that. The live set opens with ominous shade – a good texture here that sounds new for this duo, almost as if their loquaciousness has been hushed to secretive whispers. These pieces are more patient and exploratory (they’re also longer). I tend to prefer slightly the concentrated studio pieces. “Circling”, however, has some of the nimblest arco/tenor synergy of the entire twofer. This music sounds for all the world as the release is named, like blades being sharpened and glinting in the sunlight while a crowd of tranced out birds swoons and coos at the sight of it. They soar and dive, even putting down roots in the earth on occasion. Your position in the above mentioned debates will surely vary. But whatever you do, don’t deny yourself the pleasures of this music.

Jason Bivins, Cadence, August 2003

Although the results on the one live and one studio session that make up Birds and Blades, usually whirl by at an speedier and more strident pace than what was created by the tenor tandem, this two-CD set is another heartfelt dialogue. Peculiarly, the seven studio-recorded instant compositions are listed as being by Guy-Parker; in contrast the four live tracks that appear to have been created by Parker-Guy. Whether this is a musical version of political correctness or an indication of which player contributes the most to each group of tunes is uncertain. Surely the idea of a duo is that neither partner is paramount. Moving from nomenclature to sounds, the live tracks run a minimum of slightly more than 14 minutes to more than 19 minutes. As Parker notes, the great length results from a fear of finding out the audience isn't enjoying itself. Fat chance. Take "Circling" – an appropriate description of just about everything played on all three CDs – for instance.

A mixture of notated and improvised sections, like everything else the duo plays, it begins with Parker's nearly patented circular breathing reconstructing itself as the sound of a flock of chirping feathered creatures, filling the sky with different melodies and tones. Squeals and strums then arise from Guy's bass as he rubs, picks and forcefully pulls at the four strings. His constant arco motion melds with cheeping, flute-like reed wiggles from Parker, occasionally interrupted for quick dives into the bass clef.

Eventually, as the saxophonist continues to slipslide out of time, producing great gouts of notes, and as the bassman alternately plucks and bows a corresponding number of tones, you feel your head and solar plexus spinning as the two seem to be sucking all the oxygen out of the air. Just as it seems that you can't accept any more soprano saxophone trills and near-the-pegs string bowing, the tempo abates to adagio, with the piece concluding with serene concert bass bowed lines.

Even on the seven studio compositions, the duo's command of their respective instruments, and the resulting extended techniques are such that the absence of drums isn't noted. Parker can produce quick, clean squeaks as readily as rolling purrs from his horns and Guy is as apt to create fingerpicking clawhammer banjo notes as abrasive, many-stringed bowed sounds. As a matter of fact, on the title tune and longest track, the bass seems to morph into a chamber-filling mythical string quartet, though Guy's delivery is speedier and more metallic than that mixture of violins, viola and cello would create. Meanwhile, the mid-range trilling sounds from Parker's soprano sax describe a perfect Catherine Wheel of sound. Falling in and out of congruence, as the reedist's conveyer belt of sounds appears, Guy breaks up the aural pattern with a series of tiny changes – bowing deep into the bass clef, at one point, sneaking in quick, classical cello-like associations at others, and turning to mandolin-like flat picking elsewhere.

In this partnership of more than 20 years, each instrumentalist can improvise on his own, sometimes together, but often apart as the tune unravels. This relationship and the one with Parker and McPhee are probably the only non-exploitative examples of separate but equal that has existed since the time of Booker T. Washington. Jointly and singularly, the improvisers featured on these three discs reconfirm that musical elasticity can be built into even as simple a structure as a duo.

Ken Waxman, Jazzweekly.com, July 2003

The musical association between Barry Guy and Evan Parker goes back over three decades to the Little Theatre scene in London in the late '60s. Though they have recorded together in a variety of contexts countless times, opportunities for the two to record in duet settings have been few. Only a session from '94, on Guy's Maya label, is currently in print. This double-CD set captures a 2001 studio session and a live recording from the following day, with Guy and Parker in top form throughout. Here, their voices are intrinsically intertwined as they move telepathically through a series of pieces that erase the line between conversation and collective spontaneous invention. This is the approach they have been developing for years now, and the improvisations reveal a mastery shaped by collective experience. In the insightful interview in the liner notes, Guy explains, “There’s still a kind of mystery about the interaction, the speed in which things take place. That seems to have gotten keener as the years have gone by, despite our ageing.” Parker adds, “In terms of the resources, the control of the materials, the control of articulations, the intuitive interaction – all of them have gotten better”.

The studio session consists of seven improvisations that move back and forth between concentrated miniatures and more expansive pieces. Their playing has a sense of honed concentration; drilling in on specific sound areas of timbre, density and velocity and then working out from there. For all the freedom, there is a commanding refinement. The live session has a more mercurial edge. Here the two are pushing and prodding with a more volatile energy but still never losing the hyperaware collective centre. And at 15–20 minutes each, the four live pieces provide settings for more expansively evolving explorations. It is particularly intriguing on a piece like “Circling” or the resplendidly labyrinthine “Lunge” to hear Guy’s darting plucked lines and resonant arco combine with Parker’s sinuous soprano whorls, riding the resulting wave while subtly shifting direction without derailing the momentum in the slightest. The two approaches provide an effective pairing, allowing an intriguing view into their organic creative process. These two are consummate improvisers, so expectations are always high for a release like this. But all too often, there is a question of relevance. Do players who helped define the vocabulary of free improvisation still have new things to say? Anyone with nagging doubts about Parker and Guy should head out and pick up this disk.

Michael Rosenstein

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Technical rider

1 small table for bows, brushes, sticks (Barry Guy)
Amplifier: one bass amp and 15" speaker (or combo) of very good quality e.g. Hartke or Gallien Krüger, SWP or Trace Elliott.

If the venue is supportive of acoustic music, the duo will only need amplification for the bass.

Otherwise small PA system with microphone for the saxophone and possibly monitors etc. is needed.


BIRDS AND BLADES (2003) Intakt CD080