Parker, Guy, Lytton
nine improvisations by Francesco Martinell
Evan Parker's trio with Barry Guy and Paul Lytton has been a working group for ten years now, but began to function in its present form comparatively late, taking about the same time since the first documented contacts between the three musicians: they recorded together in the first edition of the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra in 1972, on Ode (for Jazz Orchestra) Incus 6/7, but their paths had already crossed in that ebullient scene of musical experimentation taking place in London at the end of the Sixties around spots like The Little Theatre Club and The Old Place.
Parker and Lytton first established their duo as a workable situation to improvise and released three albums: Collective Calls (Urban) (Two Microphones), Incus 5, At the Unity Theatre, Incus 14, and then RA 1+2 on Ring/Moers Music 01016. While collaborations with Barry Guy were rather sparse during the Seventies, Parker always considered the bass player first choice, and invited him for his Improviser's Symposium held during the 1980 Pisa Festival, where a quintet was recorded consisting of the current trio plus Paul Lovens and Phil Wachsmann (Incus 37). With typical caution, another duo situation was tried, this time with Parker and Guy, recorded in Berlin the following year (Incision, FM SAJ-35) and the compatibility was confirmed.
Tracks, Incus 42, the very first album of the trio recorded in 1983, seems in retrospective more than aptly named. Since then the group has been steadily or at least regularly working together, but the recorded documentation is apparently scarce: a second album where the three are joined by George Lewis on trombone (Hook, Drift and Shuffle, Incus 45) and another one recorded live in 1986 during a tour in the USA but released much later (Atlanta, Impetus 18617). One could think that the musicians have purposely kept the trio activity within limits. It could become all-absorbing totally dominating their musical lives, so closely knit is their musical collective entity. The clear, dry acoustic of the Red Rose Club in Seven Sisters Road, London where these improvisations were recorded – in the same sequence in which we hear them on the record – makes it easier to appreciate the tremendous excitement that the trio can generate, based on the uncannily instantaneous ability of the players to react to one another's gestures and all together to the situation they are playing in, creating a musical fabric which is at the same time steel solid yet pliable. Luckily they work in other contexts where they can expand their musical horizon: so the fertile musical mind of Barry Guy, the composer and orchestra leader, devised within his scores for the London Jazz Composers Orchestra all manners of interaction between the trio in different situations, placing the ensemble like a concertino in front of the tutti, rotating soloists against it, changing the background, or just using it for a change of atmosphere and timbral balance; and even Elsie Jo (Maya MCD9201) could be perceived as the trio mirrored in a sextet. The Parker section in Portraits, the latest composition by Barry Guy for the LJCO (due for release on the Intakt label) is not titled Triple by chance.
What the three have in common is an attitude toward music making that can best be described in Evan Parker's words as integrity of purpose: a determination to face openly the challenge of free improvisation, that inescapable tension between the establishing of a musical identity and the unhampered development of the music along its internal logic. Every improviser must try to find his or her way – willing or not – around this obstacle; mimicking historical styles, using written music as a framing/orientating structure for improvisation, trying to keep the group of players in a permanent state of flux. This trio keeps the music poised in a difficult balance where nothing is barred but everything must make sense.The players bring into the music all the experience, wisdom and technique gained in more than twenty years of struggle and play with free improvisation; the way they play – for want of a better word, their style – has been refined, and they say more with less, giving weight to every gesture.
Comparing this recording with previous documents of the trio or of the single musicians, it appears that a total, 360 degrees, experimentation slowly gave way, through a process not dissimilar from natural evolution, to a situation where selected elements are retained as part of the common language. This selection is still in progress, as chance, mistakes and loss of total control often introduce unexpected and interesting elements; but in some way they have identified what for them is essential, the areas where they are most interested in working.
The most evident of these is the personal, instantly recognizable, mature instrumental voice of the players. The crisp, tense drumming of Lytton, full of sparkling, atmospheric metal sounds, the rich sound of Guy's bass, its palette ranging from tuned percussion to classical roundness, the many tongues of the saxophones, Parker growling or chirping as the situation demands. In the intervening years they have grown increasingly wary of employing external, mechanic, electric, electronic devices to extract a wider range of sounds from their instruments. Experiments on that side have not ceased however. Parker has a permanent workshop with electronic instruments and computer, recorded with sampling and processing of sounds – Hall Of Mirrors with Walter Prati on MM&T CD01 – and with overdubbing Process and Reality, FMP CD37; Barry Guy explores several unorthodox techniques on his solo recording Fizzles, Maya 9301. The boundaries and aims of this research however are more definite, and they do not enter at present in the music of the trio, where the perception of the physical source of the sounds is always present. In Lytton's own terse words, 'the sources have remained the same: wood , plastic, metal, wire, rubber, skin, liquid, gas'.
On a second level, ferocious concentration and instantaneous interplay seem to be the basic components of their approach; no soloist with accompaniment here, no division between rhythm and melody players; it is sometimes difficult to say who is playing what, with the drummer bowing, the bassist hitting and swishing or slapping sound coming from the saxophone. Explosive sounds in the deepest range of the horn and percussion on the bass make you think of the drummer – and Lytton is maybe playing a small tinkling dance on the top of it; as in Value, a melodic fragment from the saxophone is instantly echoed on the bass, and the rhythmic profile of the idea ricochets at the same time on the drums. Duo and solo passages give air and space to the music, redirecting the energy, charging players and listener for the next reconstruction of the complete triangle.
At the level of material it could be said that every piece is about mood – the material can be a chopped rhythm, a delicate melody, or a timbric shade. Compare the contrasting openings of Invariance and Variance. In the former, the music starts from a deep, breathing, continuous sound, with all instruments (Parker on tenor) slowly changing the texture and building up rhythmic structures; in the latter a spacious ceremonial dance of clear gongs and singing bass establishes the atmosphere. When the music finds its direction, the basic idea is metabolized in a multidimensional space, where it is reshaped, reversed, remoulded, and then comes back in new form. The energy involved is enormous, but this is not mere energy playing, as the development of ideas never takes second place to the sound pressure generated, and there are always dramatic changes in the atmosphere, from the high density of thick, continuous layers of sound simultaneously generated to sparse, airy formations. An example is Identity , where at the beginning high, buzzing long sounds generated by the bowed bass are interspersed and contradicted, first by the cymbals and woodblocks, then by tongue slaps; skins resounding and swishing increase the dramatic content, while slashing figures appear on the soprano saxophone: the bass returns to a pensive mood, alternating between bowing and pizzicato to underline the intricate exchanges of drums and wind through several phases of variation in density and rhythm.
In this context Parker's solos cannot develop the level of intricacy they are capable of (try Conic Sections, ah uhm CD015, for beautiful examples), as the solo style is – in his own words – 'offered to the trio in sacrifice' to be played along with or to be broken into: listen in Distinction to the soothing big guitar sounds of the bass, and the dazzling rotating cymbal figures, commenting on the vortex created by the soprano, being attracted into it and then developing together the piece until the finale, when the soprano is pitched against the grainy dark background of bowed bass and long cymbal sounds, the piece resolving itself in sparse, classical, carefully placed sounds and accents.
This relationship with the solo music is rather the same for Guy; his solo recording already mentioned shows the maturity of his language, an array of timbres and notes disposed in space and time that require a solo situation to be displayed and appreciated in full, and that here are quickly absorbed by the great current of music emanating from the group: the percussive bass/duet Variance is a quick glimpse into this different sonic world, and must be carefully savoured to appreciate the resonant mbira or thumb piano sound coming from the bass.
All through this record, and more strikingly so in the shorter conclusive pieces, the music takes that ultimate sense of inevitability which signals the perfect combination of sensibility, timing and personal creative use of the instruments into a collective statement formulated right in front of the listener. And in the end this is what music is all about.