Shows I’ll Never Forget: Evan Parker, November 21, 2013

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At the Vortex, Dalston, London: Just occasionally, the veil which hides from us all mysteries of other worlds, of suns, moons and stars becomes thinner and we are given a glimpse to the other side. We can see those suns, moons, stars and other places where the possibilities are endless. Music is one medium which can take us there and when it happens — though it is rare — it is pure magic.

On this night, Evan Parker, John Russell and John Edwards did just that. Evan has a monthly residency there and this time was joined by John Russell on guitar and John Edwards on double bass. The Vortex, with its ambience and friendly staff makes a welcoming refuge amongst the busy streets of London. Here, regulars and visitors alike are welcomed and assigned seats at small tables, with candles for lights. The venue is ideally suited to gigs for around 150 people. Those in the full upstairs room were in for a treat.

Evan began by thanking people for choosing to come. There were several other events on as part of the London Jazz Festival — and Cafe Oto, just round the corner, was holding a large event. So he appreciated the fact people had chosen to come and see him.

At Evan’s gigs, you do not expect “numbers,” and the first half comprised two pieces during which the players intuitively picked up from each other, tuned in, played quiet, loud, fast, slow — all improvising around Evan’s lead or John Russell’s rhythms picked out on the guitar. The second half was one long improvised piece, and it was sublime. A riff kept coming back and then they were off, each player taking their cues, picking up from the others. This was improvisation as it is meant to be — players completely attuned to each other and their instruments, with half an eye on the reactions of the listeners as well. It is impossible to put into words which make any sense, but suffice to say that the veil was drawn back, made thin, the tempting other world was seen for a short time and then the veil was closed again — they stopped playing.

Evan, of course, is a wonder. His fingers seem to know no speed limit and he plays with an innate sense of what is needed — whether this is one or a hundred notes, long, slow or played at the speed of light. Watching him, you begin to understand what it means to be a totally intuitive musician. John Russell’s guitar is mesmeric. Changing style, rhythm and alternating between melodic chords to plinking rhythms, he led or followed and created deep undercurrents of staccato to Evan’s playing or provided support to the bass when needed. Together, he and Edwards formed duets, bounced a tune back and forth, soloed or joined with Evans as fitted the moment.

John Edwards was totally, utterly engaging on double bass. Without meaning to, he stole the show. He twines round the bass like a bear round a tree when he plays — his bow, fingers and palms working wonders on the strings and woodwork. He caresses, cajoles and downright forces his instrument to create wondrous sounds, from tiny staccato echoes to full throated resonant throbbing. So involved with his instrument he hums aloud, Edwards did things with a bass I had never seen before.

Call me naive but double bass has never been my favorite instrument: That has changed. At the back of the orchestra or providing thrumming rhythms, most bass players seem happy with their position but this? This was something completely different. Edwards plays with uncanny intuition, seeming to understand what is needed just when and where. Whether he is plucking, bowing, knocking the woodwork, working with the bow behind the strings, using the tuning keys to change the tone and pitch he is mesmerising and entertaining. And he seems to be able to do all at once.

Briefly, during the interval and after the gig, I spoke to Evan because he had helped me with a piece a while back. He is a friendly and welcoming man with a huge grin and told me I was most welcome. I managed to catch John Edwards — pale and slightly drawn with the effort of playing — after the gig too. When I told him how much I enjoyed his playing, he was slightly abashed but pleased it had gone down so well.

The audience reacted in different ways to the playing: Some had seen Evan before, and for some it was a new experience. One guy said it was his first time at a Parker gig and said he had expected something a little out of the ordinary but not this. When I asked him to clarify “this,” he said simply: “That’s the point — you can’t say what ‘this’ is, but I am loving it!” I know just what he means. Another guy left at the interval, telling me he had expected “jazz as he knew it.” (?) Evan once told me the jazz scene in the UK was, in his opinion: “amazingly strong and diverse and seems to thrive on adversity. The cultural authorities have been ignoring it for the past twenty years, hoping it would die of starvation, but they have not reckoned with the determination of people to follow their hearts.” Here, Evan’s playing fully justified the determination of the audience.

Evan is genius — and I do not use the word often or lightly — but he is also lucky enough to be able to play with gifted players like John Russell and John Edwards. Seeing these three incredible musicians together made for one of the best live gigs I have been to.I almost floated back to my hotel, slept like a baby and woke with the music still in my mind. Would I go again? In a heartbeat!

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, and, among others. Contact Something Else! at
Sammy Stein

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