Evan Parker, John Edwards + others, November 20, 2014: Shows I’ll Never Forget

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At the Vortex, London: There was hardly room to swing a sax. People had come to see Evan Parker, John Edwards, Stan Sandell and Payl Lytton, an interesting gathering of free players. There was an air of expectation.

Sten Sandell is a Swedish composer and pianist who has played with Paal Nilssen-Love, John Butcher, Carl-Axel Dominique, Mats Gustafsson, Ellika Frisell, Kristine Scholz, David Moss and many others. He is an author, collaborator and has made many recordings.

Paul Lytton has been playing drums since the late 1950s and has worked with Evan Parker, Barry Guy, and Marilyn Crispell. He was important in the improvisation scene in the UK and Europe, being a founding member of the London Musicians’ Collective and the Aachen Musicians Cooperative. Lytton has also joined forces with Paul Lovens, Chicagoan saxophone player Ken Vandermark and the London Jazz Composers’ Orchestra. He has contributed to a huge list of recordings.

John Edwards is one of the most innovative bass players of the current music scene and has played with John Butcher, pianist Kevin Pollard, guitarist John Russell and countless others. Saxophonist Evan Parker needs little introduction except to say he remains one of the key musicians in the free and improvisation field.

The first set opened with Parker thanking everyone for coming and fitting the group into their busy itinerary as part of the London Jazz Festival. He introduced the players and then the magic began. The music flowed freely between the players. One moment Parker would take the theme, then Edwards, then Lytton and finally Stendell. Then the order would change and the sense of exchange, interaction and intuition between the musicians was clear at times. There was never a still moment.

Paul Lytton is a wonder to behold on drums. He plays at the speed of sound, switching sticks, brushes, tossing flat tops on the skins, letting them rattle until they stop, adding a light tap with the hand here, a click of the cymbal there — and always, always playing. He has a frenetic energy, which is difficult at times to watch as he plays, head down, engrossed listening, feeling and sensing when to tickle the drums or when to beat the heck out of them.

Sten Standell watches, looks and constantly checks until the moment is right and then his playing swells, crescending slowly, slowly to reach a peak and then, just as suddenly, diminishing to a whisper. He knocked the wood, tapped the frame, the lid support, the open strings. At times, he simply wafted a light blanket over the keys, which was too much for one American visitor close to me. When the blanket came out, she laughed out loud. “What is he doing?” she whispered. My answer was silence, as I really did not have a clue — but somehow it worked and suited the moment, which was the point.

John Edwards on bass was, as usual, one of the delights for those of the audience who had not seen him before, and those of us who had. Always understated, his playing is such that it is impossible for him to remain in the background. His lively presentation is utterly engaging as he jigs, bends, hums and teases from his bass notes which a bass just should not make. He could be seen effortlessly switching from bowing to plucking, to knocking in the blink of an eye, forming an almost seamless bond at times with the saxophone playing of Evan Parker.

Parker was in glorious form. His playing proved, if any proof was ever needed, that he is one of the most important players of this age. Not only that but he is generous to the other musicians on stage, never hogging the limelight — other than that which naturally comes about when he gets to solo — and respecting their playing as well.

On this night, this gig, Parker was simply astounding, amazing or any other superlative you care to mention. Words cannot do justice to this player. His intuitive feel for what is required and communication with the other musicians is totally immersing, his playing evocative, anarchic, bristling and then suddenly gentle, passionate and quiet. With no showmanship or attention-grabbing swagger, Parker allows his playing to do the talking for him and it does the trick: He is completely, utterly engaging, a master of improvised playing, at home doing what he does and making it look ridiculously easy.

The first set comprised a range of musical exchanges, some loud and carnal, some quiet and provocative but the extent of audience engagement was demonstrated when it ended — to absolute silence before the clapping began.

Talking to Evan during the interval proved interesting. His history with the company of Brotzmann, Schlippenbach, Han Bennick and Peter Kowald made for good conversation and he is a gentle, kind and very gracious man, talking also of the importance of the next generation on — Edwards, Gustaffson et al. Edwards is very easy company too, and what continues to strike me is how welcoming, open and willing to share musicians are.

The second set provided much the same as the first in the way of surprises: There are, of course, no “numbers” and no breaks, just a continuous exchange of ideas, riffs, themes and atmospheric mood changes. When some things did not work so well, they simply changed tack and worked out something which did — and when it did, this combination created several moments of subliminal bliss, those defining moments which make improvisation the best music on this planet.

Waking from a reverie at one point, I looked round at the totally engrossed listeners and realized it was not just me who felt this. As the music wove its magic, swinging one minute from wild and full to soft and gentle like the tick-ticking of drum and piano or the scraping of the bass strings, it just felt good — and that, surely is why this music works. It is soul music for the spiritually minded.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

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

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