Evan Parker, generally considered one of the most significant developers of saxophone playing since John Coltrane, is busy getting together with his long-term collaborators Alex Von Schlippenbach and Paul Lovens prior to their annual “Winterreise”, which includes performances at the EFG London Jazz Festival and in Birmingham later this month, but he found time for this brief email exchange.
Q You have credited a Cecil Taylor gig in New York with sparking your desire to become a “free jazz” musician. Can you still remember how the Birmingham botany student felt and what it was about Taylor’s music that made such an impression? Is the spark still the same?
A I guess the short answer would be, “You had to be there.” I can still remember the look of the club on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, how improbable it seemed to me that Cecil Taylor would be playing there and the small audience – definitely a “select few”. At that point I only knew earlier recordings with more straight ahead drumming and even the Sunny Murray I had heard on Into the Hot did not prepare me for the radical departure from metric playing that I heard that night. This was the Summer 1962 – later the same year the trio went to Copenhagen where the Cafe Montmartre recordings were made. The first person I could communicate with about the significance of what I heard was with the late, and dearly missed, John Stevens, four years later. In that conversation we also talked about Milford Graves, the other drummer who was also developing an open way of playing the drums at that time. Many years later I have got to play with all three of these amazing drummers, most recently with Milford at The Stone in New York last month. The powerful influence of developments back in the early 1960s are still resonating for some of us today.
Q How did you develop your style of playing: were there other influences along the way, or was it largely your own impetus? And how would you describe, in essence, what you try to do in your music? (I realise that this is probably an impossible question to answer but I’m trying to get at what you consider the “essential” core of your artistic endeavour).
A I think in essence I wanted to find my own voice. The way I did it was to play as much as I could in the various groups that were working in ways I found relevant to that process at that time. The key introduction was from John Stevens. His invitation for me to join the Spontaneous Music Ensemble meant that I played not only with him as a duo in a crucial period in the switch from theme based playing to open playing with him. Later with Derek Bailey in the Music Improvisation Company, with Paul Lytton in duo, with Barry Guy’s LJCO. Through John I met the late Peter Kowald, the German bass player and through him Peter Brotzmann and Alex Schlippenbach, Han Bennink and Misha Mengelberg. In London I also played with Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath. Each of these groups required a change of approach, a change of “language” as we sometimes say, and in working out the best materials for those diverse situations I started to feel my voice developing. It has to do with sound, with phrasing and the way of interacting with other players. The need to find a specific approach for each situation is still the main challenge for me.
Q Tell me about the Schlippenbach Trio – how you met, what you think drew you together and what keeps you together as a band over 40 years. How does playing with old friends differ from playing with ones you have only just met?
A I met Alex and joined the trio in 1972 and we have played every year since then. The pattern of late has settled into what we call the “Winterreise”, it means Winter Journey but is also very well known as the title of a famous song cycle by Schubert – irony intended! This tour takes place in December every year, but sometimes late November depending on how the dates fall. We travel mostly by road. This year we will start with two nights in Berlin and finish with two nights at The Vortex in London and play pretty much every day in between for nearly three weeks. We are kept together by many different forces, but friendship and the sense that the music is still alive are the key ones. Almost every detail of the tour has become ritualised, both on and off the bandstand. When, where, how and what we eat and drink, as well as how we set up and prepare to play.
Q The event you are playing at the London Jazz Festival and in Birmingham is entitled Schlippenbach Trio vs Noszferatu. Sounds combative! Is there a combative element to “free jazz”? What is the format of the event? Will both bands play separately, then together? Or together throughout?
A The old notions of competitive playing belong to a different era. I think the idea of versus has more to do with the concept of counterpoint in the sense of dialogue between differing approaches, notated as opposed to improvised, old versus young, familiar versus unfamiliar. The various pieces will deal each in their own way with the resources that the two trios bring to the rehearsal according to the potential seen by each of the composers.
Q (Given that all labels are limited and are just short-hand in order to identify an area of art) Do you mind your music being labelled as “free jazz”? Is there a better label for what you do?
A In some situations, and this will be one of them, “free jazz” is a fair enough indicator of what to expect. With other groups I might prefer it be called “free improvisation” or, when appropriate, “electroacoustic improvisation”. I think the audience will have a fairly good idea what to expect.
Q How would you suggest a listener who might be daunted by the idea of “free jazz” should approach your music? If they come to hear the Schlippenbach Trio, how can they get the most out of the experience?
A These days nothing is more than a few key clicks away. Just put “Schlippenbach Trio” into Duck Duck Go, or whichever search engine you use, and all manner of illicit videos will be on offer and some of them might even be done professionally or to quite a high standard. That will give you a pretty good idea of whether you want to hear more.
- Schlippenbach Trio vs Noszferatu is at the EFG London Jazz Festival on Saturday 16 November (more here) and at the CBSO Centre for Jazzlines on Tuesday 19 November (more here).