Thursday, 19 July 2007
Evan Parker and Squarepusher Live, 16/07/2007
The weekend after the historic meeting between Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor at the Royal Festival Hall, another intriguing pair was scheduled to perform at the South Bank, this time at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. And, while one of them, Evan Parker, was, like Braxton and Taylor, a veteran of the avant-garde jazz/improv scene, his playing partner, Tom Jenkinson (a.k.a. Squarepusher), was a far more ‘mainstream’ musician, though one with a highly subversive aesthetic. Along with Richard D. James (Aphex Twin), he’s sometimes lumped into the ‘drill n’ bass’ or I.D.M. (‘Intelligent Dance Music’) bracket – for those unfamiliar with the terminology, it basically means that he produces electronic music with enough beats and bleeps to keep any raver happy (and “dancing around like a chicken on fire”, in Jenkinson’s own words), but with plenty of dissonance, noise, and a dash of experimentation. Most importantly in relation to this particular collaboration, there’s also a pronounced jazz influence, especially in his virtuosic bass playing, which he shows off from time to time – though he’s got more in common with fusion-meister Jaco Pastorius than with free music bassists like William Parker or Sirone.
All in all, an unlikely pairing – whose idea was it? Maybe Jenkinson saw what Spring Heel Jack (http://www.scaruffi.com/vol6/springhe.html, http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=11:knfrxqwgldje) have been getting up to in recent years and thought he’d like to dip his toe into the waters too – maybe Parker, who’s worked with SHJ, was interested in finding common ground with another musician coming from the electronic/dance music scene. But this was probably more than just a random collaboration (both men would seem to have enough integrity not to be thrown into something out of media hype – and in any case, this didn’t get too much attention in the press, though the hall was packed on the night). There is, though you might be hard-pressed to find it on first listen, a certain affinity between their musics, in intention if not execution: Tim O’ Neil (http://www.popmatters.com/music/reviews/p/parkerevan-memory.shtml/) draws a parallel between Jenkinson’s ‘Ultravisitor’, which he sees as an unsuccessful, “schizophrenic” attempt to fuse electronic and acoustic sounds, and Parker’s ‘Memory/Vision’, which “bridge(s) the gap in a more intuitive manner…encourag(ing) the spontaneity of real-time interaction on the parts of both the electronic and acoustic portions of the composition.”
Anyway, encouraged to go out of curiosity as much as a hope that anything genuinely interesting could be achieved (though of course I was hoping for that too), I made my way to the QEH. I can’t say I got full value for money (when you include transport to and from London) – this was a pretty short concert, clocking in at around 70 minutes – and nothing revelatory happened to suggest that this is a collaboration with that much mileage in it, but it was intriguing enough nonetheless. Part of the problem was that Jenkinson restricted himself to the electric bass, discarding the electronics he normally deploys, which could have found common ground with Parker’s own experiments in this direction, such as with his electro-acoustic ensemble. And, despite the fact that this was billed on the strength of being an unusual collaboration, they only actually played together for about 20 minutes: the first half was Jenkinson solo (playing four pieces in a 36 minute set), the second half Parker solo (a 20 minute circular-breathing showcase on soprano), then the two playing together (with Parker switching to tenor). Even though they received rapturous applause (coming from the Squarepusher fanatics, I somehow suspect, considering the fact that there were loud screams whenever he finished playing), they only came out for an extra bow at the end – no encore. I read a rumour somewhere on the internet that Warp Records was recording and videotaping the concert, so maybe you’ll be able to hear some portion of this music in a couple of months – and maybe they’ll work together a bit more in the studio (hopefully with electronics), but, on the night, I felt a bit short-changed, though it was certainly no disaster. Here are some more detailed thoughts on the music.
Though often linked with Aphex Twin, Jenkinson seems somewhat milder, less perversely weird, though he is liable to antagonize the audience (“I’m very into abusing the audience, whatever,” as he told one interview), and is a pretty reclusive figure. On this occasion, he was businesslike – no showmanship, just a man with a bass guitar walking out onto a near-empty stage, acknowledging the raucous cheers of the audience with a gentle wave. Dressed in an open-necked shirt and suit trousers (virtually the same attire as Evan Parker – smart-casual, professional but not stuffy), he proceeded to play, standing still for the most part, occasionally taking a few paces to the side before returning to his original position.
His opening improvisation was lyrical and guitar-like, as was much of his playing in the first set – in a similar vein to ‘Everyday I Love’, the beautiful short piece that closes ‘Ultravisitor.’ Of course, there were elements of Pastorius – how could there not be? – but it was less flashy and less ‘jazzy’ in its idiom, more introspective than Pastorius, an effect complemented by the subdued blue on-stage lighting. Jenkinson exploited the deep, resonant tone of the bass, but played his (fretted) instrument with more emphasis on chords than horn-like lines and runs. The mood was mostly one of gentle lyricism (in contrast to the harsh hyperactivity of something like ‘My Red Hot Car’, his best-known track), but there were louder sections, where, amplified by the sound engineers, he produced some loud and aggressive hard plucking sounds.
In the second piece, he alternated between bursts of loud, rock-inflected playing and lyrical meanderings. By this stage, I was beginning to have a problem – there was a lack of any real sense of development; instead, all we were getting was little snippets which didn’t coalesce very coherently (James Lincoln Collier makes a similar criticism of Miles Davis’ playing in his book ‘The Making of Jazz’). At one point, a song-like invention lead on to a more evocative, flowing passage that would have been at home on a film soundtrack. On the third piece, a muted opening saw more pronounced elements of jazz creep in, along with passages that reminded me of classical acoustic guitar music, before he went for a more prolonged virtuoso section, slapping the body and strings of the bass with relish to draw out some deep, throbbing, and sometimes very aggressive sounds.
Overall, however, it felt like that sort of music that might appeal to musicians for its technical prowess (and you have to hand it to him, he is a very good bass player technically) but lacks heart, or a clear sense of direction – to put it in it simply, noodling. Little bursts of his Pastorius stylings on records may be nice, but hearing him unadorned in this context made me realize how they need the innovative soundscapes he conjures up with electronics and beats to make them really work.
So, after a disappointing first set, I was expecting a lot more from the second half. Evan Parker duly obliged, delivering the sort of performance that has become almost routine for him now (I don’t mean to suggest that it was a routine performance –far from it, it was extraordinary and compelling, and he does it as well now as he ever has). Using circular breathing techniques, whereby the performer inhales through the noise, while air stored in the cheeks is exhaled, through the mouth, into the reed of the instrument, he is able to avoid the usual pause-driven nature of the solo, and instead create mesmeric instant compositions which paint a compelling musical landscape. Constant coils of motion are interspersed seamlessly with high-pitched squeaks, reminiscent of seabirds circling over the rolling, endless beauty of the sea (a somewhat pedestrian and clichéd comparison, maybe, but one that really stood out in my mind at the time). He’s developed a way of playing like two men, creating two parallel lines which are played in such close temporal relation that they seem to occur simultaneously. His left hand maintains a circular run, while his right hypnotically punches out a counterpoint, and the shrill bird-cries (harmonics?) pepper the mixture to add what is essentially a third line, which becomes more and more unearthly as he continues, now evoking flutes, violins, bird calls of course, but above all, he is playing SOUNDS – and sound is what Parker and many other free improvisers are interested in above all. About fifteen minutes in, I realize that he’s been playing the same motifs for several minutes – producing a similar effect, now I come to think of it, to Terry Riley’s classic minimalist works like ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air’ or ‘Morning Corona’ (http://www.ubu.com/film/riley.html). I suddenly notice the feeling of a dance – is Parker playing Eastern European dance themes in the middle of the swirling vortex of sound? Even if that was just an auditory illusion, his improvisation did echo that moment when spinning dancers become whirls of colour only, moving so fast that their form becomes indecipherable and they appear as abstractions.
It was hard to see any similarity between this and the Squarepusher solo set, apart from the fact that they had been performed by two men standing on the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, improvising solo and sharing the same bill. How would they interact? They seemed to be coming from completely different places – Jenkinson technically superb, showing off his chops in fast-fingered runs up and down the bass as well as playing lyrically, yet never really developing his fragments into a seamless whole, while Parker created music of great fixity, change occurring incrementally, imperceptibly, in a piece that felt static (in a good way) despite the constant motion. There were no pauses or discontinuities – just one wave of sound rolling round and round on itself and revising itself before going round again.
But here it was, the event round which the whole concert essentially revolved – the meeting of Squarepusher and Evan Parker. Jenkinson came back on stage (as usual, to tumultuous audience reaction), and Parker switched from soprano to tenor sax. As they began, the bassist concentrated on busy rumblings beneath Parker’s tenor chatterings, both creating a hyperactive, spidery, twitching dialogue. They seemed to be interacting well; Jenkinson initiated a crescendo motif, to which Parker responded, before taking that into a more hyperactive feel, which the bassist picked up on. He didn’t seem overawed by Parker, which could easily have happened, considering his newness to the field of free improv, where Parker’s attained near-venerated status – instead, the older man spurred him on to be much more adventurous and coherent than in his solo set, adapting to the rigorous demands of this style of music-making with aplomb. You could see him watching his partner, listening for the right moment to drop out and come back in again, what to play to complement the saxophone line, to create a separate line that was still in dialogue with the other yet had an independence of its own, that didn’t solely on being complementary, on playing a supporting role (though if anyone could be said to have taken the lead, it was Parker). Certain stylistic tics showed Jenkinson’s background – he would tend to play very fast repeated motifs beneath Parker’s more abstract avant-gardisms, for example – but the music nevertheless had a natural ebb and flow to it, moving from hyperactivity to sparse moments where Parker’s breathy sax floated over Jenkinson’s clanging, bell-like bass. It all fitted Jenkisnon’s left-field image – near the end, he went crazy, hands going up and down the bass in a mad circular motion – but he didn’t subordinate artistic integrity to wanky, hollow ‘freakiness’, and, as a result, this was compelling listening. Consequently, the applause when they finished, as so often happens in improv, quietly, after going through some gorgeous high, rippling, watery sounds, was well deserved.