EVAN PARKER soprano/tenor saxophones
BARRY GUY double bass/chamber bass
Obliquities (liner notes)
It was John Stevens, drummer, catalyst and talent scout, who brought them together. The bassist and the saxophonist who would develop into the most consistently astonishing virtuoso players in European improvisation first played alongside each other at the Little Theatre Club in 1967 in early versions of John's ever expanding and contracting Spontaneous Music Ensemble. That most amorphous of bands would grow extra limbs to meet the demands of Stevens's concept-of-the-week, and although Evan Parker and Barry Guy were in and out of the SME until 1970 they were only occasionally in it at the same time. Barry went off to launch first Amalgam with Trevor Watts and Paul Rutherford and then Iskra 1903 with, originally, Rutherford and Derek Bailey. He also worked extensively with pianist Howard Riley. Evan left the SME for the Music Improvisation Company and the beginning of a long association with percussionist and live electronics man Paul Lytton.
Although Parker was to be a member of Guy's London Jazz Composers Orchestra from its inception in 1970 the two musicians played together only infrequently in small groups through the 1970s. In the era of the London Musicians Cooperative, a period when England's most radical voices banded together in sometimes uneasy alliances to confront public apathy and critical hostility it was a time, let us not forget, when journalists routinely sneered at the "burps and squeaks of the British avant-garde" Guy and Parker recorded with Tony Oxley's groups on sessions for the Norddeutscher Rundfunk, for RCA and for Incus. Later in the decade there were more or less impromptu trio blows with John Stevens at the Plough, a pub in Stockwell where the drummer had a Friday night residency and where the stormy music baffled the barman and the regulars. But mostly, through the 70s, Barry Guy and Evan Parker were preoccupied with finding the solutions to the musical problems they had set themselves, independently of each other.
If the late 60s had been a period in which members of the "first generation" of English improvisors were engaged in that rigorous pursuit known as "developing a vocabulary" then the 70s, to oversimplify, was largely given over to consolidating these vocabularies by any means necessary. In Guy's case this involved discovering what the bass was capable of in the apparently divergent contexts of free improvisation, contemporary composition and baroque music (from another perspective of course it is all "chamber music"). Jazz gigs which another improvisor might have deemed unpromising also served useful functions. Bob Downes's Open Music, for example, provided a relatively unpressured setting in which Guy could evolve and refine his extraordinary arco techniques. Evan Parker seemed, to most listeners, to be working a much narrower compass, restricting himself to unyielding, hardline free improvisation even members of Company sometimes asked, "Where's the melody?" and probing the physics of sound through the medium of the straight horn in particular. But the release of his Saxophone Solos album demonstrated where all of this pushing of the envelope could lead to "another little world" (Stevens) where the sonic possibilities proved limitless, inexhaustible.
According to the discographies, the first recorded instance of a self-contained Guy/Parker duet is to be found on one track of an Australian-distributed 1980 Jon Rose cassette on the Fringe Benefit label. I must have missed that one. The duo proper begins, anyway, with the FMP LP Incision of 1981. Recorded in Berlin at a time when the LJCO was going through a period of internal turmoil and dissent (such episodes, part of the life cycle of every group, are more fraught in a band comprised entirely of fierce individualists), Incision was, for Parker, a means of confirming a musical and personal commitment to Barry Guy.
The FMP session set the stage for the formation of the trio the saxophonist calls Parker-Guy-Lytton in deference to the spirit of egalitarianism which (at least ideally) informs free music and which everybody else calls the Evan Parker Trio. Evan has often said that he founded the group primarily to showcase Barry's instrumental resourcefulness. Over the years the distinctions between the musical languages of the group members have become blurred; in the trio's speeding sound-world the voices overlap. As Parker put it to John Corbett: "The music is based on such fast interplay, such fast reactions that it's arbitrary to say 'Did you do that because I did that? Or did I do that because you did that?'(...) You develop an understanding about timings in terms of speed and dynamics which helps to give a sense of coherence to the performance. It may be interesting for the listener to be able to see why everything happens; that the process be listenable has a use. But I think that what is even more interesting is when the process is lost and things happen that are clearly the basis for an understanding but the understanding is no longer worked through at the overt, explicit level. That's an important qualitative transition in improvised music. You have improvised music where it's pretty clear what kind of things can happen and why and when. And then you have improvised music where the fact there's an understanding is clear, but quite how it works is moved to a level of mystery again".
Why and how Obliquities works is not easily explained (how do you explain the oblique?) but it has to do with the ways in which the bassist and saxophonist have learned, through the years of trio activity, to adapt or translate each other's "material". In this session the instruments are matched in pairs on all tracks save one, the double bass with the tenor, twinned voices of gravity, the soprano aligned with the smaller chamber bass whose higher tessitura permits, as Guy says, "easier access to the upper echelons of saxophone technique". The tongue and the bow apply their gradations of pressure to reed and strings. Parker's circular breathing patterns find their echo in bowed arpeggios. Conversely, Guy's percussive assaults on the big bass will often trigger, instantly, slap-tongue tenor responses. Almost 30 years after the first SME encounters it is difficult, today, to say where Evan Parker's "vocabulary" ends and Barry Guy's begins.
Answering a question about changes in his conducting techniques over the years, Pierre Boulez recently said, "I'm much more 'dancing' now as opposed to the 'cutting' attitude I had then". The changes in the music Guy and Parker have made together strike me similarly. The "cutting attitude" of Incision (!) could hardly be overlooked. Most of the first round of Little Theatre Club alumni maintained their determination to stay on the cutting edge,at all costs, well into the 1980s. Somewhere along the line the gestures of supposedly "non-idiomatic" improvisation began to harden into a recognizable style, at which point the more astute improvisors began to ask themselves: How free is free music anyway?
This is not the place to raise that conundrum, but Barry Guy and Evan Parker have reckoned with it on the stand, year in, year out, and, in the process, the music has grown up: it has gone beyond the need to prove its orginality. Now that its idiosyncratic virtuosity is a given, it need no longer be stressed. The manifestos of "extended technique", like Saxophone Solos or Barry's Statements have already been made. Many years ago, Parker spoke of wanting the music to be "a simple play of acoustic energy", free of neuroses and ego and hidden agendas. Obliquities, for much of its duration, is just this, a dancing, breathing play of energies and ideas that invites us to share its creators' pleasure in the sensuousness and physicality of its sounds.