Evan Parker
Boustrophedon

(ECM)

There aren't many words that will put me in a bad mood - and will make me prepare for the worst - as fast as "Specially Commissioned Pieces", especially when this expression is used in tandem with "World Premiere". Why? Because, far from being an expression of "true love for the Arts", most of the time the financial backing procedures that pay high dividends to factors such as those I've just mentioned, won't take into consideration - or, will take them for granted, as being basically unimportant - the actual outcome of a work of Art. An important sub-category that's quite common, dating back from the old days, is the one that can be defined as "extraordinary coupling": when one bets on the chance that two things that are already very good when consumed one at a time - say, spaghetti and jam - will taste even better when consumed together. (In a worst-case scenario, a faithful writer will write about "very interesting results, which derived from the strident friction of such disparate, maybe even incompatible, elements".)

Those "interesting, unexpected jam sessions" are nothing new - and besides, Max Roach played duets with both Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor. But at a time when The Event - or, better said, waiting for The Event (after all, don't we all live in the age of "pointillist time"?) - is the only thing that really matters, everything else is of no importance. So, anticipating a time when both Braxton and Taylor will go to the stage in the Sky to play with Max Roach, there were those who thought it wise to have them play on the same stage together, here on Earth. And sometimes it almost looks like tours and couplings are planned taking into consideration people's birth dates - and their most recent blood exams.

So I was more than a bit sorry when, a few years ago, I happened to read about an "extraordinary collaboration" involving Roscoe Mitchell, Evan Parker, and various musicians going under the name Transatlantic Art Ensemble (that's quite clear...). And I was sorry precisely because, both as instrumentalists and impro-composers, Mitchell and Parker have been at the top of my list since practically forever. Which made my deep disappointment for the first of the two albums released by this "extraordinary collaboration" hurt even more.

Assembled in the course of some phone conversations at the beginning of 2004, the aforementioned Ensemble rehearsed for a few days in Munich, in September. On the 10th the ensemble, under Parker's leadership, played their first concert, with the Mitchell material being performed in the course of the following night. The names are quite well-known: Mitchell (performing on alto and soprano sax) called frequent collaborators Tani Tabbal (drums and percussion), Jaribu Shahid (double bass), Craig Taborn (piano), Corey Wilkes (trumpet and flugelhorn), Anders Svanoe (alto and baritone sax) and Nils Bultmann (viola), while Evan Parker (here on soprano and tenor sax) chose Neil Metcalfe (flute), John Rangecroft (clarinet), Philipp Wachsmann (violin), Marcio Mattos (cello), Barry Guy (double bass) and Paul Lytton (drums and percussion).

Released last year under Mitchell's name, Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3 left me cold. At eighty minutes, it was miles too long - eliminating the first and last tracks immediately gave the album a much-needed sense of levity. But it was the whole that puzzled me. And even taking the individual performances into account, with the main exception of a tenor solo by Parker and one by Svanoe on baritone, there was nothing really noteworthy. By the way, my impression hasn't changed since the time I wrote my review.

I can only formulate conjectures as per the reasons for such a disaster, which made me even more curious about the soon-to-be-released album under Parker's name. Having listened to the album for some time now, I've come to the conclusion - which can be reasonably described as "accurate and definitive" - that it's indeed quite good.

Boustrophedon is a nice album, required listening. By means of hypothetical reasoning, I'd say that Parker has managed to make better use of the musicians than Mitchell - this being true of both "one's own", and their Transatlantic counterparts. Maybe - just maybe, OK? - Parker's plan was a bit less ambitious than Mitchell's, but more "realistic"; maybe (what I perceive as) a lower degree of responsibility on the part of the musicians made for a more "coherent" whole?, while for the listener it's easier to grasp and enjoy. It's also true that this time Parker formulated more detailed instructions than in the past, that the materials took shape inside a framework thanks to (what to me sounds like) a careful editing work: many stop moments, fade ins/outs, contrasting colours, all sound as being ex post. There are also some "familiar effects" at the arranging stage - cadences, climaxes, instrumental "backings" - which make soloists stand out more; there's also a careful, crucial, relationship between the main instrumental voices and the background parts. All could be due to Parker's long leadership of the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble.

The CD's structure is quite clear: a brief Overture, and a Finale where musicians briefly solo; the main part of the album presents six tracks, each featuring two different soloists - one for each Transatlantic side - in a careful and ever-changing dialogue with the ensemble. In so differently from its "twin" CD, here Steve Lake's liner notes are quite thorough and precise (one really tiny exception being his "slip of the pen" about the flute soloist on Furrows 1, who is obviously Neil Metcalfe, not John Rangecroft): a fact that will make it easier for the attentive listener to enjoy (the structure of) the work. A very important thing, the recorded sound is excellent.

Toms and tympani open Overture, then flute, piano, violin, viola, clarinet, muted trumpet... It sounds almost like a minuet, and a tuning-up. Unison chords bring it to its close.

Furrow 1 features flute and piano as soloists. Nice work from the strings, and a "still time" atmosphere that reminded me quite a bit of Mitchell's work. The closing part, with those strings and a piano playing "staccato", made me think of Anthony Davis and his mid-sized ensemble, Episteme.

Furrow 2 has a quiet dialogue between the violin and the viola, glissando notes, and an appropriate strings and winds comment in the background. The close sounds "cut".

Furrow 3 fades in... with clarinet, piano, strings, double bass. One soloist on this track is the cello, playing very nice harmonics, with a string background. Nice clarinet, playing "held" notes, and a grieving double bass. Then, piano, flute, and cello play a chamber-style trio. At 7' 19" there's an abrupt change (a cut?), then an Ellingtonian-sounding orchestration; a fast, swinging tempo; an alto sax solo, with backing from a "be-bop piano"; the close is for the whole orchestra, playing unison.

Furrow 4 has two soloists: the clarinet (echoes of Gershwin?), and an agitated trumpet, the latter played under Mitchell's direction. The clarinet solo is quite meditative, with a "pastoral" background from the ensemble. After the trumpet solo, the track ends on a "held" trumpet note.

Furrow 5 has the two double basses working as soloists. A slow start (which reminded me a little bit of 1984). At about 3' we have a slow, two-handed piano ostinato. Then strings, double basses again, again the piano ostinato, this time gradually accelerating. Nice close, played "smorzando".

Furrow 6 has Parker and Mitchell as soloists. After a sudden, "heroic", start, Parker plays a soprano solo, which reminded me of a "Sardinian reed". Then everything gets hotter, preparing the right mood for the entrance of Mitchell's alto. Again, we have a piano ostinato, quite audible well before 5', cymbals at 5' 18", then Mitchell at 5' 49". The piece ends quite classically, with some "fanfarette", boom-booms from the drums, and an appropriate little theme.

Finale fades in, then, in a fast pace, the instruments solo, interrupted only by very brief ensemble moments. Nice close, played "tutti".

Beppe Colli


Beppe Colli 2008

CloudsandClocks.net | Apr. 3, 2008