Saxophonist Evan Parker is one of the best known of the British improvisers, having an international reputation stretching beyond the normal confines of the improvisation and jazz worlds. Playing with John Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble in the mid 1960s and with guitarist Derek Bailey in the influential Music Improvisation Company (circa 1969) he developed a highly idiosyncratic style on tenor and soprano saxophones, employing techniques such as circular breathing and extremely fast tonguing, which have widely influenced contemporary instrumentalist in many different musical spheres. In addition to varied group work and a number of occasional duos and trios he also plays frequent solo performances. Until 1987 Parker had an important long running professional relationship to Derek Bailey which amongst other things spawned Incus Records in 1970. This musician-run label and their own duets have focused specifically on the most radical and uncompromising aspects of British free improvisation.
Photo © Caroline Forbes
At my instigation our conversation concentrated particularly on relations between free music and politics. He was particularly keen to challenge aspects of what he perceived as narrowly Utopian views of improvising which no doubt had a heavy influence on my own perspectives at the time of the interview.
When I first got involved in the music I was largely politically ignorant or apolitical, I’m not sure which. I mean I was 14 coming from – certainly not a moneyed background, not what you’d call a straightforward middle class background – but something like a lower middle class background; my father having worked hard and got promoted. And he swapped sides in the process, having been a union activist at one stage he abandoned that and got into the lower levels of management. So the only newspaper that came into the place was the Daily Express and the only sort of political discussion was the kind of thing you’d expect from somebody who’d left the Trades Union movement and joined management. So it took me a while to learn there were other perspectives and by that time I’d already been playing the saxophone for, let’s say, at least 2 or 3 years. By the time I was 16 I started to have some political views and started to understand that there was more to life that the Daily Express.
From the age of 16 to 18 I met articulate children from middle class socialist families. There was a couple of characters, one at the grammar school, one at Chiswick Polytechnic, who were just very confident about their political ideas. You know, they came from families where things like that had been discussed. So I remember the Sharpville Massacre for example, and the early CND demonstrations… also my wife came from that kind of background, her father was an active Communist. So I was suddenly mixing with people at that age who… I don’t know… could teach me a lot. Then I went to university and met people that were actually studying politics, and… as far as I could follow the arguments, I thought there were several points where Bakhunin was right and Marx was wrong. So that made it very easy for me to say that I thought Lenin was substantially wrong on several points, and there were probably points where Trotsky was right and Lenin was wrong, and there was no question that Stalin got quite a few things wrong!
By the time it got to ’68 everybody thought the Americans shouldn’t be in Vietnam so that was a rallying point. But once the Americans had left Vietnam the left began to fragment, there was no unifying cause. And then the factions fought with one another for a long time, and probably still are doing. And we’ve paid the price for that. I mean I couldn’t get involved in nonsense like that, y’know, looking over your shoulder about who was right in Russia in 1912 or something. Although I can understand why those issues can become so important because they are precedents for how you go on… But, Marx doesn’t take account, and probably Bakhunin doesn’t take account, of the whole ecological input into the argument. You know, the stuff that came after – limits to growth and so on, from the early ’60s you start to get these books which say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, this limitless growth and development and the technological fixing of the environment is no good, is not going to work’.
It started by being an intuitive view and then got more and more scientific credibility to the point where now even politicians have to take recognition of that fact. Anyway, that was the way I saw it and it made it difficult for me… A lot of friends of mine, grouped around Cornelius Cardew, became interested in Maoism. I’m not sure exactly when that began …70s. Some people stayed with that and then after the changes in China they followed Enva Hoxa. Other people went with the Socialist Workers Party, the Labour Party, got involved in the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, I mean these are the kind of choices there were. But, I dunno, I just like to watch that from the sidelines, okay, when I vote I vote Labour and when I discuss issues I like to be as free to be as critical of the Labour line as of any other line. I like independence. To bring the thing right up to date I’ve even accepted the Hobsbawm line that tactical voting is important, so I’ve even voted for a Liberal because that seemed to be the best way to use the vote to get Thatcher out. Which is… well, beyond urgent! (Laughs.) So that brings the politics up to date in a very compressed way.
For me the two things, music and politics, of course interconnect in an interesting way and as an individual I would like to think that there is some coherence between, or at least not an outright contradiction between, the meaning of the music and my political beliefs. But whether they are a direct expression of one another or connected in any conscious and practical way is another matter. I think that for the most part I feel a bit uncomfortable if things do get connected in that explicit way. I mean I’ve done the odd benefit for anti-racist groups and things like that, but I wouldn’t play for a political party. You know, I wouldn’t turn up and support the local Labour MP, in fact I was asked to do that. I won’t do that, even though I’d vote for him, because I don’t want the music thought of in that way. I think that music’s purer than politics for a start, and if anything politicians can learn more from the music than I can learn from politics at the moment. Things being in the state they’re in.
It’s more interesting to look at the lessons that politics can learn from music rather than looking at how the music can express a certain set of political ideals. I think the music already deals with and solves problems that the politicians haven’t even formulated yet. Albeit on that tiny, small other-world scale, where its much easier to do it.
In improvising you get groups where one… I mean I can play improvised music with (trombonist) Paul Rutherford quite easily. When we talk about politics we do get bogged down in the history of the Russian Revolution and who was right and who was wrong – you know, the First International and the Second International and tactical decisions that were wrong and so on. When we play improvised music together these kinds of disagreements don’t seem to obstruct very much. The fact is that improvising is a way of incorporating disagreements, part of the health and life and vigour of the music comes from the possibility of expressing two different points of view at the same time, within the same piece of music, as long as each allows the other room and recognises their existence. It’s like a… I don’t know… like a non-verbal debate… Either/or always disenfranchises the minority. In a situation where a majority get their way a minority don’t get their way and that’s to do with either/or approaches to problems. In addition to either/or you always have the possibility of both, or sometimes one sometimes the other – alternation. Or an alternation that’s so fast that it effectively amounts to the same thing. This kind of thing, these kind of thoughts, happen I think in music. Like sometimes when I’ve played with John Stevens it’s like ping pong, non-competitive table tennis! (laughter)
Either/or is always very suspect. Very often ‘this’ only makes sense because you always have ‘that’ anyway. So if you only have ‘this’ what is the meaning of ‘that’? Of course, it comes sounding a bit like Buddhism…
Power in a broader social sense is determined by the law and the mechanisms of its enforcement. But power inside an improvising group is not determined by the law in that sense because there are no laws. Authority inside a group is determined by the appropriateness of an action. So this is why I say that politicians can learn more from the music than we can learn from politics. I mean the music is a refined kind of… activity. There’s a phrase of John Stevens’ that describes it very well, he describes it as, ‘another little world’. Which is to say that it’s a small place but it is a whole place. It’s a whole place with another way and err… it’s big enough to live in, when you’re playing it’s the whole place.
-I know what you mean. You’re saying that because you remove the prearranged material, you remove the composer from the picture, that means that everything comes about cooperatively. But there are still certain things that you can’t remove; whose idea was it that a band with 1,2, 3 people in it should play together? Was it musician 1, musician 2 or musician 3? If its musician 1′s idea then musician 2 might very not choose musician 3 to be the third guy in the band if it was his idea, even inside a trio! Even inside a duo if musician 1 chooses musician 2 musician 2 might not necessarily choose musician 1. You can’t idealise beyond a certain point. There are certain realities involved and even in idealised Company, which is supposed to give the participants a measure of control in how things are done, it only gives them that measure of control once they’ve accepted to be part of that particular constellation. And their reasons for accepting it might not be the same as the reasons for them being asked, and if they were to put together a constellation of musicians with the same aim in mind then they almost certainly wouldn’t choose the same players as Derek Bailey chooses. This kind of hierarchical relationship is inescapable, is always going to be there because of the way things come about through individual initiatives, individual impulses, individual responses to the practical problems of how to set up performances.
In coming to me you’re coming to someone that’s tried to make a living out of this thing, ever since I got involved with it I’ve tried to make money from doing it. And I’ve watched a kind of business emerge where there was no business before. To begin with it was, and still is, kind of tacked on to the jazz business. It doesn’t lay very easily in every jazz context – it doesn’t work particularly well in the jazz festival context…
- I don’t know why… because the music is often introspective. The music that works best in festival situations is music that doesn’t question itself, music that has no questions, it just has answers and blats them straight forward at the audience. I mean I respond to that by having a version of the music ready which more or less has no questions too. A way of improvising freely which communicates in a very direct way. I can do it with certain people who I’ve worked with a long time because they know what the ideas are about. But it’s not the ideal performance situation, even a jazz club may not be the ideal situation. In fact, for me the ideal situation turns out to be somewhere like the London Musicians Collective, which is a very rare species of place, which is dying out, not very popular with audiences. Or you can find other equivalent places; back rooms in pubs which are run by musicians are just as good places as the LMC, they amount to the same thing. What’s important is that the musicians should be in control, at least some part of the scene should be directly under the control of musicians, and nothing to do with whether audiences come or whether audiences like what’s happening. It’s like having a… not exactly a laboratory situation… but a completely unpressured situation where the music can be whatever it wants to be. That sounds a bit mystical… where the music can be whatever the musicians want it to be.