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.
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.
Do you see yourself as a jazz player?
Yeah. Jazz has been many different things for a long time and was already many different things when I was influenced by certain parts of it. So I would see myself as continuing, or hoping to continue, certain aspects of a subsection of what gets called jazz. But many musicians are upset by the label and many American musicians are upset by the idea that any non-American could think that he had anything to offer what they see as an essentially American or Afro-American tradition. But I’m not going to call myself a Jazz musician if its going to upset somebody and I don’t want to claim something which is not rightfully mine. I just do this, I know why I do it, I know what inspired me to do it and the labelling of it is actually someone else’s problem. I don’t care what it gets called or what it’s related to. I can only say why I do it and where I see its sources of inspiration and they’re not simply inside jazz, not completely inside jazz… but the core of its sources of inspiration are from particular jazz players.
But inside this current jazz revival, or modern jazz revival, there are different elements at work. There are some people who would really like it to be a museum piece, y’know the equivalent of the attitude that the famous discographer Brian Rust used to have, which was that the last jazz record ever made was 0n the 29th of September 19-whatever is was, 22 probably. I’m sure there are characters on the London modern jazz scene who really do believe that the last jazz record made was on the 1st of April 1968 or something and work within those stylistic limits. But there are other people that genuinely feel this to be the way they want to express themselves and are setting up an interesting problem for themselves. Because how are they going to go forward? If what we’re doing had some historical inevitability, which I think it did – a historical necessity – then these… mmm …these determinations will still be implicit. You know, if you go forward in the complexifying the harmonic language in certain ways then you come up with the problem that Coltrane reached in 1960. If you try and complexify the rhythmic element then you’re also going to come up against points that were also dealt with later, 65 say, by various people, by Cecil Taylor, by Coltrane, by Eric Dolphy, different people. You know, this work has already been done.
Its a very… maybe overly… scientific kind of attitude, well that’s my background. You know, the way you set out to do original work in science was to make a literature survey to see what had been done already and something that had been done already was not a place where you could make an original contribution, was not a place where you could make a name for yourself. And that’s the way I approach music. I want to do something original. If I could go straight to specifics: I loved Coltrane and Dolphy. I heard elements of what Pharoah Sanders was doing, especially when he played with Coltrane, and elements of what Albert Ayler was doing. In Pharoah’s case it was to do not just with harmonics and the overtone series but with articulation, and in Albert’s case it was to do with his control over the overtone series. And it just occurred to me that these were the two places where some kind of synthesis could be made, and it was a small entry point. It was like, I had a small paper to prepare on that subject, if you want to put it that way, it certainly wasn’t a doctorate. It was just a little piece of original work that I could chip in somewhere, that was my entry point. But having made that discovery, if you like… The little truth that that synthesis represented then became my foothold that I could build from for myself, and that’s how it worked out, and everything else really spins through from that. That sense of self has to start from somewhere. All the while that sense of self is determined by how closely you approximate to the tradition which is already existent and outside of you. In most people’s cases that will be how close do they get to be able to sound like Mr X or Mr Y. Then they’ve sort of missed the point, because the tradition is that you’re you, and the evolutionary quantity… err quality, in the tradition is determined by a succession of individuals strong enough to be themselves in a history made up of strong individuals.
I know now that you’re starting to think, ‘Oh yes, if try and make political sense of this then this sounds a bit fascist,’ but it’s not like that. I define a strong individual as somebody who makes that impact on me. So I define Coltrane as a strong individual, I define Monk as a strong individual, this is just the way I see it. It happens to be the way a lot of people who listen to jazz for a long time see it too. So it starts to take on more than subjective qualities. Also there are always people who have been pushed into obscurity just because they couldn’t handle the professional side of it, they had the music fantastically together but survival sets such a tough set of demands. So they are real strong individuals in that same sense, it’s just that nobody’s heard of them. So it’s not a worship of success when I talk about strong individuals, it’s not like picking out the ones that really ‘made it’ and saying, ‘Yeah, I wanna be like them,’ or, ‘I am like them’. It’s not power worship in that sense. But there is a kind of power that comes from authority in performance – making right decisions, carrying something through, carrying a line, and some nights you’ve got it some nights you haven’t. And hopefully on the nights you haven’t someone else in the band has got it and you can lean on them a little, and on the nights you’ve got it and they haven’t they can lean on you a little. There’s no question that something like a version of power and authority exist just through rightness of action, rightness of decision. But this goes away from power and authority in a political sense to power and authority in a spiritual sense, more akin to somebody whose reached a certain stage of religious awareness having a kind of authority because of that state of awareness. Or take it away from that and put it in the realm of psychology if you like; you have a certain grasp of you’re own strengths and weaknesses and operate well within that, power over yourself.
I suppose that what I’m encouraging you to do… I sense that there’s a danger you might make too neat a set of correspondences between political thinking and musical thinking, and there are important differences. Even within a nominally collective situation there are mechanisms of authority which guide the music, determine it. John Stevens is a good example of that, he’s a very dominant personality with a very clear set of ideas about what he wants to happen, what he doesn’t want to happen, someone who is very forthright about communicating those desires through the sounds he makes at the drums. So …the notion of an egoless way of playing, I think that that was discovered not to be an accurate way of thinking. it’s a kind of late ’60s model which maybe still gets talked about… The music has gone different ways since then. You see I think there was the feeling that if you, if we, could play totally for the group, could play in a way that was a response to what was there already, in a certain way in a deferential response to what was there then this was more truly collective. But there’s a kind of naive quality to that thinking because if everybody adopts that line then there’s no music, because there’s no starting point, because nobody wants to assert themselves enough to say, ‘the music could start here’. You had beginnings to suggest that the music grew from nothing, grew out of the background noise, so somebody scrapes a chair and somebody says, ‘Okay we’ll start from there,’ so the first gesture was a response to a sound from the environment. This was a way of starting that seemed to be not about asserting yourself and was therefore preferable because it showed your humility. In a certain sense that was the closest that the kind of aesthetics underlying free music came to the kind of John Cage aesthetic of egolessness… But in the end – well, I’ll speak for myself but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one that that could say this – I discovered that asserting myself was part of the discipline and part of what was required.In the end it was more interesting for me to acknowledge that I was doing this because I wanted to do it and that there are certain things that I would like to happen. As long as I remain sensitive to the things that other players would like to happen there’s actually nothing wrong with me guiding the music in a particular direction for a certain part of the time. The distinction between that and a kind of coarse domination of things either by straightforward playing or by using your power as an employer to make sure that other people do what they’re told – the distinction between that and recognising yourself as an active wanting element in the situation is quite big enough. I mean I know the limits, I know the limits between positively wanting something and negatively not wanting something – denying somebody else a set of opportunities. So I think the idea of collective music has changed a little bit, away from being influenced by Cage and Eastern religions towards, I don’t know, towards a set of values that are determined by its own history. Now that the music has a long history of its own it’s generated a different set of values.
Do you think that difference is partly between the actual conditions you’re living in, i.e. between the ’60s and the 1980s? You must look at what you’re doing very differently now…
Ha!…(as if to say, ‘so that’s what your getting at!’ Followed by a long, long pause.)…
….I don’t. Sorry, but I don’t. And I don’t see what I’m talking about as a response to the political climate or the socio-economic climate at all. It’s to do with the experiences inside the music and getting to know people and deciding what the limits to a particular relationship are, based on some kind of sense of… possibilities left in the music – where to go next? What work remains to be done?
There are many things that are different between the 1960’s and now, and therefore I have to see them as different. If I talk about the Little Theatre Club as the actual start of doing this kind of thing for me; nobody was doing it to make a living or to earn money. I mean we all wanted to do that and nothing else and we had to find ways of earning a living. So in this sense in the late 60s it was pre-decimalisation, pre-EEC, you had a cheap food, low rent economy. If you didn’t want to buy things, apart from pay your rent and eat, you didn’t need very much money, you could live on next to nothing in fact, and that’s what most of us were doing – living on next to nothing and playing this music and hoping that we were professional musicians. Some people were professional musicians in conventional areas of music to earn a living and did this in their spare time. What’s changed is that most of those people, to one extent or another, are doing this music professionally, and that’s a big difference. That’s something that we made happen as much as anyone else, because if we hadn’t stood up, both collectively and individually, and asserted our cultural worth then we wouldn’t have the professional performance possibilities that we have today. That’s a big change and I’d be a fool not to recognise the differences in that. But it doesn’t mean that my attitude to what I’m doing have changed. It means that the circumstances in which I do it have changed and the circumstances have changed because of a certain individual and collective determination that things should change. But that’s not quite the same thing as saying that the attitude towards playing has changed. It hasn’t, the attitude towards playing, and the ideal, remain the same
I’m interested not just in improvisation, I’m interested in… err… music! I’m interested in improvisation because it leads me towards the realisation of a particular kind of music, not interested in music because it allows me to improvise. The interesting thing is that my idea of what that music is changes in response to a notion of where the improvisational process can lead it. So it’s actually a very complicated set of priorities and relationships, but the final priority is a sense of music, fulfilled, complete music, that’s what I’m looking for. I’m not interested in improvisation in that sense that it corresponds to some ideals of lifestyle or something, or some philosophical thing. In fact I think there are other areas of life where improvisation can also be inappropriate. It’s not like the Dice Man or something, it’s not my philosophy at that level. It’s got to do with some idea like the specificity of a given situation, not to make the mistake of generalising from one specific set of circumstances to another specific set of circumstances.
The same problem I apply in every group is how to be me and how to make a contribution to this particular thing. How to do both. And sometimes you end up doing one better than the other, you end up being you better than making a contribution to the group, or you end up being a good part of the group better than you express yourself or be you. And ideally the institution become transparent and becomes only a natural consequence of everybody being what they want to be together, and all wanting the same thing. But that’s totally idealised and I haven’t spent 20 years in an ideal world I’ve spent 20 years in the real world. And I know that there are egos, there are fights, there are disagreements, there are powerplays, there are unpleasentnesses, there are ambitions, there are greeds. I mean, all these people who played together in the ’60s are at one another’s throats now! Well, not necessarily at one another’s throats but there were rows inside the groups, people fell out, alliances, shifting alliances, X plays with Y, X falls out with Y, Y plays with Z, X doesn’t speak to Z, you know. Y and Z fall out, X and Z form a group together, it just goes on and on – these are the negative things. There are also so many positive things about it that it’s kept me in it for 20 years, because I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do. I love the people. I love our weaknesses just as much as I love the strengths. I chose it. I helped make it, or a certain part of it and it’s still what I want to do. When it isn’t what I want to do then I won’t do it anymore.
Your solo playing seems to be what you’ve become ‘known’ for, particularly in the last five or so years (…) Now, the collective aspect that you’ve spoken about is absent here. Playing solo and developing a style to the extent that you have seems to represent something very different…
…To try and pull that into some kind of coherent relationship to the other things that I’ve said: If you do accept that egoless performance is not what you’re about, and I think that most people have accepted that, for myself I acknowledge that while too rigid a sense of self can be detrimental to the freest kind of improvisation, no sense of self can be very detrimental to the possibilities of collective improvisation. So having acknowledged that a sense of self plays a role in what I’m doing then I would like to work on that and see what it means, work on it in a way that is as full as can be worked on. It feeds the other thing that I do with certain possibilities which wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t developed that solo music.
…if I start to think, ‘how many lines have I got going at this point?’ then I couldn’t do it, it’s like if a centipede asked itself how it could walk it couldn’t do it. I’m thinking about it as something that I’ve got happening by hook or by crook… I have to take things to a certain point and get things happening and then they work best on their own. The psuedo-polyphonic aspect is almost a byproduct of trying to get other things happening. It works best if I just allow it to happen. In a solo situation it is very much easier to use equivalents of the theme and variation approach to improvising without actually having fixed themes. There are patterns that I refer to over and over again which are simply to do with the number of fingers on each hand and the number of holes on the instrument. These are the fixed points, these are the things I have to accept as being given every time I go back to the instrument. So very often I start by going through something which is just an affirmation of that then see where the logic of that takes me.
Something that may compensate for the rather austere nature of solo saxophone as sound is solo saxophone as process. As a process its actually quite inviting… and I that that’s what people can hear when they listen to a solo performance of mine. They can hear a process being worked through, material being worked through, they can hear why things change, how things start and how one thing turns into another. So maybe that’s where the interest is as much for me as the listener…
What effect does playing have on you?
It’s a sense of fulfilment, a sense of gratifying work, work in the sense that work produces a sweet essence, the kind of work that everybody should be allowed, should find for themselves…
This is a quote from you, ‘It seems to me that behind the music must lie some indescribable condition to which the music alludes.’ (from Impetus: 6, 1977: 256). What do you mean by that?
(long pause) …it would come close to something like a religious sentiment. Which is that… there is purpose in the universe… reality behind reality, and that many parts of it are unknown to us… And part of what life’s about is either to come to terms with what you’re never going to know or to learn more about what it is possible to know. So in that sense the saxophone music as an assault on the technical limitations of the saxophone alludes to a life which… makes questions… asks questions which may never be answered.
I don’t think I can do much better than that, it’s not very good but in that sense that might be what’s alluded to. This small life and the bigger life – the life outside the music, they are the same thing, they should be the same thing. But the indulgence that performance space represents and the possibilities for …self indulgence in a positive sense… that is equivalent to the kind of possibility of reflection, meditation or contemplation that certain quiet moments or moments of inspiration in life in general offer. So it’s a more concentrated dose of those same kind of things, moments of …what? …insight! What does that mean? It means that you suddenly think that you understand something, and when somebody asks you, ‘Well, what do you understand?’ all you can do is kind of point to this sunset, or this tree, or this wave, or this painting, and say, ‘Look, don’t you see it?’ ‘Words can’t express it,’ and so on. So it’s very hard to get words to express what words can’t express, and when you talk about the music alluding to something else, that ‘something else’ may equally be the kind of thing that doesn’t succumb to a verbal description any better than the music itself does. With this kind of discourse I think the best people are the ones who just drop into poetry and refuse to talk analytically… I think poetry is powerful… daily discourse is functional, analytical language is intellectual, art language is poetry, or inspired writing, creative writing. There’s a certain point where it’s just as hard to say what’s behind the music as what’s in the music. I think I’ve done my best – it’s to do with unknowables and mysteries and senses of that, and moments of a sense of a purpose or a sense of a destiny, a sense of a relation to things, a personal relationship to all that out there. It’s the language of poetry, or religion or high philosophy, but not the language of the interview…
(30th November 1987)