Evan Parker’s love affair with the saxophone began when he was still a teenager. He started playing at age 14, and soon found a group of musicians who were as interested in West Coast jazz as he was. His hero was Paul Desmond, a member of the Dave Brubeck quartet. Had he been a California boy, Parker’s love of West Coast jazz might not have been very noteworthy. But he was living in Bristol, England, far away from any major music scenes of that design. For observers—critics and fans alike—what has made Parker a standout in the world of improvisational jazz is not only his skill and creativity, but also his energy and passion.
In his Down Beat review of Parker’s release, “Waterloo 1985,” in October of 1999, Jim Macnie said that, “the saxophonists’ playing is hallmarked by potency.,” In December of 1993, another Down Beat reviewer, John Corbett, talked about Parker on his release, Conic Sections. He commented that, “Anyone who thinks they know about contemporary saxophone music but hasn’t heard the solo-soprano work of Brit Evan Parker is gravely mistaken. Taking the most extreme elements of late Coltrane [John Coltrane, American saxophonist who died in 1967]—overblowing, multiphonics, biting and slaptonguing hte reed, cross-patterned fingering—Parker has combined these with seamless circular-breathing and rolled them into a one-man sonic adventure, certain to dumbfound you on first exposure.,” If Paul Desmond was his first love, Parker discovered the music of John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy shortly after that. According to Paul Keegan for Down Beat in July of 1994, Parker said that after he discovered Coltrane and Dolphy, “I started to depend less on ideas coming from my peer group and to formulate my own ideas. Coltraine and Dolphy became the absolute dominating forces in my life.,”
Perhaps Parker’s greatest luck was being born to a father who was a pilot for British Airways. He was born on April 5, 1944 in Bristol, England, during the last year of World War II. By the time he was 18, his father arranged to send him on a two-week trip to New York. His interest in jazz had clearly become more than a youthful obsession by that time. That trip was the first of several he would be able to take thanks to his flight privileges. Parker talked about his first trip to Keegan, telling him that, “I saw Dolphy play at Birdland, and I was astonished at how easy it was to see him. Just walk in and there he is. It was like being in the presence of God.,” When he was 22, Parker was invited by drummer John Stevens to sit in at a club Stevens ran. There he met the players who would be a key to his future, including, Derek Bailey, Kenny Wheeler, Barry Guy, Dave Holland, Paul Ruther ford and Trevor Wats. These were the people doing what interested Parker the most: innovative improvisation.
Parker’s first step as a professional was with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. Along with guitarist Derek Bailey, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer John Stevens, Parker had already made a name for himself by 1970. His first recording with that group in 1968 was Karyobin. He joined Wheeler for two albums for ECM, Around 6 and Music for Large and Small Ensembles. By the mid-1970s, Parker played with many American free improvisers, including Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton and George Lewis.
The influence John Coltrane had on Parker would be unmistakable throughout his career. In a biography of Parker, for All About Jazz, Robert Spencer noted that, “his tone sounds a great deal like Coltrane’s, and his phrasing recalls some of the last words from the master: the twilight pyrotechnics of Interstellar Space and Expression. No one, however, would ever hear Evan Parker playing either tenor or soprano [saxophone] and mistake the player for John Coltrane. Or anyone else!,”
In his introduction for an interview he did with Parker in 1995, for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, John Shiurba said that, “There once was a time when jazz was jazz, and then came Evan Parker. Although the British saxophonist humbly explains his ground-breaking ventures into ‘free improvisation’ in the late 1960s as simply following in the tradition of John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, the truth is that he and his associates literally
Born on April 5, 1944, in Bristol, England; son of a pilot.
Debuted as a member of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble with Kaeyobin, 1968; broke ground in free improvisation, late-1960s; other releases include Two Octobers (with Paul Lytton), 1972-75; Saxophone Solos, 1976; Monocerso, 1978; Incision, 1981; Tracks, 1983; Chicago Solo, 1997; Most Materiall, 1998; Unify Variations, 1999. “Evan Parker Festival,” held in New York, 1994.
Addresses: Email —[email protected]
brought the walls down, creating a music so exciting and different that it virtually defied categorization.,”
Parker has done more than 140 albums since that first recording in 1968, 49 during the 1990s alone. Most of the recordings were done in limited pressings, and therefore very few are still available for listeners. The long list of recordings includes work he has done solo, as well as his many collaborations with others. John Corbett interviewed Parker and German saxophonist Peter Brotzmann, who met in 1968 when Parker went from London to Bremen, Germany. While their work has taken them in various directions, and they no longer find themselves on stage together as often, they still shared common beliefs regarding their music. According to Corbett, these saxophonists are, “The two most influential voices in improvised reed music from Europe.,” One of those beliefs they share has to do with the spirit of jazz and improvisation, and the importance of a group doing the improvising together. When Corbett asked Parker if the “idea of living music,” still implied the core of the social activity from which it emerges, he answered, “I would say that you have to have something to bring to the group, and a great way of finding what you have to bring to the group is to work alone. Not just practicing, but finding what ideas you can sustain in performance. You must have material that you can bring, rather than coming every time ready to be blown by whatever current crops up but without any ability to steer or create a current yourself. You have to be able to push as well as pull, to supply food as well as eat. It’s not enough to come to the table hungry; you’ve got to bring food.,”
Parker seemed to follow his own advice-playing both alone and with other similarly directed and gifted musicians, still a relatively small pool of a couple of hundred jazz artists for whom improvisation was the focus. Two recordings made in the spring of 1998 and reviewed by Corbett for Down Beat in April reflected how much Parker was continually willing to stretch to new dimensions. The first of these recordings, Monkey Puzzle, was a duet with New York reed player Ned Rothenberg, who joins Parker’s soprano and tenor saxophones with his bass clarinet and alto saxophone. Corbet noted that the collaboration was a, “hugely exciting encounter that should utterly floor fellow saxophonists, this disc offers yet more evidence of the seriousness, openness and collaborative spirit of Mr. Parker.,” The other recording, Most Materiall, paired Parker with percussionist Eddie Prevost. About one of the selections, “Rejecting Simple Enumeration,” Corbett said that it combined “Prevost’s bowed and stroked cymbals with relatively static, long-tone matching sax,” while another song, “Chastise Me, But Listen,” was a free-jazz hit for tenor and kit, Parker’s tensile tenor coiling up and springing like a venomous snake.,”
Parker’s music was the subject “The Evan Parker Festival,” in New York in the late summer of 1994. Crowds were packed into the three concerts he gave during the week of music and interviews. Kevin Whitehead said in Down Beat that “his music’s really about fluidity, about continuity in change.,” Much of Parker’s success has to do with his participation in the group effort, with whomever he might be playing. He has never seen himself as being the center of the music, only as a part of it.
In a September 1999 review for Down Beat, reviewer Jon Andrews talked about Parker’s most recent recording, Unity Variations, which was a 1998 improvisational concert duet with pianist Georg Grawe. “It’s never easy with Evan Parker,” wrote Andrews. “No one demands more of audiences and fellow musicians than this uncompromising saxophonist does.,” Parker intends it that way. “The whole philosophy of why we improvise is to maximally involve the listener,” he told Shiurba. “You always get more of people’s attention if they think they’re witnessing something they may never see again.,”
Well into his fourth decade of performing, Parker showed no signs of slowing down, or softening the work his audience must do when listening to him-on recordings or in live appearances. When he was interviewed in 1987, he reflected on his 20 years of playing and talked about his future. “With luck, I may have another 20 to go-after all, it’s a fairly physical music. It’s still the same instrument with the same buttons on it,” he said with a smile. “It’s just a different imagination. Different music from a different time.,” In the years following that interview, it seemed as if Parker was more active than he had ever been. Despite the physical demands of the music, Parker’s imagination was still fertile.
Karyobin, Island, 1968.
Two Octobers (with Paul Lytton), 1972-75.
Saxophone Solos, Chronoscope (U.K.), 1976.
Monoceros, Incus (U.K.), 1978.
Incision, FMP (Germany), 1981.
Tracks, Incus (U.K.), 1983
Conic Sections, 1993.
Darn It! (with Paul Haines, et al.), 1994.
Breaths and Heartbeats (with Barry Guy and Paul Lytton Trio), 1995.
Three Blokes (with Steve Lacy and Lol Coxhill), 1996.
Chicago Solo, Okka Disk, 1997.
Natives and Aliens (with Barry Guy, Paul Lytton and Marilyn Crispell), 1998.
Monkey Puzzle (with Ned Rothenberg), 1998.
Most Materiall (with Eddie Prevost), 1998.
Unity Variations (with Georg Grawe), 1999.
Waterloo 1985 (with Paul Lytton, Paul Rutherford and Hans Schneider), 1999.
All About Jazz, October 1998. Available at:
Chicago Tribune, January 11, 1999.
Down Beat, Jan. 1992; Dec. 1993; July 1994; Sept. 1994; Nov. 1994; Oct. 1995; Nov. 1995; Dec. 1995; Feb. 1996; June 1996; April 1998; May 1998; Sept. 1999; Oct. 1999; Jan. 2000.
Rolling Stone, New York, May 14, 1998.
San Francisco Bay Guardian, June 21, 1995.
Village Voice, New York, October 8, 1996.
CDDB Online, http://www.cddb.com/xm/cd/misc./46e63cbe214b5025 (April 2000).
“Evan Parker biography,” All About Jazz, www.allaboutjazz.com
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