Many people had recommended Evan Parker to me, but I still wasn’t prepared for what I would encounter when I actually heard him at Soundscape on October 24. Not only did the British saxophonist totally absorb me for about an hour all by himself, he also cut through several of my strongest prejudices. I was accustomed to thinking of unstructured improvisation as undisciplined and usually self-indulgent. I had grown to really dislike the idea of ‘expanding the vocabulary’ of various instruments, because I find that the expanded vocabulary is usually not nearly as pleasant to listen to as the sounds the instruments were intended to produce. And I had become particularly prejudiced against double tones or multiphonics on wind instruments, finding them extreme in register, raucous in quality, and badly out of tune. Yet Parker devoted his whole set to free improvisation, expanded the vocabulary of the saxophone as much as he could, played multiphonics more or less constantly, did just about everything I thought I didn’t like, and I was so taken by the integrity and the excitement of what was happening that I completely forgot my biases.
How did he do it? Partly it was a matter of pure technique. From the moment Parker began, it was apparent that this was a man who had been playing like this for many years, and who was totally at ease with all the sounds coming out of his saxophones. He was never playing ‘special effects.’ He was just playing the way he always plays. His circular breathing was so much under control that he didn’t even bother with it some of the time. If a phrase needed to go on and on, he would sneak the extra air into the horn to make it go on and on, sometimes for several minutes. But at other moments, when that wasn’t the point, he would quickly revert to normal breathing. When he would go for a particular tonal area, he seemed to know exactly what notes would come out, and he knew just how to wiggle his fingers to make his complex sustained textures ripple or flutter or sputter the way he wanted them to. He heard where the tonic was, when there was one, and how to ease back to it, if he desired. He even had control over difference tones, which are odd, low tones that vibrate ominously inside your ear when two high pitches, slightly out of tune, vibrate simultaneously in a certain way. I’ve often heard the phenomenon with flutes and whistles, and once with vibraphones, but I’ve never heard even a group of reed players make this happen, and Parker was doing it all by himself. In short, this was not a hit-and-miss affair the way it is with most woodwind players when they turn on their multiphonics. This was a musician who had transformed these new sounds into a vocabulary that was as familiar to him as major scales are to most musicians.