I first heard Evan Parker’s music at a gig in the London Musicians Collective, London, in about 1978.
The LMC was housed in the top floor of an ex-railway warehouse on a back street in Camden, a few hundreds yards on from the more plush townhouse mansion style of the folk society premises on the street corner. The event felt, then - and quite unfairly I guess - to be a few hundred years on from the folk society’s activities, as though acts of preservation and care were for me somehow wasteful of the real stuff of life - newness, challenge, agitation.
Access to the LMC meant navigating the open, black wrought iron stairway that clung to the outside of the warehouse and which climbed toward a half-open door, and all that with one hand clutching a full pint glass acquired in The Engineer pub on the opposite corner.
The interior of the LMC was generally unheated, and had no fixed stage area. The audience sat on a mix of old battered soft chairs, battered hard chairs and just about anything else battered that could be perched on and moved into the vague arena of the crowd space. There was no proper lighting; no sound system; no bar. We sat in our coats to fight the biting cold.
The back of the warehouse space was dark, half draped in torn black curtains. Beyond them glimpses of dusty metal objects, stage props, unusable furniture not even suitable as a seat hovered in semi-focus like petrified nocturnal bush animals caught in the flash of a torch. I suspected too that stalactites were growing in some corner, a new form emerging behind things, making something of the water that must have leached through unpointed bricks or from the glanced spaces of disturbed slates on the roof that no-one living had touched.
There were grey windows back there, the sort through which pigeons look from their undisturbed nest sites on wide ledges that overlook embankments or barbed wired alleyways. It was perfect. It was free of the retail clutter of pub gigs in Romford; the vomit carpet and the gaffer tape of old gear. No stewards or bouncers checking anything. I can’t recall anyone taking money or selling tickets.
Then Evan Parker walked from some unseen room between the main door and the warehouse space. I presumed that the smoked bevel glass front walls of the foreman’s office had yielded to a green room of sorts. He carried a soprano saxophone which he placed on the curved wooden seat of a chair that once belonged in a school hall. A few pleasantries were exchanged as he cleaned the lenses of his small, round, wire-framed glasses and put them back on, involuntarily peering into the crowd as his eyes checked his handiwork.
Facing the audience square on, his feet joined, he closed his eyes (why the bother with the glass cleaning?) and a second or two later he lifted the saxophone to his lips and blew. A few small, quiet, phrases, just a gesture toward a beginning; a breath or two maybe in contemplation of the first notes played and then a phrase that seemed to answer something queried in that first phrase. Then another gesture, a darker deeper phrase that ended in a kind of spiral harmonic. An out of place inhalation, sudden and physical, and a loud flow of sound. A swirling pattern: layers of notes, not single phrases. Something played with the insistence of blind compulsion. But where were the other players - hidden in the draped darkness, off-stage somewhere? Was a chorus of players concealed inside a freight trunk? No, it all came from the front end of the single brass tube that pointed at us from the player’s mouth. There was no space for breath. Evan seemed to roll air in and out of his puffed cheeks without breaking the seal he closed on the mouthpiece. Twenty, thirty minutes of unbroken flow. His eyes remained closed behind the glasses. He was somewhere inside the mix of sound, brass, reed and air - where did one element begin and the other end? The moment was everything. No progressions, no cleverness that mattered around melodies or chords - just flow, ideas, change, energy, sheer ear-bursting intensity.
Two or three minutes in, I knew this had changed everything. For me, it was radical music and would lead to radical living. To know it was to dismiss all else as irrelevant. I think I believed that new things have no history; that they emerge from a creative mind like new life forms made from something other than our own kind of matter, or maybe the way that new, burning islands rise from a hidden place in the ocean: the birth of things that just suddenly ‘are’, and which replace things which already ‘were’.
In The Engineer, another pint, no questions of age or ID. Just a pint. The crowd that had been in the LMC had reassembled in the pub. I did not have the talk of some of them. They were clever people who knew how to explain and discuss this kind of music. What I had was an experience, a sense of the moment. Something beyond punk in its challenge, something not daft or that required a uniform.
I went back to school the following Monday and wrote the name ‘Evan Parker’ on my pencil rubber in the handwriting I kept for such public statements of loyalty, erasing the names ‘Yes’ and ‘ELP’ as I did so. There was a lad who liked music. We weren’t really friends, just had some connection around music. We had battled a little over the Beatles and the Stones, Geneses and Yes. I could answer simple questions on jazz in Lesley Bunt’s music lessons. That was, in a way, cool. I played my friend the record I had bought from Evan at a table by the door to the LMC. It was a set of solos. I think I knew then that this was something outside of the normal realm. Subversive, perhaps, lunatic maybe, but the other stuff had gone and with it school friendship of sorts, in which belonging and sharing were key.
This book stems from those few days in the late 70s. The enjoyment I got from Evan’s playing then, I get now. I have since experienced a great deal of the wide spectrum of free jazz and improvisation and many other musics, jazz forms and the stuff people do with noise, and the journey has been nothing short of exhilarating. So yes: this is, unapologetically, a fan’s book. A book by a fan who knows a great story and just wants to tell it. But I want to tell it in a way that provides supporting information to the intensity of that first hearing. Some history, some connections, some unforeseen episodes; anything that can answer the desire to know more about music, and which proves too that new things don’t come from nowhere.
The drummer John Stevens - a long-term musical partner of Evan Parker - said to me a decade or more after the events described above that ‘music is the single most liberating thing in my life’.
I’ve seen and heard enough now to know what he meant, and that he was right, and in that spirit too, this book is written.