By Ken Waxman
Perhaps more than any similar aggregation of players, it’s evident that London-based Free Music practitioner are more open to cross-generational fraternization that those in other countries. Of course like those who see Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a children’s story and those who read hallucinogenic experiences into it, there may be differing reasons for this phenomenon. From its earliest days, with drummer John Stevens and guitarist Derek Bailey, the British music’s elders have frequently cast themselves in pedagogical roles. Conversely there may appear to be so much cross-generational collaboration in the United Kingdom, because with their mania for classification only the British would be dead set on ascribing players to one generation or another.
Whatever the circumstances these releases chronicle the simpatico, ongoing collaboration between master UK improviser, tenor saxophonist Evan Parker and up-and-coming pianist Alexander Hawkins. Considering that the keyboardist is almost 38 years younger than the saxophonist, this relationship is more productive than those of Donald Trump or Hugh Hefner with any of their much younger spouses. Leaps in Leicester, contains “The Shimmy (for Tony Marsh)”, a literal magnum opus at nearly 35 minutes, dedicated to the drummer (1939-2012) who played with both musicians. Meanwhile Filu ‘e Ferru is an all-star concert that crowds a few more folks into the genealogy. Along with Hawkins, the younger generation is represented by American trumpeter Peter Evans; and on hand from the illusive middle generation are British bassist John Edwards and American percussionist Hamid Drake.
A non-stop improvisation, ostensibly divided into seven sections, “Filu ‘e Ferru” flows with the ad-hoc predictability of musicians secure enough in their abilities that the cohesion is as sturdy as from any long-running ensemble. Exemplars of gunslinger-like itinerants who are still as comfortable as established sod busters when on the same developing country, each player has enough history with the others to construct the equivalent of a study musical structure by the time “Filu 1” is half way through. By the later part of the program, when the members break out characteristic solos, the unalloyed skill and charisma is such that the closest equivalent could be hearing one of Art Blakey’s all-star combos with Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons and Wayne Shorter.
Parker like Shorter was influenced by John Coltrane, but unlike the American, he left FreeBop far behind years ago. But at the same time Parker doesn’t use techniques he’s known for, such as circular breathing for effect, but rather in order to advance the situation. Throughout Filu ‘e Ferru he and Evans calibrate their improvisations like members of a SWAT team preparing for a raid. Exposing themes at different tempos the saxman builds up double-tongued reed cascades, while Evans’ grace notes provide the filigree enhancements. Alternately Parker will provide the narrative glue as the trumpeter breaks the theme down into smaller pieces.
Like the extra person on a telephone party line, pianist Hawkins provides occasional keyboard comments throughout, freeing his ideas on “Filu 3” through a series of flowing glissandi and sprinkled tones that set up a near straight-ahead tune elaboration that with concentrated thumps from Drake gradually introduce the climatic material which is “Ferru 4” and “Ferru 5”. Hawkins now racing-horse-like strides and Evans’ atmospheric northwards bell flutters and even Edwards’ pummeling at whistle stop-like speeds, serve as a backdrop to Parker’s kinetic vibrations that expand balloon-like without ever upsetting the chromatic themes. Like the organizer of a cavalry charge into hostile territory, the pianist’s focused chording adds anticipation and tension to the field of battle, and very quickly the others timbres are seeping into any sound holes left by Parkers kinetic dynamics. As the narrative straightens up into showcases for Edwards – consisting of rugged string slapping – and Drake – with rolls and clanks – the final section move past cacophonous Free Jazz into a solid phalanx of 21st Century near-swing that leaves the participants jubilantly joking and chucking when the music stops.
This sort of non-serious, but respectful tonal exploration was carried on a month later during the Parker-Hawkins duet. Like an extensive mathematical formula reduced to micro practicality, “The Shimmy (for Tony Marsh)” works in a similar fashion. Initially Parker squeezes out foreshortened phrase with chromatic snorts as Hawkins, in lockstep, decorates the results with two-handed coloration. As the pianist’s key sprinkling hardens into near player-piano continuity, the reedist’s response becomes segmented with Trane-like bites and Doplphyesque squeaks. By the mid-point, Hawkins is moving at such a dynamic pace that earlier so-called classical allusions are set aside and he appears to be also playing homage to the aggressive keyboard organization of Cecil Taylor along with March, and by inference Coltrane. Like an ecologically friendly patching compound Hawkins’ chord expansion fills gaps in the surface without unnecessary risks, Hawkins and Parker create a sonic surface that is solid without being claustrophobic. Finally inner strings excited by mallets plus keyboard like dusting from the piano plus treetop-high and subterranean reed slurs create a fitting and conclusive statement.
The earlier duets work in this same hand-in-glove fashion with Parker’s instantly identifiable tone prominent throughout and Hawkins proving that, like a graphic designer who adopts the appropriate style for each assignment, he’s proficient in a mosaic of keyboard styles. His exposition is sonata-like on “Capriole” without being excessively formal. Meanwhile preparations used to pluck and stop the inner string set on “Gambade” show that he can work up enough percussive strength to meet the torque Parker frequently brings to his reed forays. The result is if the two are evenly matched opponents in an Olympic wrestling match. Whether diaphanous or durable, Hawkins’ touch – and ideas– match the situation. That proficient individuality is probably the most appropriate demonstration of Marsh’s legacy of original idiosyncratic playing – and it’s an attribute shared by all the improvisers on these sets.