“We are the originators,” says John Stevens, unambiguously and unapologetically, in his sleevenote to The Longest Night, the two-volume set of duet improvisations with Evan Parker recorded on 21 December 1976 (i.e. the longest night of the year) and released on Ogun, possibly that label’s least typical release. No doubt in 1976 he felt it necessary to reiterate the importance of the music which the SME had enabled over the previous decade; a crucial facet of sixties musical utopia in imminent danger of being passed over or decried.
For an organiser of multiple collectives in multiple styles – at the same time as The Longest Night, he was appearing on the Old Grey Whistle Test as leader of the jazz-rock group John Stevens’ Away – his mind was firmly his own and he expected his collaborators to bend to it, frequently with magnificent musical results, but with the equally frequent risk of fall outs and schisms. The Longest Night represented the first recorded intimate collaboration between the percussionist and the saxophonist in nearly a decade (though Parker appears, semi-anonymously, in the serried ranks of the Spontaneous Music Orchestra as heard on 1974’s SME = SMO album; another of that ensemble’s members, a young violin student named Stephen Luscombe, would a decade hence be a pop star as one half of Blancmange) – there had been serious aesthetic arguments, and Trevor Watts had tended to be Stevens’ saxophonist of choice in his various groups.
So it’s hardly surprising that these initial re-engagings should by necessity be tentative. Much of the Longest Night material – now reissued on CD, in combination with another duo session, Corner To Corner, recorded in 1993, the year before Stevens’ death – comes across as delicate variations on the same theme; fast but quiet interaction, Parker’s soprano simultaneously more percussive and more melodic than was his general 1976 wont, twisting within the supple strings barely held together by experience and intuition. Stevens confines himself to an extremely minimalist kit, cymbals predominating over drums, as though hiding in a cupboard to practise for fear of waking the neighbours; yet he is quick to pick up on and refract Parker’s flurries and meditations. This kit’s snare drum even came from a children’s set, and as though to emphasise the fact that technical mastery alone wasn’t what interaction and improvisation were all about, he occasionally picks up a cornet which he similarly uses as an extra sheen of percussion.
The track titles, too, are utilitarian, detailing the start times of each improvisation, but “23.40” which at ten and a half minutes may safely be assumed to have been that night’s final performance, is markedly different from its predecessors. It begins with a lengthy drone which seems to be provided by Stevens providing a vocal drone but blowing through his cornet sans mouthpiece, over which Parker improvises an unlikely devotional pibroch. After two minutes there is a meaningful pause during which Stevens settles with his percussion and he and Parker bring some magical music into being. Ironically, given all the standard pejoratives thrown at this music at the time – including in my music class at school, to which I perhaps unwisely brought the original Vol 2 one afternoon (“the strangest music I have ever heard in my life,” my music teacher remarked, “with the possible exception of Stockhausen.” My classmates responded as you might expect) – i.e. two drunks turning over dustbins, squeaky mice evading crafty cats, etc., the aura of this music conjures up exactly those pictures; you can easily imagine a starless, stoned limp through the midnight clothes lines of Cardiff terraced houses, or even, when Stevens fingers his finger cymbals and Parker blows on the edge of upper audibility, sexual congress. Fragments of melodic motifs appear on Parker’s soprano and are carefully developed in tandem with the continued dialogue; at times Stevens seems to be rummaging through his kitchen cutlery drawer, at other times, particularly near the end, he ingeniously deploys his cymbals to form a root drone. Parker picks up on this instantly; loudness is the anti-issue in this form of improvised music, but a spark appears to be lit and he revs up towards his more typical circularities – Stevens’ hi-hat dovetails immaculately, they reach a quick climax and then Parker gives a sardonic snort of a sign off; that was all very well, now let’s get down to some serious stuff – there’s still a lot of making up to be done.
Thursday, 8 November 2007
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 17:12