Swinging the BIM
FMP CD 114/115

Ruminating on the death of Lester Young in 1959, writer Ralph J. Gleason lamented that the tenor saxophonist only "etched a tiny portion of his art into the grooves of phonograph records". The rest was given away "as freely as the wind in countless jam sessions in after-hours clubs and hotel rooms and basements all over the world … music we'll never hear again".

Almost the same fate befell the exceptional improvisations preserved on this two-CD set. One stop of a European tour by the Schlippenbach Trio in 1998, the sounds were taped as a service to the musicians by the in-house engineer at Amsterdam's BIM-Huis. Listening to the performance afterwards, the trio members decided that they had indeed had a good night and have released it on disc.

Doubly valuable, the sessions not only capture the creation in full flight, but also saves another few minutes of music that was "given away" to add to the Schlippenbach Three's microscopic discography. For despite having played together for about 30 years, its art is "etched" on fewer than 10 releases, or about as many as more prolific improvisers like Ken Vandermark or David Murray may record in one year.

It isn't modesty or dissatisfaction with their work that kept the two Germans and one Englishman out of the studio. It's just that they're busy with many other projects. Alexander von Schlippenbach directs both the Globe Unity Orchestra and the Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra, as well as working in different solo and combo situations. Fellow German, percussionist Paul Lovens is sideman of choice for many European and American free players, ranging from the ridiculous (guitarist Eugene Chadbourne) to the sublime (pianist Cecil Taylor). Briton Evan Parker is one of the most recorded saxophonists in the world, having applied his distinctive tenor and soprano stylings to numberless improv situations and with a clutch of established bands, including his own trios.

So why is SWINGING THE BIM so extraordinary? For a start because the three do exactly as advertised: they out-and-out swing the BIM. However, they do so in a fashion that Young, or the sort of person whose understanding of improvisation died along with the saxophonist's corporal remains, wouldn't recognize.

Essentially what you have here is three men at the top of their craft, listening and reacting to one another in a series of solos, duos and trios. Parker's imitation of the Energizer Bunny — his nearly endless circular breathing solos — has long been noted. But while great gouts of seemingly endless notes can fly from his horn, as he shows on the second set, he's certainly not limited by this improv parlor trick. The saxophonist's command of his instruments is such that at one point he can introduce a tenor sax slur that sounds like it just arrived from a greasy R&B date, then a few minutes later mutate his reed to such an extent that you'd swear you're hearing a silvery trumpet tone.

Sympathetic and laissez faire, Lovens impresses as much for what he doesn't play as for what he does. Minute slivers of percussion sound throughout these performances, with the heavier weight of a snare or bass drum rarely brought to bear on the proceedings. Cymbals, selected or not, can provide him with enough of a color palate. At times, in fact, it appears as if he's left the stage entirely.

Seemingly two pianists who exist in a single body, there are time, as at the beginning of both sets, that Schlippenbach gets so involved in note clusters, keyboard pounding and inside explorations that you think his identity is only that of an energy player. Elsewhere, in duets with Parker on soprano, he'll unveil his romantic side, building an idyllic duet structure for the other the way Horace Parlan interacted with Archie Shepp or Duke Ellington did with Johnny Hodges.

Despite the pontifications of such theorists as Derek Bailey who insist with a patina of papal infallibility that regular groups are antithetical to free improv, this combo and the CDs prove exactly the opposite.

Only by knowing one another so well over such a long period of time could the trio have offhandedly created this summation of its art. Happily, unlike some of its other live work, this one is etched on disc and you can hear it whenever you want.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Swinging the BIM First Set 2. Swinging the BIM Second Set

Personnel: Evan Parker (soprano and tenor saxophone); Alexander von Schlippenbach (piano); Paul Lovens (selected and unselected cymbals and drums, singing saw)