Evan Parker

With Birds

Bo van de Graaf

By Ken Waxman
June 27, 2005

Since the earliest part of the 20th century, more than at any other time, divisions have existed between musicians who take their inspiration from nature and those who ally themselves with urbanism.

Obviously many players and composers fall between the two camps, but the nature camp includes at very least New Age composers and most folk singers. Industrial rock and musical futurism take the other tack. Sometimes this divide extends to improvised music as well. But that genre’s triumph is that an admixture of these elements with the input of an inventive improviser produces unexpected results.

Ticket and With Birds are particularly remarkable because each features a solo saxophonist interacting with a soundscape that reflect either an urban or a natural setting. British saxophonist Evan Parker, whose technique has rated more aviary comparisons than any reed man since Eric Dolphy, is in good company on the later. With Birds is a CD featuring Parker literally improvising along with field recordings of winged creatures and other soundscapes from Liskeard, Cornwall and St Marys, Isle of Scilly. Tenor saxophonist Bo van de Graaf of the Netherlands, on the other hand, finds his Ticket by recording inside the New York subway system, matching his sax timbres to the unembellished sounds of intercom announcements, crowd noises, platform conversation and the odd local tunnel musicians. Barely 25 minutes long, at points the concept is more intriguing than its execution.

Commencing as if he was playing on the soundtrack to a film noir from the 1940s, van de Graaf’s breathy cadences make you conscious of the found poetry implicit in vocalized directions to Brighton Beach, Sixth Avenue and Brooklyn, and the sometimes irritating voices of New Yorkers. By the time the shifting rhythmic movement of the trains and what seems to be to be sequenced, electronic loops and synthesized, organ-like runs are audible, his tone has coarsened. Among the additional tones produced by Teresa Zoutentendijk’s violin and a captured loop of a female voice explaining the advantage of a Metro Card, the saxman goes into full Gato Barbieri mode, blurting reed emotionalism on top of the sounds of mass transit.

Ticket gets its shape when “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is heard played instrumentally by a subway platform band, with its lyrics subsequently sung-whispered in a tone bordering on melodrama by Simin Tander. These renditions are then commented on and animated by van de Graaf’s over-the-top response. Adapting a montuno beat and with his reed squeaks and honks resembling Barbieri’s output of the 1960s, his saxophone expression perfectly matches the churning transportation rhythms.

Although it gives van de Graaf a chance to replicate Sonny Rollins’ influential style of the early1960s, a chance encounter caught by the Dutch saxophonist’s recording equipment between that famous American saxophonist and some autograph-seeking fans dissipates the mood on the final track. With much of the interaction swallowed by train noises, you can hypothesize that the Dutch reedist’s sax line is a homage to the older saxophonist, parallel but not as intrusive as a fan encounter. We do get to hear Rollins’ female friend remind the besotted fan boys that Rollins is tired. They exit and the piece’s – and the CD’s — coda is the whoosh of the train exiting the station.

Dedicated to the late soprano sax master Steve Lacy, the slinky, pure-toned emphasis of Parker’s soprano and the circular breathing of his tenor are cushioned and underscored by the whistling, roiling and systematic peeping of the bird songs throughout With Birds’ four-track, nearly 40-minute duration. Gentle coos and jagged caws appear to amplify the saxophonist’s single-mindedness, except, of course, on the odd occasion when a higher-pitched, pre-recorded sax line is added to his output.

The fowls’ soothing coos and resonating whistles bring out tongue slaps and the occasional twitter from the reedist, with these unselfconscious but muted tones multiplying so the man and birds become almost duet partners.

Climax is reached with the final two tracks. The penultimate mingles seagull chirrups, involuntary percussion – perhaps from a semi-submerged oil drum – and the suggestion of rough, diffusing electronic signals. As for Parker, he travels from tongue stops to finger-flicking reed percussion to blowing colored air through his horn as the aviary cooing and wheezing intensifies.

Finale is a greater-than-15-minute collection of reverberating clucks, barks and peeps from the birds as the saxophonist’s unperturbed straight lines initiate double counterpoint. Sibilant, he masticates his reed among the ever-shifting fowl oscillations as the faint tone of a church bell is heard. Following an electronic buzz and a nutcracker-like snap – likely from the machines of John Coxon and Ashley Wales who mixed the soundscapes – Parker begins circular breathing. As the successive tone collection intensifies so do the echoing bird whistles and coos, to the extent that some of the cawing almost sounds like parody. Uncontaminated by bird accompaniment the reed summation is conclusively soothing.

Another uncommon Parker session, it’s one that will be welcomed both by the converted and others with open minds and ears.