Henry Dagg & Evan Parker

September 19, 2023

Then Through Now
False Walls fw 09

Evan Parker
NYC 1978
Relative Pitch RPR 1176

Despite some strange opinions, which seemed to have multiplied recently, there’s probably no one who has affected the definition of saxophone playing since the late 1960s than the UK’s Evan Parker. Now 79, he has shown his flexibility in multiple group performances since that time and even more importantly led the way in defining solo saxophone playing as well as interaction in electronic settings.

Forty-three years separate these discs and it’s not difficult to define the two persona. NYC 1978 was part of 37-year-old Parker first North American tour and the six improvisations on tenor or soprano saxophones at a New York arts space were instances of the continent’s premier exposure to his literally breathtaking extended reed technique. Yelping, squawking and vibrating timbres, he often stops to emphasize flattement or scoops, among spectacular instances of protracted circular breathing. A technique that would become a signature action of almost very Parker performance, the saxophonist was still young enough to flaunt his reed capabilities in front of an unexposed audience. Triple tonguing, variations on duck-like quacks and speedy sound cascades were part of this performance. So was harsh overblowing, and intervals when he exposed every sliver of a tone from its inner kernel to its widest expansion. While he could move up to altissimo and then sopranissimo as he breathed circularly, by the penultimate “Environ 5” the concentrated outflow from his soprano sax become rigidly horizontal with almost no change in tempo, speed or expression. His subsequent curve into a freer trajectory on that and the concluding track introduces ferocious reed bites, blats and squeaks.

By “Environ 6” however a surprising, almost melodic secondary straight line can be heard. Emphasis on it as well as the primary instances of bites, bluster and overblowing not only suggests the sound of more than one saxophone playing. It also augurs for variations to his techniques that he would explore in the following decades.

One instance of this happened in 2021, when a now 75-year-old Parker, only playing soprano, recorded the 14 variations that make up Then Through Now. The saxophonist, who had been experimenting with electronics since the 1990s, duets here with Dublin sound inventor Henry Dagg, whose electronic Stage Cage includes valve test-oscillators, ring modulators, frequency shifter, chromatic zither, and variable tape delay system. With each sound vignette running into the next, this live performance is more solid than fragmented. At the same rime while Parker’s prodigious technical command of circular breathing remain, application more than four decades later is more judicious.

Beginning with 45 seconds of silence, Then Through Now soon personifies the musicians’ identities. With lower-pitched drones and machine-like hums and projected oscillation from Dagg and a combination of bent-note slurs and circular-breathed flutters and peeps. Maturity appears to have muted Parker’s flamboyance so that by “Atlantic City Revisited” and “The Growl Of The Bell” calliope-like voltage exchanges and Theremin-like wheezing and metallic oscillation are more prominent than the saxophonist’s circular breathing. In fact later on when both outputs remain in a horizontal line it’s often difficult to tell the human improvisation from the machine-generated one.

Past the mid-point however, twists, turns, and rocket-launching noises from Dagg’s hardware confirm its identity, as tongue slaps, strained smears and pennywhistle-like shrills do the same for Parker. So does the sudden audibility of zither-like twangs and echoes from Dagg’s programs. At the same among his circular breathed flutters, tongue stops and split tones, the melodic interface hinted at in previous decades come forward in Parker’s playing. The programmed electrified whizzes and tremolo reed shrilling move closer together by the concluding “Surfing The Waveforms” so that the saxophonist’s final airy breath and the electronic interface of processed squeaks and rubs meld seamlessly for an appropriate finale.

NYC 1978 is an important document of Parker solidifying his advancing style, while Then Through Now shows how a mature Parker can modify it to fit certain circumstances without losing individuality. Both will attract Parker followers as well as those whose first allegiance is to electronic music.

–Ken Waxman

Track Listing: NYC: 1. Environ 1* 2. Environ# 2 3. Environ 3* 4. Environ 4# 5. Environ 5* 6. Environ 6*

Personnel: NYC: Evan Parker (soprano saxophone* and tenor saxophone#)

Track Listing: Then: 1. Chocks Away 2. Small Talk 3. Condolences 4. Atlantic City Revisited 5. The Growl Of The Bell 6. Dance Around The Black Hole 7. Revolve To Resolve 8. Canyon In X Sharp Major 9. Galactic Jig 10. Chattering Up The Birds 11. The-Through-Now 12. Booze Vs Cheers 13. The Past Hums A New Tune 14. Surfing The Waveforms

Personnel: Then: Evan Parker (soprano and tenor saxophones) and Henry Dagg (electronic Stage Cage of valve test-oscillators, ring modulators, frequency shifter, chromatic zither and variable tape delay system)