John Stevens / Evan Parker

February 24, 2008

Corner to Corner + The Longest Night

Ogun OGCD 022/023

Musically associated in a variety of ensembles from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, saxophonist Evan Parker and drummer John Stevens (1940-1994) are generally credited as two of the half-dozen or so visionaries who helped create the unstructured collective sounds that characterized British Free Music.

Throughout the years, infrequent duo interactions offered both expansive opportunities to express themselves, and this important reissue combines what arguably are the two’s most accomplished duets: 1976’s The Longest Night and 1993’s Corner to Corner. Although of variable personalities – the mordant drummer loudly rubbed more people the wrong way then he did drum tops, while the saxophonist was and is more moderate in demeanor – their shared philosophy of facing every musical challenge head-on serves them well on both discs.

What’s most remarkable, though, is how the adaptable their styles – created at EuroImprov’s ground zero – were, and how they were still subtly tweaking them every time they played. Physically, the booklet sleeve photos note their changes. Heavily bearded and bushy-haired at 36, when the first CD was recorded, Stevens at 53, was balding, bespectacled and clean-shaven, though as voluble as always as his gesticulating hands demonstrate in the 1993 picture. Also thin, bushy-haired and black bearded at 32, by 49, Parker was chunkier, grey-bearded and more phlegmatic – at least when photographed in 1993 quizzically listening to one of Stevens’ verbal onslaughts.

Happily those gesticulating hands become the opposite of garrulous when Stevens sits behind a drum kit. On the eight selections that make up each disc, his playing is most notable for its low-level fragility and moderated volume, plus the minute and pin-pointed motions he uses. Volubility comes out when the percussionist plays his cornet on certain numbers. Still, the 17-year gap between the CDs demonstrates that in the interim Stevens had adapted the function of his brass instrument from that of a braying noise-maker to a sound source whose textures could be entwined with Parker’s inimitable soprano saxophone timbres.

Today, when it appears as if nearly every saxophone practices circular breathing, it’s almost hard to imagine Parker’s achievement 30 – and more – years ago when he developed the concept following an exposure to the exhibitionistic work of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Even so his most spectacular extended solos were still in the future in 1976, with squeaks, slurs, swirls and stops more in evidence. At the same time Parker had already forged the sound which has continued to define him. His tone is as instantly identifiable – and now familiar – on The Longest Night’s first track, “19.11” as it is 4½ hours later on “23.40”.

Throughout reed triple tonguing meets percussive bell pealing and tongue-flutters make common cause with rattled chains. Additionally, agitato pitch-sliding and barely-there timbres forced through the horn’s bell from the reedist bring forth hand-stopped cymbal vibrations and wispy brush motions on drum tops from the percussionist. With tambourine rattles and harsh rolls adumbrating stop-time sections and inchoate phrasing, the two create an extended – more than 21 minute – improvisational essay on “20.23”.

Introduced with snaky and snarling flutter-tonguing from Parker plus cymbal rebounds and the odd ratamacue from Stevens, the piece soon evolves as the saxophonist outputs rubbery onomatopoeia, while in contrast the drummer burlesques a military march with his snare drum. As percussion friction becomes tougher, louder and more conspicuous, Parker turns to reed-biting, false-register snorts and pig-like altissimo squeals. Simultaneously the trapsman begins vocalizing a secondary shamanistic line in counterpoint to the instrumental sounds, while running roughshod over the cymbals and different-sized drums. For the climax, Parker’s respiration is transformed into a collection of aviary twitters and slurs that expose more than one tone at a time. Meantime Stevens works the staccato dual towards its conclusion with raps, rasps, ruffs and rumbles encompassing rattling chains and ringing bells plus an raucous third line of tremolo cornet braying.

If the capillary blasts from Stevens’ cornet were more corrosive than connective in 1976, by 1993, while he couldn’t match Parker’s hummingbird-like tones, at least the brass tones had evolved from those of a crow to an approximation of a songbird.

Unlike the extended tours-de-force of 17 years previously, the two spread their more mature styling over shorter tracks which range from a touch over 3½ minutes to a shade under 15. Livelier overall than The Longest Night — maybe it was recorded earlier in the day – Parker has expanded both extremities of his range, with corkscrew patterning in one pitch as well as whispering and whip-like flutters, at the other end. Pinched and staccato at points, he also shows off ney-like wheezes; that is when his double, triple and quadruple tongue-patterning doesn’t develop into nearly continuous overblowing.

For his part, Stevens’ percussion actions are blunter, sharper and more to the point than they were 17 years previously – without altering his characteristic approach. Flams, metallic pats, door-knocking smacks, rat-tat-tats, cymbal slaps and backbeat rolls are present. But by 1993 Stevens is also more abstractly concussive and uses even more of the auxiliary wooden and metal parts of his kit. Overall, there is very little unison harmonics, but much double counterpoint improvising between the two.

Tellingly, the final track on Corner To Corner – which like the first CD is likely presented chronologically – reveals yet another reconfiguration of Stevens’ cornet technique. Subsuming his capillary brays, the percussionist manages to complement and extend the continuously wheezing twitters which Parker creates. Sometimes the two even appear to be hitting the same note. Eventually, the horn tones intertwine – then are followed by a concluding circular-breathed riff from Parker and lightly ruffled conclusive drum beat from Stevens.

The duality exhibited on this track is memorialized by its title, “Each/Other”. It suggests that the cooperation might have expanded still further. Unfortunately Stevens’ death means that these sessions are all that remains of the mutual musical respect and understanding Parker and Stevens had for one another.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Disc 1: 1. 19.1 1 2. 19.44 3. 20.23 4. 21.25 5. 21.47 6. 22.18 7. 23.12

Personnel: Disc 1and 2: Evan Parker (soprano saxophone) and John Stevens (percussion and cornet)

Track Listing: Disc 2: 1. 23.40 2. Corner to Corner 3. Rubber 4. Angles 5. Incidence 6. Reflections [for Geoff Rigden] 7. Acute 8. Each/Other