FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 1989-2004


Francesco Martinelli


On three consecutive nights of September 1992 the three blokes of this record explored all the possible groupings during a live event promoted by Free Music Production in Berlin. Each one played a solo and two duos, then they added a short trio encore for good measure.

There are several reasons for this apparently maniacal limitations of means coupled with a combinatory determination, one is the need to find the effect of these boundaries on the music making, to test the truth of the words by Georges Braque that Steve Lacy choose in 1980 to be illustrated in another duo recording: "Limited means lead to new forms, invite creation, make style".

Another is the acknowledged fact that the peculiar characteristics of soprano saxophone have attracted over the years some of the most interesting wind players. (This is not to say that the instrument can't be very well used in commercial music). Steve Lacy himself and John Coltrane established the straight horn as a primary voice, after the example of Sidney Bechet. The parallel unsung contribution of Lucky Thompson should also be mentioned here. Evan Parker and Lol Coxhill found themselves so fascinated by the instrument that the first developed on it a unique combination of instrumental voice and solo style, though continuing to play the tenor, and the second abandoned the bigger horn altogether, moving with his sweet and sour sound in the exploration of different music worlds, disregarding all fixed categories: the first always acknowledging Coltrane's influence and the second declaring his admiration for Bechet and Thompson.

There is also the need to document the evolution of the musicians involved, with respect to similar playing situations. An improvised piece for four soprano saxophones was performed by Lacy, Parker, Steve Potts and Trevor Watts at a London concert in 1974, and preserved on the Saxophone Special LP with the appropriate title Sops; then in 1977 four soprano players met during a Company week, and part of the piece was published on INCUS CD on that occasion besides the musicians featured in this CD Anthony Braxton was the fourth voice. It must be mentioned here that Braxton in 1971 celebrated in his Composition no. 22 "the intertimbral implication of four soprano saxophones" dedicating the piece to Oliver Messiaen and recording a version of it for The Complete 8raxton, by overdubbing all four parts. In 1985 Steve Lacy and Evan Parker played a soprano duo concert for Summer Music, another FMP production, and the music was published on Chirps. The last antecedent to mention is yet another FMP record, Process and Reality, recorded in 1991, where Evan Parker experimented with overdubbing up to eight soprano lines.

So this record is part of an uninterrupted, if tenuous, line; an area of musical expression holding endless fascination. Listening to this recording the reasons for this attraction will become clear: while the sound and physicality of the tenor saxophone seem to lend themselves to the blending of voices, most effectively exploited in famous pieces of jazz arranging for big band, sopranos tend to differentiate. They were traditionally used only for special effect within a wind section; the need to experiment their exclusive grouping has been felt only fairly recently, and seems to be particularly strong for this horn. Maybe the weight of the tradition is lighter, leaving more space to research; maybe the inherent character of the instrument, its instability, tends to magnify differences; maybe it's only coincidence. In this recording the effect is striking: juxtaposing in the different pieces the instrumental voices of such original players, differences in colour, attack, articulation, phrasing are heightened. This makes easier the flow of exchange between players, underlining the conversational quality of the music; the plastic effect reminds of Braxton's dedication to Messiaen, that most synesthetic of composers, who used to describe the effect of chords in terms of visual colours. If Parker quoted Dante's Purgatory to introduce his Process And Reality, here Paradise seems more appropriate: "E come in gamma favilla si vede/E come voce in voce si discerne/Quando una e ferma e l'altra va e riede": "Even as sparks are visible in fire/And as within a voice a voice is heard/One note sustained while others rise and fall" (transl. by Mark Musa)

In The Crawl interestingly it's Steve Lacy who provokes Evan Parker using growls and explosive bursts of sound which are usually associated with the latter, while it's true that the American has been cautiously exploring this kind of effects for years: for example in his "duck" pieces, with tongue slaps derived directly from Ben Webster's playing. The interchange within the duo happens on different levels: Parker picks up Lacyisms in fragments of melody and dancing rhythms, and never uses his polyphonic solo style, but keeps his hard, grainy voice. When he mirrors the material introduced by Lacy, giving it a different colour and a sharper contour, the final effect is sometimes uncannily similar to the more melodic strains of Parker's solo improvisations, speaking in different tongues; more so when in the second and shorter duo, Backslash, Lacy ends the piece with repeated, circular trills that recall Parker's solo style.

The colour contrast in Glanced, the duo of Lacy and Coxhill, is of a different kind: Lacy's voice is crystal clear and his melodies delicate after a percussive, almost trumpeting start; Coxhill's round and ripe, billowing in a continuous sforzando while slashing across the elegant shapes played by the other, going against the grain with simple, cutting leaps. But Lacy is an old master of the game, and quickly the roles are reversed, like in a formal combat play, until a kind of balance develops: the voices retain their individual characters but blend in a logical combination, finding their complementarities.

Closing the circle, the two Englishmen surprise the listener with the more melodic start; they know each other well, what bonds and what divides them. Coxhill loves melodies while appreciating Parker's sonic research, and in return Parker is not averse to find a common ground. Opinions however are far from unanimous, and the dialogue gets sometimes a little heated, Coxhill enveloping the sharp contours of the other in a web of soft melodic lines, Parker answering with short bursts of repetition; but a move toward the highest textures finds the two in perfect agreement, Coxhill delicately underlining colour and rhythm of a melodic strain played by the other bloke in the smooth ending of the duo.

Comparing this recording with the others cited above, the listener perceives quicker reactions, smoother integration of material, a general effect of compact spareness. The duo format is obviously easier in this respect, but the music seems to find a straighter, shorter line in its development; in the process losing perhaps some opportunities, but opening at the same time different fields of interaction. The edge is there; it used to be more ragged, now it's sharper, cutting in a different way.

The theme for the closing trio was composed by Lacy, and typically combines a deceptively simple structure with humour and interesting possibilities. The three go to it without hesitation, webbing immediately a complex texture based on spontaneous and immediate interplay; the references to the basic structure of the theme are never immediate, but it keeps resurfacing in short cells of the collective improvisation. At the end the three voices together, maintaining their individual approach to timbre and time, arrive to the recapitulation of the theme, and they seem to recapitulate also the virtues of this kind of music making and the keen demands it poses to its practitioners: oneness, self-humour, dedication.

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