The Vortex, London
On his website, Evan Parker describes The Vortex in Dalston as his “haven from the demands of the road”. He’s had a residency here for several years now, bringing in a rotating squad of players and collaborators, with an emphasis on the free jazz end of his music. This intimate and homely venue is a great place to get wrap your ears round Parker and his compadres’ improvisational chops. And the beer’s pretty tasty too.
September’s session sees Parker is playing as part of trio, with double-bassist John Edwards and guitarist John Russell. The three have played together before, notably on 2009’s House Full of Floors.
Before heading out to the show, I cue up Monocerous, Parker’s 1978 disc of solo soprano saxophone improvisations. As the record scythes through my flabby cortex in a golden, untrammelled rush of noise, I’m suddenly reminded of nature writer Mark Cocker’s description of an “airborne gyre” of crows in the Norfolk sky, in his book Crow Country: “While the flock’s globular swirl was shapeless and without purpose, at another level it appeared like an attempt to resolve the spatial discord. It looked like, it was, harmonised chaos.“
If the particular, swarming quality of Parker’s solo improvisations is somewhat diminished in a group setting, tonight’s show still gives us some right corking moments. The first set is pure vintage violence, with Edwards and Russell battering their instruments to within an inch of their lives. Edwards wrenches percussive thunks, scrapes and moans from his bass. Russell is hunched over his unamplified guitar, pushing screeds of sound like gnarled clumps of barbed wire. In contrast, Parker, playing soprano, is relatively restrained, blowing honks and farts before dropping into a trademark non-stop ululation.
For a discipline that’s been criticised for humourlessness, this is a dense, rumbustious and mischievous get together. Edwards, in particular is an impish presence, dancing around his instrument and humming and growling along like a contemporary Thelonious Monk.
The second set, with Parker switching to tenor, is a more sinuous affair, Parker’s short bluesy phrases leading the other two on an angular, melodic dance, before shifting abruptly into a bustling, full-throttle jam. The playing coalesces more in this half too, with the trio listening intently to each other as the music jerks and skips around the room. There’s even time for a leisurely string change from Russell, accompanied by a ruminative bass solo from Edwards.
I’m still buzzing as as the last notes of the trio’s session fades into the east London night. My mind dances back to Cocker’s crows, and the first time he encountered their flocking behaviour. “It was beautiful, mysterious and completely unexpected.” What better way to describe this complex, suggestive music?