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Evan Parker & Paul Lytton - At the Unity Theatre

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Artist: Evan Parker & Paul Lytton

Album: At the Unity Theatre

Label: Psi

Review date: Jul. 7, 2003

The Ice Storm

Free improvisation carries with it certain negative stereotypes. Among them is the supposition of extended technique necessarily outweighing invested emotional warmth. Considering the kind of abstractionist soundscapes that are frequently the province of free players, the assumption is understandable, if not forgivable. Saxophonist Evan Parker and percussionist Paul Lytton have probably been shouldering such complaints for most of their professional careers. As two of the most durable British free improvisers they’ve fostered a partnership that’s lasted over three decades. During that time they’ve engaged in countless duo meetings. At the Unity Theatre, originally made in 1975 and recently reissued on Parker’s Psi imprint, comes from relatively early in their association. Regrettably, it exhibits some of the characteristics from which these complaints arise.

Though they’re performing live in front of an audience Parker and Lytton seem more concerned with their own ministrations than appeasing the gathered crowd. This sort of introspection can be a boon or boondoggle depending on one’s perspective, but over the expanse of an hour plus performance it does become tedious in places. Parker (and Lytton too for that matter) was in the midst of one of his most intensive investigatory phases, exploring sound and pitch dynamics and differentials with an extreme intellectual curiosity. As such sections of the concert, which is favorably broken up into six segments, seem more like experimental exercises, albeit impressive ones, rather than openly engaging slices of music. Only rarely does either man approach his instrument from something resembling a conventional vantage.

Also adding to the challenge is the supreme austerity and coldness that suffuses much of the interplay. Parker’s splintered soprano tones perforate the alternately clamorous and muzzled textures radiating from Lytton’s kit and both men create quite a bit of atonal racket. Only rarely does Parker shy away from slinging off ear-splitting pitch flurries and on the seemingly facetiously titled opener “In the Midst of Laughter and Glee” he litters the stage with bent and broken tonal shrapnel. “Mild Steel Rivets,” undertaken in honor of poet/lyricist Paul Haines, represents the widest dynamic range of any piece in the program. Advancing from a prelude of obliquely struck metallic surfaces and gurgling, flatulent wind sounds the pair settles into a more easily recognizable meeting of tenor saxophone and drums.

Throughout the recital other instruments also enter the acerbic fray. Parker incorporates pole drum, bullroarer and the curiously titled Lyttonophone, while the instrument’s eponymous inventor also makes use of live electronics in addition to the frequently stringent tonalities of his drum kit. These additional sonic accoutrements crop up at various points, but given the abstruse nature of much of the sound production it’s often difficult to discern from exactly when and where they are originating. Even with these relative shortcomings it’s still fascinating to hear Parker’s approach at this earlier interval in the development of his art. The requisite elements are all in place, but interestingly enough he largely abstains from the sort of serpentine circular breathing marathons that are his bread and butter today. Further extending the gauntlet thrown to adventurous listeners, the reissue adds two pieces “Through Consensus” and “To Unity” to the original vinyl program.

By Derek Taylor

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