Iskra 1903: Chapter One, 1970-2
Paul Rutherford (trombone, piano), Derek Bailey (guitar), Barry Guy (bass)
Parker/Guy/Lytton/Crispell: After Appleby
Evan Parker (saxophones), Barry Guy (bass), Paul Lytton (drums), Marilyn Crispell (piano)
Two releases by what one might refer to (without wishing to be indelicate) as veterans of the London improvised music scene, one new and one long-unavailable, both featuring the mighty Barry Guy in two extremely different settings.
Iskra 1903 was one of the legendary early improv groups, a trio of players who bacame, during its four-year existence, some of the biggest names in what was, and remains, a tiny but international scene. This triple-CD reissues two old Incus LPswhich, if you have them, probably need replacing by now, and it packs in over an hour of previously unreleased material from the same period.
The two main incarnations of the group -- from 1970 and 1972 -- sound surprisingly different. The first disk finds the group at their inception, playing rather cool music in an edgy, agressive manner. Baily, in particular, plays his amplified acoustic with ferocious disregard to polite musical values, popping and rattling when one expects quietude. Having said all of which, this trio seems to love space above all, and although the three play with commitment and more than a little bite, the silence into which they propel their revolutionary sounds sets them off and makes the music simultaneously relaxed and uncomfortable
The second disc finds the group two years later with a somewhat more finessed sound, but the dedication to raw acoustic impact within small sounds and big spaces remains unchanged. "Acoustic" because, as is often said of this kind of playing, one is made very much aware of the material presence of the instruments involved, although in fact both Bailey and Guy play amplified on these disks, with the former already deploying his influential but immediately identifiable volume pedal technique.
"After Appleby", on the other hand, is the latest release from Parker's occasional quartet -- actually his regular trio with Lytton and Guy, augmented by the never-disappointing Crispell. Parker fans will be strongly reminded of another Parker disk, "Time Will Tell", one of his most accessible and popular, which featured the same line-up with Paul Bley instead of Crispell.
There's the same limpid, almost ECM-esque sense of reserve in some of these pieces, particularly the first, on which the pianist sounds as if she might drift at any moment into a reading of "As Time Goes By". It's not all mellow free jazz, though; the following, extended track somewhat reprises Parker's duets with Eddie Prevost on "Most Materiall", Lytton skittering about the metal bits of his kit and Guy mimicking bowed cymbals or a stuttering floor tom.
All of which is to put things rather simplistically. As with any of Parker's more jazzy records, there's a vast amount of variety on these two CDs (one a studio session, the other live at the Vortex, London). For a start, the three big pieces (nearly 100 minutes of music in themselves) are interspersed with duets and a trio. That's a brave thing to do because it can lend a disjointed feel to a CD programme, but here it works well because it's clearly been carefully thought out.
Each of these non-quartet pieces is beautiful in itself, and all share a very similar musical approach, which means that during a casual listen one is not aware of shifting personnel so much as of a multi-levelled performance. In long, single-piece improvisations, it's common in any case for one or two musicians to sit out for a while; maybe this is, conceptually, just a development from that. There's a general sense of continuity between these pieces which gives them the feel of a continuous performance while the changes in line-up keep it varied on closer inspection (not that this quartet needs such a fillip, really, enthralling as they are).
Both releases are, in their own ways, inexhaustable sources of pleasure. The Iskra release is, one might argue, a matter of archive documentation, but this music sounds as brilliant and alive as ever and across three very full CDs the experience is never less than scintillating. What Parker's latest disk represents is something very different, the latest missive from a quartet which will doubtless be viewed as one of the classic jazz groups of its time. Snap them both up next pay day and regret nothing.