After the explosion of free jazz in the 1960s, it seemed to many in music that the way ahead was to turn toward musical conservatism, à la Wynton Marsalis. After all, modern classical music has proven that even the passing of a century isn’t time enough to lead its audience down the path away from readily recognized melody, easily counted tempo, and pleasingly consonant harmony.
During the 1970s, a significant part of the jazz avant-garde scene shifted from the United States to Europe; many of these musicians remain active and creative, if almost unknown. One of the most consistently rewarding of these is saxophonist extraordinaire Evan Parker, who developed an original style that owed as much to modern classical composers and various international traditions as it did to jazz.
Parker has recently reissued a particularly beautiful 1986 recording of soprano solos, The Snake Decides, on his young record label, Psi. Through circular breathing, he maintains a constant barrage of incredibly rapid lines, and while his basic approach can be traced to John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound,” the language is quite different. One certainly hears the influence of the Scottish bagpipe music known as piobaireachd in the way he uses ornamentation and repetition.
Pianist Alexander Von Schlippenbach, another veteran of the ’70s free/improvised scene, also has a stunning new record on Psi. Broomriding features the pianist with bass clarinet, cello, and drums. The music is often fragmented to the limits of abstraction, but the musicians respond to each other almost telepathically to create a collective improvisation that flows along beautifully. Indeed, one could say that this focus on group interaction is almost the last immediately recognizable tie to the jazz tradition.
It’s doubtful that even another century’s passing will result in a large public demand for sounds this challenging, but those curious listeners who want to hear where the cutting edge really is owe it to themselves to check out these recordings.