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Freeing Improv: Evan Parker, Susan Alcorn, and Michael Formanek at the Windup Space, April 18; Tomasz Stanko Quintet at An die Musik, April 18

April 19, 2010

Evan Parker

When two of Europe’s leading improvisers, British saxophonist Evan Parker and Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, came to the United States this month, there was a reason that they both skipped Philadelphia and Washington D.C. to play their only Mid-Atlantic dates in Baltimore. Our town has, somewhat improbably, become a major center for avant-garde jazz and free improvisation. In addition to the annual High Zero Festival, Baltimore now has three venues that regularly book such music: An die Musik, the Windup Space, and the Red Room. Slowly but surely those three rooms have built a reliable audience.

Thus it was that Parker and Stanko could arrive on the same evening this past Sunday and both play for full houses: Parker at the Windup Space and Stanko at An die Musik. The shows overlapped, but with a bit of hustle one could see most of each one.

Parker joined two leading lights of Baltimore’s own improvising scene: bassist Mike Formanek and pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn. The trio created a fascinating tableau: two burly, bearded men standing in a wash of red light and flanking a woman seated in white light, all framed by red curtains on three sides.

Parker is more accurately described as a free improviser than as a jazz musician, for he doesn’t play theme-and-variation but rather variation-without-theme. He just starts playing in the moment without a tune or even a key in mind. Unlike a lot of such improvisers, though, the saxophonist rarely resorts to abstract noise; he prefers little snippets of melody, small sequences of tonal notes that he never allows to cohere into an actual, distracting theme. It’s as if the collected works of Rahsaan Roland Kirk had been cut into 10-second fragments and reassembled with no concern for continuity but lots of concern for the immediate emotion. Sometimes on Sunday, Parker was quiet and reflective; at other times he was loud and boisterous, but in either case he would burst out with a line of notes, pause, burst out with a different line of notes, pause, burst, pause.

Formanek is a jazz musician, but he adapted readily to Parker’s approach, bowing slow, sonorous underpinning or pulling and snapping bass strings like an archer. Alcorn, an acclaimed free improviser herself, continued to upend expectations about the pedal steel guitar. Only rarely did she rely on the instrument’s best known quality, its dazzling glissandos; instead she often used her silver, cylindrical slide as a percussion tool, banging on the strings—and not just to create noise, but to carve out rhythmic patterns. At other times she used the picks on her right hand to play prickly arpeggios against Parker’s squiggly geysers.

Stanko, Poland’s most famous jazz musician, brought along his new quintet, featured on his latest album, Dark Eyes. Two young Finns, pianist Alexi Toumarila and drummer Olavi Louhivuori, were joined by two young Danes, bassist Anders Christensen and guitarist Jakob Bro. The pianist and guitarist were mere noodlers, but the drummer and especially the bassist supplied a knotty, ever-shifting rhythm that reinvigorated Stanko’s music. Christensen used his white Fender bass for more than just the usual fat-toned pulse; using both fingers and picks he coaxed a variety of tones and some remarkable harmonic ideas from it.

No wonder Stanko entrusted Christensen with some of his most crucial motifs. The 67-year-old trumpeter—short, wiry, and bald in big, black-frame glasses—has built his career on filtering the influence of Miles Davis through the pastoral atmospherics and classical rigor of European jazz. Stanko’s newest compositions echo Davis’s transitional period around In a Silent Way, but with an unmistakable North European sensibility. On the new album’s title track, for example, he began with a slow, elegant reverie that he slyly subverted by delaying the expected accents. Halfway through, Christensen shifted to a throbbing bass line and Stanko responded with a boppish attack that nonetheless retained a bit of the opening dreaminess with its reverb tone and unconventional changes.

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