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V/A - Pisa 1980: Improvisors Symposium

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Artist: V/A

Album: Pisa 1980: Improvisors Symposium

Label: Psi

Review date: Mar. 31, 2004

There seem to be differing schools of thought among improvising musicians regarding the relentlessness with which one documents music. There are those who accept that, to paraphrase Eric Dolphy, once the music’s gone, it’s gone. Then there are others who, like Anthony Braxton and Steve Lacy, apparently always have an omni-directional mic and an ADAT at the ready. Thankfully, it turns out that Evan Parker is more or less in the latter camp. Not only are there dozens of labels out there ready to release his recordings, Parker himself has been hoarding tapes for a good long while as well. So it is that this former Incus LP has been expanded to a 142-minute double disc whopper, all of it documenting an Improvisors’ Symposium (inspired by Derek Bailey’s annual Company Week) that Parker directed at Pisa’s International Jazz Festival in 1980. Joining Parker were trombonists George Lewis, Paul Rutherford, and Giancarlo Schiaffini; bassists Maarten Altena and Barry Guy; percussionists Paul Lovens and Paul Lytton; guitarist Derek Bailey; and violinist Philipp Wachsmann. Quite a roster of talent.

In many ways, this was a peak moment for European (and particularly British) free improvisation. Many of the key players represented here were still excitedly expanding their playing vocabularies, creeping out on musical limbs as it were, and hadn’t yet settled into their customary styles quite so much. There’s a rawness to Parker’s and Bailey’s playing (and each had recently recorded landmark solo dates, Parker’s At the Finger Palace and Bailey’s Aida), a slashing, nearly ecstatic energy that threatens to overwhelm the players. This is distinct from the finely tuned precision that these players have manifested in recent years (which, just to be clear, yields plenty of pleasures itself). But listen to the two long pieces from the San Zeno Quintet (Guy, Lovens, Parker, Lytton, and Wachsmann, the latter two of whom also incorporate electronics). That wildness leaps out of the speakers, with notes splattering all over the place even as there is a ghostly, Alan Silva-like moan (Wachsmann?) slinking through it all. The music still has restraint and an attention to dynamics – they break down into subgroups, they vary their approach, they leave each other space – but the spirit of risk is what really defines this stuff.

And if your appraisal of these kinds of summits depends on the unorthodox combos of musicians documented therein, well relax because the Pisa Quintet is nothing but low end: both bassists and all three trombonists! For my money, George Lewis alone is worth the price of admission (from this era especially). But together these instrumentalists wring an incredible variety of sounds and texture from what could have been a total mess. What really enables the success is not the fact that they play the same instruments, but that each musician has such a distinct personality: Schiaffini’s long languorous tones contrast with Lewis’ impish perambulations and Rutherford’s obsessive miniatures, while Altena’s structuralist leanings stack up nicely with Guy’s wild expressionism. And speaking of Lewis, the first disc features him in two righteous, raucous duets with Parker: I know you all already dig Psi’s Incus re-release From Saxophone and Trombone, so consider this stuff a must-hear. And he’s got an insane trio (previously completely unreleased) with Lovens and Altena. Only the long (33 minutes) duet between Bailey and Altena isn’t a complete success. While it’s a tad too long, it’s still a fascinating place to hear pre-New Music Altena thrash away with the great guitarist.

The last few years have been like a gift for those of us who love early-period European free improvisation, particularly as labels like Atavistic have been steadily reissuing obscure gems from the canon. This one stands out.

By Jason Bivins

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