Originally built as a roller-skating rink, the BBC’s Maida Vale building was taken over by the corporation in 1934 as the principal location for the recording of its musical output. It contains six studios, some of which retain certain period features. The medium-sized Studio Three, for instance, still has what looks like its original art deco parquet floor, although the space occupied by the Necks and Evan Parker yesterday was covered by a large dark red rug.
Midway through their European tour, the Necks were in Maida Vale on the morning of the last of their three sold-out nights at Cafe Oto because Philip Tagney, a producer of Radio 3’s Late Junction, is in the habit of putting together combinations of musicians who have not played together before. When he asked the Australian trio to nominate someone with whom they would like to record a session, they nominated Parker. Only their pianist, Chris Abrahams, had previously collaborated with the great saxophonist, on a short duo improvisation at the end of a concert at the Bath Festival about four years ago, after both had played solo sets.
So the four of them met in the studio at 11 o’clock yesterday morning and, after a short warm-up, began the first of two collective improvisations. They started playing more or less simultaneously, and not surprisingly the first half of what turned out to be an hour-long piece contained passages in which it sounded as though they were waiting for something to happen, for someone to seize the initiative. Each member of the Necks has plenty of experience in free improvisation; however, having played together for more than a quarter of a century, it’s hardly surprising that they should fall naturally into certain patterns of response, and you could see and hear Parker looking for a way in.
The last 20 minutes, however, contained moments of outstanding and surprisingly gentle beauty, Abrahams coaxing filigree from the studio’s Steinway, Lloyd Swanton plucking notes with the fingers of his left hand at the top of double bass’s fingerboard, Tony Buck adding cymbal washes with one hand and rapid strokes on his floor tom-tom with the mallet in the other, and Parker exhaling feathery tenor saxophone phrases (this was the Parker of his solo on Tony Oxley’s celebrated “Stone Garden”, a track from the drummer’s 1969 album, The Baptised Traveller).
For the second piece, Swanton suggested using the Necks’ standard operating procedure, by which one of the players — it could be any of them — begins the piece with a repeated phrase of his choice, the others joining in when they feel ready. The bassist himself started this one off with double-stopped harmonics, Buck joining in with mallets on his snare drum (with the snare off), Parker — having switched to soprano — producing sustained notes with a hollow, reedy tone, and finally Abrahams entering to initiate a dialogue with the saxophonist, to which the others provided the backdrop of a thrumming, variable-speed bass ostinato and the soft clanking of a small Oriental cymbal struck with a mallet as it lay on the head of the floor tom-tom.
The difference between this piece and its predecessor was apparent throughout, in the suggestion of a constant tonal centre and an underlying pulse (characteristics that set the Necks’ live performances apart from those of the majority of free improvisers). The music surged and ebbed as it often does when the Necks play in concert (and as it had done in both halves of the previous night’s performance at Cafe Oto), inviting Parker to move with it, using circular breathing to weave his skeins and flurries of sound in and out of the group tapestry. After 30 minutes the piece ended with a sudden and unexpected moment of grace: subdued clicks and squeals from the saxophone, growls from the lower end of the piano keyboard, the bassist letting his bow bounce off the strings, more cymbal splashes, and suddenly a silence that, while abrupt and unpremeditated, seemed completely logical.
I made it to the second and third nights at the Cafe Oto, on Tuesday and Wednesday, each of which consisted of two long sets. The first of those nights was very enjoyable, particularly for a pair of very graceful endings, although the music contained nothing wildly unexpected. Wednesday’s music, however, seemed to come from a different place.
Abrahams began the first set and dominated it throughout, maintaining a sense of unresolved harmony that kept the tension high. It was a powerful and beautifully shaped and proportioned performance, and during the intermission Buck said he thought that the experience of playing with Parker earlier in the day might have had something to do with it.
The set that followed it was something else altogether. The previous night, as the music began in a mood of quiet, serene rumination, I’d been wondering what would happen if the group ever started one of their collective improvisations with a really loud opening statement. Now I know the answer. Buck set this one off with a triple-forte snare-drum rattle, announcing three-quarters of an hour of music that became brutal — almost harrowing — in its volume and emotional intensity. To follow the process by which they found their way out of the maelstrom and wound down to closure was an education in itself, followed by perhaps 10 seconds of transfixed silence in which every member of the audience was thinking, “Did I really just hear what I think I heard?” Then the applause came, and it didn’t want to stop.
* The photograph above was taken before the start of the second improvisation at Maida Vale. Left to right: Lloyd Swanton, Tony Buck, Chris Abrahams and Evan Parker. An edited version of the session will be broadcast on Late Junction on Thursday, November 21. Part of Tuesday night’s performance at the Cafe Oto can be heard on Jazz on 3 next Monday, November 11.