"Are you all here because it's Christmas?" Evan Parker asked, peering out at the packed out Vortex, with attendees squeezed into every available space. "No!" was the hollered response. As if overwhelmed by the support the gig had attracted, he engaged in a spot of self-deprecating humour, drawing attention to one of the Gina Southgate pictures adorning the walls of the Vortex, and the resemblance of his likeness as sketched there to Santa. The presence on stage of Shabaka Hutchings, a brightly burning star in today's jazz firmament following the critical and popular acclaim garnered by his Sons of Kemet project, was doubtless a draw-card too.
The quartet embarked on a fiery first set, in which it swiftly became apparent that John Edwards on bass and Mark Sanders on drums were important voices in their own right in a set-up in which Parker could be described as "first among equals". Edwards in particular provided some quite astonishing pyrotechnics on his battered double bass. He bent strings, he strummed chords with the vigour of Stanley Clarke, he bowed above the bridge, he strove for maximum attack, he pounded the body of the bass flamenco-style to create percussion effects, he explored the outer edge of possibilities on his instrument in the way Fred Frith does on guitar, one of his lines seemed to be grounded in microtonalities, he was even observed to leap in the manner of a tennis player delivering a serve.
Despite its yuletide timing this was tough music making, not intended to sugar-coat anything, or to reassure. At times the music seemed to suggest a dystopian urban context, almost a Beckettian vision. Except that Beckett's most celebrated works don't always end; Godot never arrives, whereas one of the astonishing aspects of this improvised performance was that, despite the absence of any signalling between the participants, or of any conducting by Parker, they all seemed to be following the same narrative thread, united in their sense of how to draw the piece to a satisfying conclusion.
During the second set Parker's meaty tone was more burnished than that of Hutchings who at times achieved a hollow sound. Could this have been a subconscious reference to surprise 2016 Nobel laureate Bob Dylan's lines, "the fools gold mouthpiece/ the hollow horn"? We can all invoke contexts during 2016 in which this would have been an apposite observation. It was the interplay between the musicians, the hallmark of early Mahavishnu, with dueting saxes instead of guitar, violin and piano, that drew gasps of delight from the crowd. The quartet also managed to find some kinder, gentler moments, which provided welcome contrast to the hardboiled earlier themes. But there is kindness in Beckett too, if you look for it.
With unseasonably warm temperatures during this year's midwinter the world scarcely needs more heat, yet it is in need of this kind of honest, uncompromising music making as the enthusiastic response of those who were fortunate to witness the performance made clear.
– Graham Boyd
– Photos by Roger Thomas