Evan Parker - Saxophones

Evan Parker’s fourteenth birthday was instrumental in guiding his future career. “It was either a sax or a racing bike, he muses. “I chose the sax, as I didn’t feel that I was really cut out for the Tour de France. So we went to a shop in the Charing Cross Road and were almost certainly mildly ripped off for an old Selmer alto from the period when they were still calling their saxophones ‘Adolphe Sax’.”

Parker’s mother played the piano. “She liked Fats Waller and my father used to sing. So there was some music going on around the house which was a good thing, as school and music were two different worlds for me. That was until I got to Chiswick Polytechnic, a school for ‘awkward characters’, ‘foreigners’ and ‘mature students’. I enjoyed life there.” Parker’s sax lessons proved to be no less interesting. “I had instrumental lessons with James Knott. He taught me about more than just the saxophone. He was a card-carrying commie – quite an adventure for a boy who had relied on the Daily Express to shape his world view to that point!”

The “Adolphe Sax” didn’t last long and was soon replaced with a Buescher 400 alto. “I bought the Buescher from James – that was a fantastic horn. Sadly I had to sell it to raise the money I needed to buy my next horns.” Parker bought a “no name” Czech soprano. “I relacquered and repadded that myself – an impossible thought now. At the same time I also had a Conn baritone although I’m not sure which model it was, but it was a gift from the parents of my dear friend Peter Smiles after he died in a road accident.” Parker then bought a Selmer Mk V1 tenor, once again from his tutor James Knott and also bought a Mk V1 soprano from Bill Lewingtons in Shaftesbury Avenue. “It was the earliest version before the adapted bore and double C# mechanism was added. This made significant improvements to the intonation but squeezed all the problems into an impossibly sharp high B.” Parker also bought a “top of the range” Yamaha tenor from Lewingtons – “because I liked the sound of it.” And for a while he switched from the Mark VI to that. Parker continues. “For years Willie Garnett had been urging me to try a King and finally in the late-1990s I bought a King Silver Sonic tenor with a silver crook and a silver bell. I bought it privately in Chicago while I was on tour and played it that same night and have been playing it ever since. Later I had a second King – a gold plated model, which again I bought privately. But I swapped that for a silver Selmer Mark VI soprano that I liked.” Parker has subsequently bought a Chinese Prince soprano. “But that’s just for air travel – when the regulations only permit one piece of carry on luggage.”

We get on to mouthpieces and reeds. “On the soprano I use Harry Hartman synthetic reeds on a Selmer Super session mouthpiece, as sadly I lost my three Selmer Soloist mouthpieces – all of which were of a great vintage. For the tenor, I use Roberto’s Reeds on a vintage Berg Larsen ebonite.” He reminds me that ligatures are also a vital part of the equation. “I used to use Winslow, but then Gerd Dudek made me aware of the Francois Louis ligatures and I’ve been using them ever since, albeit with a little adjustment. Minimal contact with the body of the mouthpiece makes sense. But I have had Willie Garnett flatten the plate so that it contacts across the entire heel of the reed, as I can see no reason not to damp vibration in that part of the reed. As to whether gold or silver plating effects the final sound, given the effort taken to minimise the area of contact between the ligature and the mouthpiece, I am not convinced that that can make any significant difference… a touch of snake oil there I think!”

Like many horn players, Parker’s not too keen on amplification. “I prefer to play acoustic wherever practicable. If amplification is needed, then a studio quality microphone like the AKG 414 or similar is much preferred to the dreaded Shure vocal mics that are often on offer.” Parker has also travelled widely and has a story or two to tell about the reliability of his instruments. “I was playing in the Radio Studio in Zurich with the Pierre Favre quartet back in the late-1960s and the whole low Bb mechanism came adrift. I found the screw in the interval but it was strange feeling when the whole long rod drifted away from the body. Then at Beanbenders in Berkeley when I was playing with Barry Guy and Paul Lytton, I hit the high D palm key a bit too emphatically and the key came away from the body. Larry Ochs went to his home round the corner and brought back a Mark VI for me to finish the gig with. He claims it has never been quite the same since – in a bad way!” Having owned so many different instruments, I wondered if there was a sax out there that would really make Parker’s mouth water. “I would have liked to have tried the horns that Freddy Gregory made using Conn bodies and Selmer keywork, but they were a bit expensive at the time and I think he wanted to sell the alto and tenor together. I have also heard good things about the In der Bienen saxophones from Switzerland and I’m looking forward to trying one – who knows where that might lead. John Stevens once said that music is ‘another little life’ and I intend to live that life to the full.”

Interview - David Gallant

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