PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Paul Bley / Evan Parker / Barre Phillips: Sankt Gerold

Maurice Bottomley

Paul Bley / Evan Parker / Barre Phillips

Sankt Gerold

Label: ECM
US Release Date: 2001-05-27

I am always a little over-awed by ECM recordings. They sound as if they should be listened to in a large, loft apartment (with minimalist furnishings) on a system that costs a year's salary. There is also a suspicion that they operate using a Masonic musical language to which only the true initiate is privy. The spirit of twentieth century abstract art is everywhere. If high modernism is dead then news of that event has not reached the citizens of ECM's lofty citadel, who are still fiercely loyal to the late monarch. Consequently there is a generally humourless dedication to all things complex, atonal and unfunky that teeters at times into self-parody. A good for instance is that this set is recorded in an Austrian monastery (oh the silence, the spirituality) and that there is nothing as referentially vulgar as a song title to be found- just Variations (one to 12, in fact). However, keeping an incipient Philistinism firmly in in check, it has to be admitted that this is a pretty impressive set -- with an abundance of fine, if unashamedly highbrow, music.

The featured trio are major figures on the advanced music scene. A cursory website check threw up about 300 albums in which they have had some involvement. Now veterans -- Bley and Phillips are in their sixties, Parker a decade behind -- they bring a wealth of talent and history to their playing and are the genuine article. There is barely a single, significant experimental musician that this bunch have not locked instruments with and, unsurprisingly, they ooze confidence and assuredness. Canadian-born pianist, Paul Bley is probably the best known and his involvement from way, way back with Lenny Tristano and Jimmy Giuffre put him in contact with the original antecedents of this particular type of improvisation. That fifties' classical-plus-jazz movement was termed "Thirdstream" and Sankt Gerold is part of its post-Ornette Coleman incarnation. Chamber music with a Free Jazz frame of reference sums it up.

Bley has a reputation, even within modern jazz circles as an overly cerebral player, which is mind-boggling enough. Add the fact that Evan Parker -- from Bristol, England -- is one of the more dogged exponents of wild atonalism and the seekers after melody are in trouble. Yet something rather pleasant takes place in the course of these encounters. Bley -- or perhaps it was the monastic setting -- seems to calm Parker down somewhat, whereas Parker's ceaseless stretching of sound brings out a more emotional quality in Bley's work than is usually the case. With Californian Barre Phillips unable to make an ugly noise even in his most vanguardist mode, the combined result is often rather poetic and lovely. Whether this is intended, I have no idea, but I, for one, am glad of it.

The answer may lie in the fact that this album was recorded (in 1996) after a long tour, based on the success of their first outing for ECM -- Time Will Tell (1994). There is a relaxed and easy relationship between the participants, ample space for solo pieces and an unhurriedness about the various duo and trio exchanges. Bley becomes almost Chopinesque at times and even Parker's weird "circular breathing" exercises have a fragile quality about them. Phillips, as I have mentioned already, is grace personified. The album has all the regulation parps, squawks and cacophonous interludes (I recommend Variation 10 for clearing your home of unwanted guests) but that is what they seem -- interludes. The dominant mood is contemplative and less dependant on the jagged edges associated with this genre. Not easy listening by any means but not as painful as some will imagine.

As for the Variations -- five are ensemble pieces, Bley and Phillips get two each and Parker three. Parker's contributions are the most demanding or, according to your tastes, the most irritating. Personally, I have always found the Spontaneous Music Ensemble -- the British free jazz movement of which he was a key part -- the least attractive of free jazz collectives. One cannot help, though, marvelling at his technique and the sheer variety of sounds he gets out of the reeds. That said, Variations six and seven (featuring Phillips) are my favourites as they offer an evocative but still adventurous journey through the instrument's whole range of possibilities. Yet if Phillips is consistently the most impressive, it is Bley who sticks in the mind the longest. With stately phrasing and layerings of melancholy chords, he proves himself to be nowhere near as dry and academic as his reputation suggests. Variations one, two and nine show him to best effect.

Regular ECM buyers will know what to expect and probably will lap it up. To the less smitten I would suggest that a background in post-Schoenbergian classical music will equip you better than a knowledge of Kansas City tenor men in dealing with the "jazz" on offer here. A general feel for modernism in any of the arts will serve you best of all. I don't know how much more mileage there is left in this free end of the musical scene but this set is full of conviction and vigour. There is not the slightest hint of anyone simply going through the motions. They are among the best at their particular game, these three, and they know exactly (well, exactly as is permissible in such an open-ended form) what they are doing. I can offer no such certainty but enjoyed the ride anyway.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.