Anyone interested in free improvisation should own it.
According to John Corbett’s pithy primer, A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation, saxophonist Evan Parker puts improvisation into three categories: “those that express agreement, those that express disagreement, and those in which the participants agree to disagree.” Recorded and originally released in 1970, this landmark album, reissued on vinyl by UK label Otoroku, features three legends of free improvisation whose long careers never compromised their challenging and rewarding visions. If the musicians are occasionally in conflict, they consistently and compellingly engage in a thrilling tension and surprisingly accessible humor.
Of course, track titles and separation notwithstanding, the four pieces are far from conventional song structure, and even from such American free jazz milestones as Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity or Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz. Those horn-heavy masterpieces, are, despite their forward-looking break with convention, grounded in tradition. The tone of Ayler’s tenor launches his free shouting session with a searching, soulful melody that is a recognizable descendant of folk and gospel (even with a hint of patriotism). The collective improvisation of Coleman’s double quartet can even seem like a wildly adventurous Dixieland band. On the other hand, Parker and his mates seem centuries removed from the canon, rhythms and themes more elusive than ever.
Opening 20-minute salvo “Titan Moon” builds on staccato notes, isolated and in bursts, that suggest a disorienting spacewalk. Guitarist Derek Bailey picks out a dry rhythm while Parker’s tenor keens and brays, and Han Bennink, the Dutchman whose most infamous act as a percussionist may have been performing on a drum kit made of cheese, careens like a cartoon character’s slapstick descent down a flight of stairs.
While there may be nothing to hold onto here for the listener used to theme-improvisation-theme, the musicians’ interplay comes into focus when, say, Bennink leads a run that carries Bailey’s prickly solos and Parker’s hiccupping tenor along for a rollercoaster ride, or as the trio’s energy ebbs and flows as if in an agitated three-way conversation in which the musicians are trying to come to an agreement but simply make a gloriously unified noise. Free improvisation doesn’t mean lack of structure; the musicians listen to each other, which as Parker’s classification of improvisation suggests, doesn’t necessarily mean they are in sync; Bailey may let out a stark run or a more introspective, minimalist series of harmonics as Bennink lays out and Parker comes in with a drone when, suddenly, Bennink lets out a raspberry.
Parker’s name is first on the lineup, but while the concept is democratic, Bennink, who can be something of a free jazz jester, comes across as the leader more often than not, dragging his mates away from sympathetic colors into an altogether different direction. The drummer particularly takes center stage on two shorter tracks, “For Peter B & Peter K,” (named for German improvisers Brötzmann and Kowald) and “Fixed Elsewhere.”
But on the closing 12-and-a-half-minute “Dogmeat,” the three take off in wild unison, their dense din abruptly broken by a tinny Bennink triangle (a reference to Pavlov’s dog?), which sends the musicians off on wandering tangents that occasionally come together the way that three dogs of different temperaments will occasionally find a common rhythm in between exploratory sniffing.
Topography of the Lungs was the first release on the British label Incus, founded by Bailey and Parker along with drummer Tony Oxley and journalist Michael Walters. Incus became home base for many of the greats of European free improvisation, but due to a fallout between Parker and Bailey, the album was never reissued until after Bailey’s death in 2005. Otoroku first reissued the album on vinyl in 2014, and this is a welcome reprint. Anyone interested in free improvisation should own it.