Year by year Evan Parker’s electro-acoustic ensemble — a project he initiated more than two decades ago — seems to take on a more powerful place in his body of work. It is among improvised music’s irreplaceable groups — as ICP still is or as Albert Ayler’s trio once was. Parker’s ensemble has forever altered the way we hear music. Once documented exclusively by ECM — five groundbreaking discs from 1996 to 2007 — Parker’s psi label released Hasselt in 2010, and, now, Victo produces Seven, a live recording (and debut) of the ElectroAcoustic Septet at the 2014 Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville.
If the group’s configuration has shifted over the years, growing to 18 pieces at Lisbon’s Jazz em Agosto in 2010 — a performance that, for many, ranks among the high-water marks of early 21st century creative music — Seven readjusts things once again. On the acoustic side, Ned Rothenberg (clarinets, shakuhachi) and Peter Evans (trumpets) remain; Ikue Mori returns on electronics. Now Sam Pluta (electronics) is added, along with Okkyung Lee (cello), and George Lewis (trombone and electronics). Remarkably, it was back in 1980 that Parker and Lewis first worked together, on a series of European dates captured by Incus Records.
Apart from Parker himself, this is an American band — a lovely artifact from the Englishman’s recent New York residencies at the Stone. Here, in small-town Quebec, he reconstitutes the electro-acoustic project for the first time without bass and percussion (Paul Lytton had been ever present until now). Yet the group’s moorings remain: the mirroring, of acoustic instruments and their electronic counterparts; the intricate network of voices, where collective improvisation is tied to line and timbre, where a profound sense of each player’s sound (tone, attack, breath, etc.) echoes, refracts, and ignites another’s.
Still, Seven stands apart. It is by turns searing and savage, hypnotic and contemplative. It is a supremely realized set of music — two brave, meticulous, and wonderfully alive improvisations. The record demands repeated, and varied, listening: on headphones, or filling up the room. The disc brings different delights every time; the balance — the performance itself and Victo’s exquisite production — is ideal. You might spend time, say, zeroing in on Rothenberg’s role on “Seven-1.” His work outlines the spine of this 46-minute event, tagging its beginning, middle, and end — on shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo flute, with these gorgeous, airy, poised declarations, or on bass clarinet, down low, boring out the bottom end. Parker’s entrance comes when you’re already acclimated to the date. Lee’s pizzicato lines meander, then these terrific sweeps of sound, an electronic cascade, measured, hushed, Evans’s color. In “Seven-2” the trumpeter’s role is more prominent: he jumps in and out of the ensemble in a series of wildly controlled acrobatics.
But the overarching spirit is always Evan Parker’s: in parceled spirals, the drama of circular breathing, waves (gyres?) turning and pushing and cycling, bird calls, long tones, fantastic effects that, together, give you the sense of seven souls breathing. That, to me, is the most extraordinary aspect of this disc: the importance of space, of something beyond simple notation. At its very highest peaks, Seven is absolute music of the rarest kind. Whether the instruments are blown, bowed, plucked, or processed, you feel the essence of these sounds — as you might register a wisp of wind, or the pulse of a human breath.