Friday, February 03, 2006

The Longest Night

The Longest Night is the title of a two volume set of LPs released on the Ogun label in 1976. The artists are Evan Parker and John Stevens on soprano saxophone and percussion respectively.

I found both these LPs in a import cut-out bin at Streetside Records in Columbia, Missouri in 1981. I knew nothing of the artists, but bought them simply to try them out. I also kind of liked the cover art, a skyscape.

The music contained was amongst the strangest I had yet heard. Parker plays squiggles on his sax, sounding frequently like a squeaky machine, and avoids the long line and melody like the plague. Stevens hyperactively works a very reduced percussion set to fill in the spaces. He does not hold a beat, or convey a clear pulse.

Most people I knew who heard this music at the time reacted extremely negatively to it. It was noise, and what's more noise akin to chalk scraping over the blackboard.

I can certainly understand that view. It does sound like scraping and seemingly makes no sense on first listen. But I found myself coming back to it again and again, and once you get past the tone and the noise elements (not by ignoring them, but by assimilating them), this is actually very satisfying jazz music. Listen closely, and there is a rhythm and there is a sense of melodic progression.

In other words, it is not random noise. Every squeal is placed there for a reason, and the improvisational interplay between the two musicians is jaw-dropping. The music is extremely vocal - it talks to you, in a way far closer to actual language than most music. Once you get drawn into that conversation - which, of course, is primarily the interplay between the musicians, it's hard to let go.

The pieces start and stop without any seeming sense of conventional opening or closing. In feel, this music is far closer to ritual music, for example that of Native-American cultures, and gives you little if expect the conventional rewards of Western music.

But it is not true ritual music, and requires a combination of approaches in listening to get to grasps with it. This takes a lot of work, but I always emerge from hearing these improvisations spiritually refreshed. An appreciation of avant-garde techniques in 20th century music helps a lot, but there is not an academic aura about The Longest Night. It simply is.

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