Musical collaboration is always a mystery. Fans and critics alike often fantasize about what would happen if “Miles Davis were still alive” or if “Jimi Hendrix made it onto Bitches Brew,” but the bottom line is that it is impossible to know how an artistic pairing will pan out until it actually happens. In free jazz, this problem is addressed constantly as musicians from around the world receive accolades and decide to throw together gigs whenever they end up in the same city. Being such an in the moment experience, it is hard to truly understand how intertwined the musical offerings of each player are in these situations. On Miller’s Tale, risky European sax player Evan Parker guides an ensemble comprised of New York based musicians through a series of off-the-cuff improvisations with fantastic results. Chemistry is everywhere with each player blissfully finding moments to shine. Although Evan Parker can often be heard elsewhere carrying the saxophone to its breaking point with squawking extended techniques, here he takes a leading role acting as the glue that pulls in his surroundings.
A work comprised strictly of improvisation, the album begins with every musician on edge, each adding quite a bit of noise to the space on “Death of a Salesman.” Sonically, this song does a brilliant job of introducing the project with many ideas being partially explored. On “The American Dream,” droning noise is explored a bit more thoroughly, violinist Mark Feldman leads the way with Ikue Mori’s electronics providing over-arching ambiance as Evan Parker slowly emerges from the shadows, his oscillating saxophone lines reaching anxious peaks. The next track, “Up From Paradise,” somewhat maintains the droning energy, this time more of the spotlight shed on Evan Parker, with plucked violin strings adding to the impact of the melodies. The second half of the record sees a slight shift in focus with suspense coming into the equation much more prominently as more space is added to the sonic landscape. “Riding On a Smile and a Shoeshine” relies almost entirely on sound effects (including some seemingly stolen directly from R2-D2’s playbook) with “Playing for Time” leaving huge swathes of silence between Evan Parker’s phrasing.
Throughout the project, the absence of a drummer is completely unnoticeable. Although instrumental music can often survive without percussion, it can be problematic if this missing element constantly reminds the listener of its absence. By avoiding stagnant melodic phrasing, the ensemble continuously emphasizes forward motion making the pieces breathe rhythmically. Even when space is made a bit more central, the melodic mastery maintains enough intrigue to stand alone. Perhaps another side effect of this melodic mastery is the amount of contrast achieved, particularly in the length of ideas being presented. Beginning with long track lengths featuring all members of the ensemble, the album eventually changes mood to emphasize smaller cells within the space. On “Playing for Time,” Evan Parker trades ideas with pianist Sylvie Courvoisie, each artist remaining in near perfect sync, both challenging the other to test their rhythmic capabilities. “Nothing’s Planted” and “A Fountain Pen” both amount to less than four minutes, offering brief abstractions in juxtaposition to the dense beginnings of the album.
Miller’s Tale is a brilliant work. Generally speaking, it takes a long time to adjust to the aesthetic of a jazz album, but this one clicked in right away for me and the gift has kept giving with deeper listens adding more and more to the experience. I try to be self-aware with music like this because the unprepared listener may not be ready to here excessive extended techniques from the first downbeat. On this project, there was a real effort for every sound to be justified, every raw melodic choice comes from a logical place making for a record that should appeal to most music fans. The album may be lacking ever so slightly in the sonic department, the instrumental choices do not quite succeed at sounding new and groundbreaking, however, the project is certainly a notable addition to the 2016 catalog.
Last year, Intakt records released Roulette of the Cradle. 2016 might just be the year of Miller’s Tale. 9/10