The Lobby Lounge, St. Petersburg, FL • April 16, 2001
There are stories that the old Hotel Detroit is haunted. The once popular hotel stands mostly empty these days. The only sign of life in the old hotel is the lobby area, which has been made over into a hipster lounge for diners at the Garden Restaurant. I can’t attest to the rumors of phantoms lurking in the guest rooms upstairs, but I can tell you that spirits were at play in the lobby when Evan Parker came to town to play.
Evan Parker is an English saxophonist who has been pushing the envelope of jazz for over 30 years. Along with guitarist Derick Bailey, Parker kick-started the British improvised jazz scene in the late ’60s. He was one of the first players to work extensively with techniques like circular breathing. John Zorn credits Parker with changing the way people play the saxophone.
So there I was, literally sitting at the feet of a master in the lobby of a haunted hotel listening to some absolutely mind altering music. Parker opened the show with an improvisation for solo tenor saxophone. The sounds that Parker coaxed and cajoled out of the instrument weren’t necessarily pretty or melodic in the standard way those terms are used. Parker manages to make it sound like more than one person is playing. When Parker switched to soprano sax for the second number, I closed my eyes and imagined Japanese Anime robots dancing through cyberspace. I could hear two or more melodies flowing from Parker’s horn in long, uninterrupted lines as his face went through the amazing contortions of circular breathing.
Then things got more interesting. An old friend of Evan’s stepped up with his own soprano sax, and Parker launched into a duet with Sam Rivers. This is the stuff that makes jazz so magical. Rivers and Parker didn’t rehearse, they weren’t playing a standard they both knew. They set off into the unknown improvising, composing in the moment, and trusting that they would make something special happen if they simply allowed it to happen. Something special did happen, and the spirits in the old hotel rejoiced.
After a brief intermission, Parker and Sam Rivers returned with Rick Adams on bass and Jim Stewart (of Shim) on drums. For this set, Sam and Evan picked up their tenors to blow out some more amazing sounds. The rhythm section grounded the second set, at least a little bit. Adams and Stewart met the challenge of sparing with two legends. Both players got a chance to show their stuff in solo space. Again, the magic of the moment is that these four players could take the stage without charts, without lead sheets, and create music that sounds like a well-crafted composition. This is what Misha Mengelberg meant when he called group improvisation instant composing. It’s a game and it’s a gamble. It could be a disaster or it could be transcendental.
Rivers stepped out for the last number. Parker and the local rhythm section charged the ether one more time, and then it was over. Sam Rivers drove back to Orlando, Evan Parker will catch a plane for his next stop, and Adams and Stewart probably have day jobs to get ready for. That’s all real world stuff. For a few hours, though, the old lobby of the Hotel Detroit was alive with spirits from another dimension. Those of us who were there will remember it as something quite remarkable.