British flute-player Eddie Parker will be joining pianist Afrika Mkhize at the National Arts Festival.
“I’ve never put myself in the position of having to do horrible gigs where people aren’t listening to you,” says British flute-player Eddie Parker. “But that means I don’t work very much! I earn my living mostly through teaching.”
Parker does not do predictable. His playing dates have covered jazz, classical music and a chill-out stint at Ibiza’s Café del Mar with the duo A Man Called Adam. The teaching has been in every context from university to community school.
Along the way, Parker played flute on Bheki Mseleku’s 1991 album Celebration. He played with the pianist at the 1994 Guinness Jazz Festival in Johannesburg and brings that experience to this year’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown as part of the group with whom Afrika Mkhize will revisit and revision Mseleku’s compositions.
Parker was born in Liverpool in 1959 into a musical family and was given his first flute at 10.
“I got into improvising when I was 11 or 12.” His father, who had been a show musician, had found playing to order dispiriting and advised his son: “Don’t ever be a professional musician, son. You’ll grow to hate it. Just do music as a hobby.”
Though it had an impact on Parker’s choosiness about gigs, it was hard advice to follow in a home he describes as filled with fascinating sounds, from Alban Berg to Stevie Wonder.
“Music became the opposite of a hobby. In terms of how much it meant to me, it became an obsession: a life-or-death thing.”
But by the time Parker had graduated from university, the Liverpool music scene “was undergoing a pretty rough period. There were no musicians of like mind there. I knew I had to be in London.”
He found the metropolis a musical treasure house: “You can pursue anything there: from Brazilian music to gamelan, from free improvisation to Bulgarian singing to modern jazz. So I did!”
Parker was also “hanging around the South African scene”, learning about the meaning of apartheid, exile and a particular set of sounds and playing approaches.
“The way musicians like Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza, Chris McGregor, Harry Miller and others keyed into various strands of jazz — free jazz changes, jazz-rock fusion — was important. It seemed a natural thing, without the feeling of cultural territorialism that happens sometimes with American musicians.”
Among the South Africans Parker encountered was pianist Mseleku. “My overwhelming memory is of the warmth of his playing. Even when he was playing at a fast tempo, there was none of that hard technical feel that happens with some players. His understanding of the music was highly advanced, despite his lack of formal training, about which he felt unconfident.
“Whatever musical area we found ourselves in — and that sometimes included way-out free improvisation — he played from within the music and with an incredible force … There are many fantastic musicians around, but Bheki had this spiritual authenticity — I don’t know how else to put it — and that is why he was and is so important. He was a teacher, leader, builder, shaman.”
Around the same time, as he collaborated with Mseleku, Parker was also working in and writing for pianist Django Bates’s big experimental ensemble Loose Tubes. The label Lost Marble has just reissued its Sad Afrika, a 1990 live recording described by Guardian critic John Fordham as “capturing the band’s irrepressible essence”. Loose Tubes was an innovator in many ways: not only in creating novel, extended jazz compositions, but also in interrogating the sources and discourse of the music it was making. And for Parker those debates were important.
Keeping it real
“I can’t get the logic of the ‘purity’ [in music] argument. But on the other hand, I am concerned about authenticity, about giving different styles their true respect. I don’t like dipping superficially into styles. I was never into those gimmicky recordings of a bop rhythm section with a sitar bolted on top.”
Authenticity, he feels, comes from within. “Bheki was a perfect example of that. Sometimes there were South Africans [in the audience] who wanted him to play more in the township style. But he wanted to play in the McCoy Tyner/Coltrane style. The way he found a home in that style was amazing … and the depth he brought to it.”
That tension between the genuinely authentic and the prescribed and bounded is also something Parker deals with as a teacher. With partner Elaine Furness, in the organisation Groove On, he has developed a methodology that opens the experience of music-making, composing and improvising to children who may have had no previous musical training.
“The results are often surprising. Sometimes children [who are learning an instrument] have had the groove knocked out of them by formal training. From their groovy, non-trained peers they learn how to be rhythmical again.” He is eager to discuss the applications of this approach with South African music educators.
It might seem that there is very little musical territory remaining that Parker hasn’t explored in his half-century. But — partly sparked by his work in Ibiza — he has found a new one: lyric writing and the voice. “Until relatively recently, I never bothered listening to the words. As an instrumentalist, I was always focused on the ‘pure’ music aspects. But I have started singing!”
Eddie Parker features in Afrika Mkhize’s Grahamstown concerts on June 30 and (with a larger ensemble) on July 3