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Friday, March 7, 2014

William Parker: Wood Flute Songs (AUM, 2013) *****

This one was long due, really long overdue. Not only this review itself, but also the box set. We all love William Parker and his music. We love his bass-playing, his compositions, the projects he creates, the soul, the blues, the vision, the fun, the vamp, the freedom, the joy, the skills, the depth ... and then of course the bands and the great musicians, the interplay, the arrangements and the freedom within the arrangements.

Yes, it was long due, yet digesting an eight (8) album box and then coming up with a decent review in a short period of time is a challenge, hence the distribution of tasks between Martin and Stef, and luckily we are both of the same opinion: any William Parker fan should have this box set. Period.

Now for the details.

The first and second CD were recorded live on May 24, 2006 atYoshi's in Oakland, California. The band are Lewis Barnes on trumpet, Rob Brown on alto, William Parker on bass and Hamid Drake on drums, or the regular William Parker Quartet if you want. These four musicians are the core band for the entire box.

The first CD starts with a long arco bass intro, an improvisation bemoaning the fate of the children of Rwanda during the genocide that took place there 1994, then the bass picks up a rhythm and after nine minutes the band chimes in with a glorious improvisation. The next piece is "Petit Oiseau", a rendition that gets my preference over the album performance with the same name, and it gets even better with "Groove #7", a composition built around a typical Parker vamp, and also from the Petit Oiseau album. The last track is "Hopi Spirits", a piece that I haven't found elsewhere in Parker's discography.

CD 2 starts with the unison horn theme of "Wood Flute Song", a twenty minute long free boppish affair with fantastic rhythms and great improvisations. Brown and Barnes are doing a great job to keep up with the maddening rhythms of Parker and Drake. Halfway the track the bass gets center stage for a long improvisation, and then the band comes in again to close the piece, after which Parker tries to explain the plot of Jean-Luc Goddard's movie Alphaville, which is indeed a complicated thing to do, as a preamble to the tune with the same name. Yet it's a great moment of direct interaction with the audience which is quite enthusiastic throughout the performance. The piece itself is more abstract in nature than the other compositions, yet halfway the rhythm picks up to give Drake his place in the spotlight, and if most drum solos are usually boring after a while, Drake usually keeps it interesting, and fascinating, as he does here, and the track ends with Parker joining with his double-reed flute. The album ends with "Malachi's Mode", full of joy and upbeat sentiments.

CD 3 is my favorite of the box. It has the same line-up, and some of the same tunes. The album starts with "Groove #7" and transitions smoothly into "Hawai", with a joyful tune, a solid rhythmic backbone and then space for the improvisers to do their thing. The album was recorded on April 7, 2007 in Houston, Texas. "Broken Roofs" is a long piece by Parker, again heartrending, ending in an unexpected outro by the horns. Then fun starts again with "Hamid's Groove", on which a great rhythm almost creates the wonderful theme: it is joyful, compelling and guaranteed to change your mood and your spirit .... surrender and live! The next tune is another winner, and continues in the same mood, called "Malachi's Mode", dedicated to the great Malachi Favors, it resonates with the sounds of South Africa or the Carribean, it is full of sunshine and has an upbeat spirit, with Brown and Barnes giving some great call and response duos over the rhythm section. The album ends with a short version of "Corn Meal Dance", the elegant and warm composition known from the album with the same name ... but not quite, because now you get another version of the same song, part of the Oakland concert, but which did not fit on CD1. Strange, but that's how it is.

CD 4 starts with "O'Neal's Porch", the title song of another of my favorite Parker albums (5 star rating!), a jazzy theme with lots of rhythmic joy, a star role for Rob Brown, and yes, also for Lewis Barnes, full of energy and soul. Just great. On "Red Desert", Parker picks up his "gralla" for a hypnotic incantational duet with Hamid Drake, to be followed by "Ojibway Song", a celebratory improvisation around a theme that the band has been playing before. Again, and it becomes repetitive, this is pure joy to listen to. Parker's rock solid vamp, Drake's playful polyrhythms and sometimes ferocious and subtle accents, and the two horns almost continually playing around each other like a real snake dance, and when the horns stop, Parker starts improvising over a steady rim-shot beat of the drums. And when you think joy has reached its summit, "Sunrise In The Tone World" is served, one of these unique Parker compositions full of light, full of spirit, again an ode to life itself, flowing into the more abstract group improvisation of "The Square Sun" in which we can again enjoy a long solo on the bass. "Etchings" starts with a long drum intro, leading into a duet with Parker on shakuhachi, but then the band is back in full with "Ascent Of The Big Spirit". The album ends with "Moon", another piece that actually belongs to the Yoshi concert, but who cares. It is just great.

 For the 2009 Vision Festival the quartet was expanded to a septet which we can now hear on CD 5 called Light Cottage Draped in a Curtain of Blues. Parker, Brown, Drake and Barnes were augmented by Billy Bang (violin), Bobby Bradford (cornet), and James Spaulding (alto saxophone) and although Mr Parker claimed in an interview with the German journalist Christian Broecking that it was hardly possible to keep the cultural heritage of a single musician alive because the artist’s late spirit was not enough, the music on these CDs is clearly a bow before Charles Mingus (on his “Scrapbook” album he already dedicated his composition “Singing Spirits” to him). Parker thinks that every musician has to find his way, his voice, he has to filter all the impressions and transform the ideas he got from everything that surrounds him to something which is certainly his own. For him music is creating sounds with the creative use of different methods such as melody lines, notated rhythm fragments as well as spontaneous variations in order to expand the musical possibilities. It’s an interplay of call and response, a dialogue between the instruments as well as the simultaneous use of key and rhythms, unison parts and repetitions of rhythmic and harmonic motives. The result should be a music which is absolutely profound, a music which can change people’s lives. In order to play like that you must have the freedom to play everything and you must have the courage to do it. And all this you can hear on Light Cottage Draped in a Curtain of Blues and Creation, the sixth CD in this box.

Excellent examples for this philosophy are the different versions of “Wood Flute Song”. The septet version introduces the main theme in unison (as well as the quartet and the ensemble version on CD 6), but here reeds and violin seem to completely fall apart, there is wild chaos, only held together by Parker’s bass and Drake’s drums – it is one of the rare free jazz moments of the second part of the box - before the reeds drop out and leave space for a Bang solo which is ended by a rock groove with the reeds interspersing harsh breaks.

When Parker played with Cecil Taylor in the 1980s, Taylor gave him the freedom to play whatever he wanted to play – Bossa Nova or Blues (as he said). He let him choose his sounds and showed him how far he could go. On “Daughter’s Joy”, Parker makes use of this experience and he and Hamid Drake plant an irresistible reggae groove Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare would be proud of. Together with O'Neil's Porch”, a dancing celebration of all the things that define jazz and Billy Bang’s solo in “Deep Flower/Ascent of the Big Spirit”, it is the highlight of this performance. The music swings to and fro between shuffle grooves, whirlwind hard-bop and bebop. This material should even please Wynton Marsalis fans.

CD 6 was recorded at the AMR Jazz Festival in Geneva, Switzerland and Parker's quartet has become the Creation Ensemble, a 12-piece band, which was able to rehearse for three days before the actual gig, which permitted a more orchestrated sound. The result is that the music here is incredibly swinging and tight and, as Parker explains in the liner notes, "ninety percent written out." The band mainly consists of Swiss musicians and the biggest difference to the albums before is the addition of vocals and toasting and again you can see Parker’s philosophy in “Wood Flute Song”. Like on the other versions the band introduces the main hard-bop theme in unison, even Ernie Odoom on vocals joins them. Then the reeds (tp and as) seem to chase each other (the track reminds of the quartet version), again there is wild yet organized chaos only held together by bass (which is not played by Parker here, he is only conducting) and drums. But then the crucial break occurs after six minutes when the rhythm section and the baritone sax take on a soul/jazz groove over which the orchestra and the vocals throw each other the improvised balls in high spirits.

But the highlight on this CD is a different composition: the Ensemble’s “Psalm for Billy Bang” is dedicated to the great violinist, who was fighting lung cancer at the time when Parker wrote the track and who died only five days after the concert. There is a deep sadness in the playing and the vocals, which hints at the impermanence of all existence, but more than anything the composition breathes the deep respect and friendship Parker feels for his long time companion.

Raining on the Moon”, the seventh CD, comes back to a smaller ensemble - it is the original quartet plus Eri Yamamoto on piano and Leena Conquest on vocals (in the liner notes Parker says that he has always been attracted by words). Once again Parker’s compositions pay tribute to great jazz heroes, for example in “3+3 = Jackie MacLean” and “For Abbey Lincoln” but also to a time when musicians were willing to initiate revolution. Again there are a lot of Mingus and Coltrane allusions, the performance breathes the spirit of a time of political and social change and like the other concerts this one has a special highlight as well: “Sweet Breeze”, obviously the encore, is a heartbreaking duo by Leena Conquest and Eri Yamamoto which reminds of Billie Holiday. Like the other tracks it evokes the ghosts of the great era of jazz and of the human rights movement. Conquest sings about a “sweet breeze on the corner (that) brings me back to the place I was born” and the times when they listened “to antiques by Ornette Coleman”. However, the sweet breeze is not the wind, it is the music that brings us back – pure nostalgia, a melancholic musical dream that also carries the dream of a better future.

CD8 is something else entirely. It is the quartet but with Cooper-Moore on piano, and the nature of the playing changes. This performance dates from the 2012 Vision Festival, and it is a kind of suite composed by Parker, called "Kalaparusha On The Edge Of The Horizon", clearly dedicated to Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre. It sounds more free, it is more expansive, the rhythms are more implicit, and is full of ferocious energy, with unrelenting trumpet and piano, and without a doubt some of the most memorable solos of Barnes on the entire album, pushed forward by Cooper-Moore's raw energy, and when Barnes takes a step back, Brown goes for it in the same way, focused, free and full of power. Then the pianist himself comes center stage for what starts as a maddening solo, with a little pause for self-reflection, yet that doesn't last long, and the unpredictable percussive yet mesmerising playing continues. The album ends with two bonus tracks by the Raining On The Moon ensemble, and in my opinion they could have been left out. Somehow the singing and the playing don't match entirely on the first track, and also the last track, Great Spirit, doesn't add much.

Anyway. What you get here is value for money. Lots of value for money. Not only because of the incredible ease with which Parker, Drake, Brown and Barnes find each other blindly on stage, not only because of the all the various incarnations of this core quartet in various line-ups and bands, but because it is a great testament of William Parker's composing power. And yes, the material performed is very much the same as the material on some of the quartet's albums of the last decade, yet that is meaningless in this context. You get the longer improvisations, the wilder excursions, the enthusiasm of the audience and the sound quality is absolutely excellent.

In sum, don't miss it.

Can be purchased at InstantJazz.


Roberto - Jazz photographer said...

Great great great work!!!

Colin Green said...

This release shows us that Free Jazz can be fun: it doesn’t have to be listened to sat fist on furrowed brow, like Rodin’s Le Penseur. It can also get those feet tapping, and feeling that movement – swing if you like – isn’t incompatible with serious intent, balancing pleasure with gravitas (think of the depth of feeling with which Bach, Handel, Couperin and Rameau imbued the Baroque dance suite, from the stately Sarabande to the puckish Gavotte). In my view, dance is at the centre of Parker’s music, most ably demonstrated when he teams up with Drake to form one of the all-time great rhythm sections.

An excerpt from the last disc – In Order to Survive – can be seen here:

Anonymous said...

Great review. But the always interesting pianist/multi-instrumentalist on the last disc is Cooper-Moore!

Stef said...

Thanks Anonymous, the Cooper-Mo(o)re typo was my mistake. Rectified in the meantime.

Martin Schray said...

Yes, Colin, dance is definitely at the center of Mr Parker's work, and not only because of the fact that his wife Patricia Nicholson is an excellent dancer with whom he has realized a lot of interesting projects. I had left out this aspect because there were so many other things to say about this marvelous piece of work but now I somehow regret it. It would have been interesting to analyse this.
It is funny that I talked with my friend Ernst about the avant-garde factor in Parker's work just the other day and in this context he mentioned Bach as well.

Steven Joerg said...

Hello Stef & Martin: very nice to read a truly long-form review of this massive and profound box set. Cheers for taking the commensurate time. A note that the link to purchase at 'InstantJazz' is not correct. Folks can easily find it at 'Instant', but, a heads up!

Paul said...

HI Steven: thank you for making the box set a reality! The link has been corrected.

Colin Green said...

Martin, the Evan Parker/Bach comparison is an interesting one that had not occurred to me, but there are analogies in the use of counterpart in Parker’s solo saxophone works and say, Bach’s Sonatas and Suites for solo violin.

Interestingly, these have been recorded Maya Homburger – Barry Guy’s significant other – and Guy has performed recorded a lot of Baroque music, which features heavily in their recitals. One can hear the influence of certain Baroque harmonies and structures in Guy’s more recent work with the Tarfala Trio, particularly in some of the slow closing sections.

Martin Schray said...

Actually, Colin, we talked about how William Parker is able to play "straight" jazz stuff integrating avant-garde free jazz lines and how you can find avant-garduish improvisation moments in Bach's work as well (or in Louis Armstrong's, for example). The Evan Parker comparison is all the more true, of course. It is no accident that Homburger/Guy use these baroque compositions as a basis for improvisation. But I have to re-listen to Tarfala Trio to find the Bach allusions. Interesting aspect.

Colin Green said...

With Guy the allusions are possibly more to Biber than Bach.