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Thursday, April 18, 2019

William Parker – Flower in a Stained Glass Window/The Blinking of the Ear (AUM Fidelity, 2018) *****

By Nick Ostrum

William Parker is a composer and bassist of incomparable skill. (OK, that may sound either self-evident or trite, but the accolade fits.) When he releases a new album – especially one of the many boxed-sets that he has been producing lately – I am always tempted to listen. I am never disappointed. To reference a brief conversation in the comments section of an earlier post , Parker ranks among Hamid Drake and Joe McPhee as one of the most soulful artists in free jazz today. And, much like those two musicians, his music is somehow always a welcomed surprise, whether because it is so innovative, or just because it is so damn good.

This double album is fittingly a departure from his previous efforts. At the same time, however, it fits beautifully into his oeuvre. Moreover, it is laden with soul, albeit in differing articulations.
The first disc, Flowers in a Stained Glass Window features Steve Swell on trombone, Abrahama Mennen on tenor sax, Isaiah Parker on piano, Kesivan Naidoo on drums, Dave Sewelson and Nick Lyons on alto sax, William Parker on bass and drums, and the inimitable Leena Conquest on vocals. As much as Parker’s presence, both in composition and playing, make this recording the unique object that it is, Conquest’s vocalizing of Parker’s poems lends Flowers its potency. (NB: I am not always a fan of Parker’s poetry, at least when written. These words, however, work perfectly in this context.) Composed in homage to Martin Luther King, Jr., these tracks examine the history of race relations, war and peace, capitalism and democracy, and the myriad shortcomings in the contemporary quest for justice and equality. The music is powerful and Parker and his band are in top form. Conquest, however, plays a singular role. Even when quiet, she makes Parker’s words resonate throughout the mournful and hopeful improvisations that follow.

This disc consists of a satisfying balance of shorter pieces - including a particularly moving wherein the name of “Emmet Till” is repeated over a discordant tapestry of wailing horns and eerily calm bass and piano progressions – and longer instrumental tracks bookended by poetry. For their part, “Children” and “What is That About?,” resemble Parker’s Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield project in their energy, melodicism, and emotive effect. One of the most surprising standouts is “I Had a Dream Last Night,” a longer, bluesy, borderline imagist meditation on a dream about a feminine Jesus’s second coming in the present day, backed only by rhythmic claps and what sounds like tambourine.

The second disc, The Blinking of the Ear, takes a completely different tack. Along with long-time collaborators such as Daniel Carter (trumpet and saxes), Steve Swell (trombone), and Eri Yamamoto (piano) and a newer musical comrade, Leonid Galaganov (drums), The Blinking of the Ear also features the mezzo-soprano AnneMarie Sandy. This produces an unconventional marriage of downtown jazz and classical that affirms the classicality of the former and emphasizes the spirituality and continued poignancy of the latter. Parker himself dubs this the achievement of “universality tonality.” I find this description quite appropriate.

In “Meditation on Freedom,” Sandy makes her first, unannounced but absolutely gripping entrance just over six minutes into a driving post-bop track. Her first words, “freedom, freedom, freedom,” unlock a meditation that had hitherto been entrancing, but meandering. The rhythm then slows; the melodies elide and quiet. The track takes shape as the groove slows and continues, without Sandy. The next track, “Without Love Everything will fail,” begins with Sandy and Yamamoto, soon accompanied by Parker, Swell, Galaganov, and, eventually, Carter on trumpet. Melodies float on, along, and through each other in a soothing but irregular interweave. “Dark Remembrance” begins as a hymn with the plea, ”Lift my soul up into my heavenly, heavenly home.” Several minutes in, the lyrics take a jarring turn to describe a lynching. The melody, progression, and description evoke an abstracted “Strange Fruit” and, in the process, draw an unsettling connection between the past and present, and provocative links between blues and classical traditions. The two-part “Heavenly Home Meditation on Peace,” however, is the heart of this album. These pieces sound at times Ellingtonian and composed, at others dark and Weberian, at others liked a pared-down Mahler, at still others lyrical and post-bop or abstract collective improvisation. (For the latter, think of a less groove-driven, progressive Double Sunrise over Neptune or a lost companion to For Those Who are Still .) This, however, is hardly a hodge-podge of musical forms. Instead, each element is cleanly integrated into an effective, narrative whole. Regardless of the moment’s inspiration, the pieces are bound by an arc of moods, textures, and feel that is utterly compelling. This, of course, is not Parker’s first attempt at grand scale compositions. His experience and vision, as well as those of his fellow musicians and the stunning Sandy, shine.


Colin Green said...

An insightful review, Nick. I reviewed the arrangement of ‘The Blinking of the Ear’ for reduced forces as part of the Voices Fall from the Sky set last October, and found it wanting. The version on the present album, for a larger and more expansive grouping, is a real achievement. The instrumental parts lend greater weight and contrast and Sandy’s voice sounds much more convincing. You describe it well.

Regarding your point concerning Parker’s lyrics as poetry, the relationship between words and music can be perplexing. On the one hand, subject to some notable exceptions – such as Dylan and Britten – great poetry can be resistant to musical setting, poems having a verbal music of their own that it’s difficult to capture or compliment in song. Yet the lyrics to some of the greatest songs are, as verse, often mere doggerel; something transformative seems to happen when they are sung.

Steven Joerg said...

Outstanding review, Nick! A quick note though that this set was released on William Parker's own Centering Records, though yes, proudly distributed by AUM Fidelity.

Nick Ostrum said...

Steven, thanks for the correction. That one is on me. Cheers to both Centering Records for producing this and AUM Fidelty for distributing it.
And, Colin, thanks for the post and point well taken. I agree. It is somewhat unfair to compare written to performed poetry. They are different beasts. In full disclosure, these lyrics I only heard, and did not get a chance to read. Usually, I do both.
With that in mind, I would rephrase the statement: these specific poems work particularly well in this context, and I think these pieces as a whole are more compelling than some other of Parker's lyrical pieces. However I state it, it is a testament to effectiveness of this album.