In a way, Universal Tonality is something of a 20th anniversary deluxe release for an album that never existed, except perhaps in the heads of those blessed to have been at Roulette on December 14, 2002, when William Parker and a 17-member large ensemble expanded the assembleds’ collective consciousness.
In Cisco Bradley’s must-read Universal Tonality: The Life and Music of William Parker, the bassist explained the concept behind the 2007 performance Double Sunrise Over Neptune:
The concept behind the record was Parker’s concept of “universal tonality,” the idea that “all sounds, like human beings, come from the same place. They have diferent bodies and faces, but the soul of each sound comes from the same parent ‘creation.’” Parker added, “All sounds have a heartbeat and breathe the same as each human being. Some sounds are born in Africa; others are born in Asia, Europe, Australia, or America. These sounds pass through certain human beings. We don’t invent sounds, we are allowed to encounter them; we don’t own them, they existed before we were born and will be here after we are gone.”
Reflecting the concept backwards to this 2002 performance, you can hear how Parker’s concept was already well beyond nascent. The large ensemble includes players whose accomplishments and brilliance reflects their sensitivity to each other and their commitment to the moment(s). Something of a core group, you get players who were actively recording and playing with Parker around that time, like Rob Brown on alto; Jerome Cooper on balafon, chiramía, keys, and drums; Daniel Carter on reeds and brass; and Gerald Cleaver on drums. In addition, the ensemble includes violinists Billy Bang and Jason Kao Hwang, guitarist Joe Morris, pianist Dave Burrell, Miya Masaoka on koto, Jin Hi Kim on komungo, trombonists Grachan Moncur III and Steve Swell, trumpet player Matt LaVelle, saxophonist Cale Brandley, Roger Blank on balafon, and Parker himself on bass, dilruba, shakuhachi, and donso’ngoni. As a hint (at the time) of the gorgeous music to come, Leena Conquest joins the ensemble on vocals; she would become a crucial performer of Parker’s music for the next 20 years.
And so, what about this music itself? Put bluntly, I love it, unequivocally. Universal Tonality is one of the most realized collective works of Parker’s dazzling career. The music, in six named sections, showcases all the hallmark’s of his unique sound world: grooves, funk, blues, swing, a Don Cherry-esque blend of rhythmic and counter-rhythmic interplay, starkly rendered and occasionally heart-wrenching lyrics, and pockets of improvisation, which contain seeds that blossom into full-ensemble melodies. And for the curious listener, the liner notes (available as a PDF in a download) include images of Parker’s brilliantly suggestive graphic scores.
To hear Moncur so soon after his passing is a joy. He had played with Parker previously on In Order To Survive (the album, which did not feature the eponymous quartet) but had not, to date, appeared on an album with Swell. Blank’s balafon is one of the early highlights, pulling the listener in during the first half of “Tails of a Peacock.” Like Moncur, his presence alone provides a link to some of the influences in Parker’s music, and Universal Tonality, in particular, features layers of Sun Ra Arkestra and Pharoah Sanders’s large ensemble albums likeVillage of the Pharoahs, Thembi, and Izipho Zam (My Gifts).
Of course, Parker himself has deep history with Blank and Cooper, having played with both for decades, and his partnerships with Carter, Hwang, and Bang remain among the most powerful relationships in modern improvised jazz. True to Parker’s vision that players from anywhere in the world can join each other onstage and breathe (literally and figuratively) in unison, the instrumentation brings together zithers from Japan (koto) and Korea (komungo), balafon, ngoni, and Western instruments like violin, guitar, and piano. At the core, throughout the album, Parker’s bass hums, less a pulsing heartbeat than a vibrating strand, representing connections that link player to player, sound to sound, moment to moment, the layers enfolding each other into a rounded whole. Highly recommended and high among the best albums released in the twenty years since its performance.
Or direct from AUM Fidelity/Centering Records
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