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“Summational” immediately comes to mind as a descriptor for William Parker’s first release of the 2020s, titled Migration Of Silence Into And Out Of The Tone World (AUM Fidelity).
The 10-CD extravaganza comprises ten separate projects, all composed recently, with separate personnels and sonic environments. Each episode shows Parker, 69, full in control of his materials, presenting a different component of his wide-ranging compositional interests, instrumental personalities and narrative preoccupations, distilled and refined over more than half-a-century of constant work.
Parker is most widely-known as a master contrabass practitioner, applying mighty grooves and well-wrought extended techniques to post-Ayler outcat jazz and tabula rasa improvising environments. But here, for the most part, he either lets others tell his story or performs on a global array of instruments.
Consonant rubato lyricism infuses Child of Sound, a solo piano suite performed by Eri Yamamoto. Another solo recital is Afternoon Poem, a luminous song cycle by Lisa Sokolov. The latter is one of seven albums in Migration of Silence that features female voices interpreting Parker’s lyrics, which project a clear-eyed idealism, sensitivity to Nature, self-awareness, and political focus mirroring the inclusiveness, breadth, energy and communitarian spirit of his musical production.
“Cosmic funk” (to use Parker’s parlance) infuses the ambiance of Blue Limelight – the composer frames Raina Sokolov-Gonzalez’s declarative voice with string quartet, oboe and drums. Two separate string quartets elaborate the striking melodies on Manzanart, on which Parker plays on khaen, Navajo flute, and fujara overtone flute on a single track. He also plays bass, donso ngoni, and percussion on one track of the spiky, atonal Majesty of Jah – a voice-trumpet-electronica-sampling tour de force by singer Ellen Christi and trumpeter Jalalu Kalvert Nelson.
Parker participates for the entirety of The Fastest Train, a 13-piece sounds-of-nature encounter with Dutch multi-instrumentalists Coen Aalberts and Klaas Hekmans, conjuring dialogue on keringot, hochiku, shakuhachi in D & A, stereophonic bamboo flute, Ojibway overtone bass flute, pocket trumpet, malakan flute, and Chinese shakuhachi.
He further foregrounds his multi-instrumentalism (Serbian flute, gralla and kamele ngoni) on Mexico, a discursive recital on which he frames the impassioned voice of Mexico City-based singer Jean Carla Rodea with an international ensemble that blends oud, harmonica, multiple drums, piano and bass (Ohad Kapuya). He plays plangent cornet on in an ensemble fronted by singer Andrea Wolper on Lights In The Rain (The Italian Directors Suite), conveying his refractions of the films that fueled his visual and aural imagination during formative years.
This writer’s personal favorite on Migration of Silence is Cheops, a kaleidoscopic AACM-esque sonic journey that unspools under the expert navigation of expansive Anthony Braxton-trained vocalist Kyoko Kitamura, vibraphone wizard Matt Moran, expressive soprano saxophonist Kayla Milmine-Abbott, tuned-in drummer Rachel Housle, and flexible tubist Ben Stapp – Parker joins the mix on contrabass as well as bass duduk and jujara overtone flute.
My second favorite is the rambunctious, free-flowing Harlem Speaks – a trio with singer Fay Victor, drummer Hamid Drake. Parker plays expressively on guembri, balafon and gralla on the three final tracks, but, on the first three, brings his explosively refined bass sound to the fore. He thereby reminds us that contrabass is the instrument on which he established his formidable bona fides while accumulating an extraordinary c.v. that includes long-haul sideman tenures with Cecil Taylor, David S. Ware, and Don Cherry, and consequential collaborations with speculative improv masters like (to cite a short list) pianist Matthew Shipp, trumpeter Roy Campbell, bassist Peter Kowald, and saxophonist-woodwindists Peter Brotzmann, Fred Anderson, Kidd Jordan, and Daniel Carter (and, most recently, the Dopolarians, with drummer Brian Blade).
Parker’s c.v. also includes 46 leader albums (according to his website) on which he functions as the leader of several bands, among them The Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra, In Order to Survive, Raining on the Moon, Stan’s Hat Flapping in the Wind, The Cosmic Mountain Quartet, and Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield.
Those 46 albums include 17 releases from 2010s, including an 8-CD box set (Wood Flute Songs: Anthology/Live 2006-2012), a 6-CD box set (Centering: Unreleased Early Recordings, 1976=1987), and three 3-CD editions (Crumbling In The Shadows Is Fraulein Miller’s Stale Cake, all on solo bass; For Those Who Are, Still, a large ensemble work; and Voices Fall From the Sky, in which 17 vocalists and three pianists participated). During the ’00s Parker generated another 20 albums (all single-disk).
Presuming that alleviation of the COVID and Parker’s continued good health allow him to organize projects of equivalent logistical complexity, this trendline indicates that Parker’s ever expanding fan base can anticipate equivalent musical production as the 2020s progress. As his admirers track the next stage of Parker’s evolution, it will be useful for them to consult Universal Tonality: The Life and Music of William Parker (Duke University Press), authored by Cisco Bradley, an Associate Professor of History at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute who also runs the “free jazz” oriented Jazz Right Now website.
The first two sections (“Origins” and “Early Work”) are particularly illuminating. Bradley traces Parker’s family history from its origins in the Kingdom of Nri (present-day Nigeria) to the Carolinas (where his enslaved ancestors were brought) to Harlem (where his parents met, at the Savoy Ballroom), to the Claremont Projects in the South Bronx (where Parker and his brother grew up). Drawing on extensive interviews, Bradley explores the blossoming of Parker’s aesthetic consciousness in the face of obstacles posed by poverty and structural racism in his living and school environments. He describes Parker’s nascent explorations into music and the bass; his discovery of avant-garde film; his introduction to the Black Arts Movement; his predisposition towards the ’60s and ’70s avant-garde; his introductions to and early associations with like-minded musicians.
Furthermore, Bradley painstakingly contextualizes Parker’s early personal development with descriptions of the infrastructure within which he and his partners operated, both in the Bronx and Harlem, but most consequentially on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where Parker moved in 1975 with his new wife, the dancer Patricia Nicholson Parker.
There’s an interesting chapter on Parker’s transformative association with Cecil Taylor during the 1980s, when both musicians began to intersect with the creme de la creme of Europe’s free jazz community. The five thorough chapters in the final section (“Toward the Universal”) address the evolution Parker’s post-1990 activity as a leader, drawing heavily on Parker’s personal testimony and written works; interviews with close associates like Matthew Shipp, Cooper-Moore, Leena Conquest, Dave Burrell, David Sewelson, and Steve Swell; and various clips and ephemera.
This reader has some criticisms. For one thing, my uncorrected page proof copy contained a number of factual errors that denote Bradley’s unfamiliarity with the broader timeline of jazz history and the quotidian particulars of life in downtown Manhattan during the period in question. Bassist Walter Page is confused with trumpeter Oran “Hot Lips” Page; Nathan’s, a fast food hotdogs and fries counter, is described several times as a restaurant where Parker rendezvoused with friends – minor points, to be sure, but “the devil is in the details,” and the misrepresentations are jarring.
Hopefully, Bradley will correct these and several other inaccuracies found in the galleys. Hopefully, too, Bradley will flesh out his descriptions of such important figures as Campbell, Jordan and Anderson, which read like just-the-facts Wikipedia entries or hagiographic press releases. Perhaps he’ll flesh out Kowald’s role as co-founder of the first “Sound Unity Festival” (which later morphed into the Vision Festival); the impact on Parker’s development of sound-and-silence-oriented AACM music or the Euro-free-improv scene; where the various “Downtown”-Lower East Side musical factions during the 1980s and 1990s intersected and diverged.
In a sense, the book’s great strength – that Parker trusted Bradley sufficiently to grant numerous interviews and access to his archives – is also its weakness. Bradley’s deep respect for his subject is palpable. So is his keen awareness that he is a white historian chronicling a Black practitioner of a Black art form, as he noted in a recent interview on Free Jazz Blog. Perhaps that’s why – particularly in the final section – Bradley chronicles, but doesn’t interpret; for the most part, he eschews critical judgment.
To this (white) observer, Bradley’s well-intentioned decision to subsume his authorial voice for Parker’s doesn’t necessarily do his subject full justice. As an example, on several occasions Bradley presents Parker’s poems verbatim, without comment, resisting discussion of the personal symbolic armature that underpins the messages contained therein. He’s reluctant to interrogate (in the academic sense) a cohort of Parker’s generalized, homiletic remarks about his musical process that don’t represent the sophisticated, acutely analytical consciousness he projects on interviews and panel discussions (some readily accessible on Youtube) – and, of course, in his musical expression.
On balance, these are minor caveats. Universal Tonality: The Life and Music of William Parker is a valuable addition to the canons of jazz biography and to the social history of jazz and creative music over the last half-century. It burnishes our appreciation of Parker’s remarkable achievement: his abundant humanity; his abiding, perseverant work ethic; his gigantic contribution to the culture and development of jazz during a brilliant – and ongoing – career.
Feature photo of William Parker courtesy of Peter Gannushkin