Reviews of Recent Recordings
On the first of eight CDs boxed as Wood Flute Songs, bassist William Parker deadpans that “When we last counted, there were way over a billion different grooves.” His quartet, recorded live at Yoshi’s in Oakland, then launches into “Groove No. 7,” which rhythmically morphs so often that the band in effect plays Grooves 7–300.
Groove is the essence of the music of William Parker’s quartet with Rob Brown, Lewis “Flip” Barnes, and drummer Hamid Drake. The first four discs of Wood Flute Songs: Anthology/Live 2006–2012, are devoted to two performances by the quartet, one from Oakland in 2006 and the other from Houston in 2007. Those concerts make it plain that few bands in jazz swing harder in more ways than his working band of the past 13 years.
The remainder of the set uses the quartet as the instrumental core of extensions of the band’s groove-centered concept. There are single discs by the quartet augmented by special guests Bobby Bradford, James Spaulding, and Billy Bang; working with a European festival big band; performing as part of Parker’s song project, Raining on the Moon; and welcoming pianist Cooper-Moore to form In Order to Survive. The name of the band may change and the instrumentation expand, but the essence of the idea developed by the quartet – the remorseless rhythmic shape shifting – is always there, and in that sense it is always the quartet’s music.
The groove is important, but that is not to say any of the other jazz fundamentals are absent. It’s just that this quartet spontaneously shifts tempos and beats so often and so fluidly that rhythmic considerations seem to dictate every other aspect of the music. The changes flow out of the continuous back and forth between Parker, Drake, Brown, and Barnes so effortlessly that they never feel forced; they feel like what has to happen. When the tempo or rhythm changes, the whole band bends before it like a field of grain before the wind.
A three-tune sequence on the Yoshi’s set is an excellent example, with each improvised sequence and composition setting up what follows. It starts with a duet between Parker and Drake that’s shows how permeable the boundary between these two musicians is. When Barnes enters on “Alphaville,” Parker shifts into a slippery counterpoint to the trumpeter’s improvising and Drake nails the groove, or whatever permutation of it is handiest at the moment. Barnes leaves lots of room between his phrases for Parker and Drake to fill, and the conversational interactions shape the music’s form. After a second Parker-Drake interlude, “Daughter’s Joy” begins and Barnes returns for a blues drenched solo, deploying nasty Lee Morganish licks, simple Don Cherry folksong, coiling Kenny Durham hard bop, and pure sound manipulations. Rob Brown’s contribution displays fire and mature precision, his lines are elaborate but shorn of excess notes, and he spontaneously builds an overall architecture that feels solid and complete. Then the music takes a new turn, with Parker on African double reeds. There’s a special feeling of wholeness and continuity between past and present in hearing such an ancient sounding instrument in the context of such utterly contemporary music. Parker follows this ecstatically reeling passage by shifting into a comfy medium tempo bass vamp for “Golden Bell.”
There are similar wrinkles and deviations, digressions, and straight-as-an-arrow forward motion in the Houston concert. Both sets are continuous and compositions are not repeated. The improvisations don’t lead to a reconsideration of the tune, but instead deposit the band at the doorstep of a new one. Perhaps the Houston set has the edge over the Oakland, but there are times on each when the band plays with breathtaking singleness of purpose.
For the remainder of the box, the sound and ideas established in the quartet are explored by several other ensembles. They don’t diffuse Parker’s ideas, rather they explore them from several perspectives, until it’s evident that they are bigger than any one ensemble, even if they are inextricably linked to the voices that originated it in his music.
The septet that Parker brought to the 2009 Vision Festival amplifies the core quartet sound by doubling up the horns with the addition of cornetist Bobby Bradford and alto saxophonist James Spaulding, and mixing in violinist Billy Bang for a big, singing sound. Tempos hold steady more often than is the case with the quartet, perhaps as an accommodation for the guests, but there’s still plenty going on rhythmically. Drake swings into a reggae-inflected pulse behind Spaulding on “Daughter’s Joy,” but latter shifts into a shuffle beat behind Bang. There are times during Rob Brown’s improvisation on “O’Neil’s Porch” when the beat isn’t stated at all. Brown is in especially good form on this concert, crafting a stately but wildly passionate statement on “Deep Flower/Ascent of the Big Spirit” and taking “Gilmore’s Hat” to a peak of abstraction and intensity.
The William Parker Creation Ensemble, a 12-member big band including the quartet and European players convened for the 2011 AMR Jazz Festival in Switzerland, places the quartet in a large ensemble setting. Aside from a collective improvisation by the quartet on “Wood Flute Song” and featured spots for Barnes and Brown on other tunes, the music is far less rhythmically fluid than in smaller combos, but Parker encourages spontaneity from the ensemble in other ways and they respond with a delightfully spirited performance. Parts of the arrangements of “Earth in Pain” and “Deep Flower” sound as if they were made up on the spot, less composition and more organized spontaneity. “Wood Flute Song” climaxes with a roaring full group improvisation. There are solo spots for many of the players with riffing and instrumental commentary that also feel improvised. Vocalist Ernie Odom is especially impressive as an interpreter of Parker’s lyrics and as an improviser.
On CD 7, Vocalist Leena Conquest and pianist Eri Yamamoto join the quartet to form Raining on the Moon, performing in Montreal in 2012. On several tunes, such as “3+3=Jackie McLean” and “Late Man of this Planet,” the group feels like the quartet of Conquest, Yamamoto, Parker, and Drake plus horns. On others, like “For Abbey Lincoln” and “Boom Boom Bang Bang,” Barnes and Brown play a more integral role in the music, with solos and collective passages. “Sweet Breeze” is a stunning, hymn-like duet for just Conquest and Yamamoto.
Parker is a good songwriter, certainly better than he’s given credit for. He uses readily accessible images – the sun, leaves, flowers – but the plain language is used in remarkably varied and sophisticated ways. “3+3=Jackie McLean” appropriates math – the language of rational thought – to express feelings beyond the power of science to understand. He uses surreal imagery, like the volcano that taps the Eskimo on the shoulder in “Late Man of This Planet” to express mysterious things that can only be intuited, or the rhetoric of anti-war protest – uncomfortable questions, irony, bare fact, and simple declarations of home truths – on “Bang Bang Boom Boom.” Conquest, with her dignified, plain, but deeply emotional delivery, is the perfect singer for Parker’s song-poems and she delivers an especially rich and nuanced performance on this concert.
Parker’s working quartet for most of the 1990s was In Order to Survive. Although Parker sometimes expanded it to include additional horns and the drummer changed, Brown and Cooper-Moore remained constant. Cooper-Moore always seemed like the linchpin of the band, and the performance from the 2012 Vision Festival that concludes the box set does nothing to dispel the idea that he is central to the group. His continuous flow of music is essential to the dynamics in the group, both reflecting what is happening in the music and subtly directing it at times. You can hear how he picks up the slightest signal from cohorts, incorporates it into what he’s doing, and feeds it back into the ensemble – especially well on “Slipping into the Light” and “Shadows Arms Waving,” two sections of Kalaparusha on the Edge of the Horizon, the suite that makes up their festival concert. He’s an energizing presence in the band and this is an exhilarating, full-steam-ahead performance from beginning to end. The rhythmic underpinnings of the performance are a continuous flux of free rhythms and pulses. There are no stated grooves, but the rhythms are full of detail, keyed to whomever is contributing to the music at any given time, and very much in the spirit of the quartet’s other music.
As Parker explains in his liner notes, there was a period when the quartet never played the same composition twice. The stream of fresh material kept the band on its toes. Their debut album O’Neil’s Porch remains one of the great albums in Parker’s extensive discography and indeed, it’s one of the great albums of the 21st century’s first decade. But Parker’s ideas evolved and he eventually decided that building a repertoire of compositions would best help the band grow as a unit. The approach produces similar results by different means. They have to work to make the tunes sound new each time they play them. And boy did they become a unit. They don’t just play a tune, they inhabit it, they sink foundations in it and build homes, pave roads, plant crops. The music is their world.