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William Parker
The Music of William Parker: Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World
Centering 1020–1029

The tone is the thing. Not just the conceptual importance of the Tone World in William Parker’s art, but the sinewy, expressive instrumental tone that’s been so distinctive since his earliest work in the 1970s. In Parker’s broad musical universe, these two are inseparable. And the glue holding them together is a pan-cultural utopian vision that is well and truly on display on this ten-disc box documenting Parker’s (mostly vocal) music from recent years.

Each disc has a thematic and an instrumental focus (and each is also available digitally, though having access to the rich liners and libretto has been valuable for my listening experience). Many of the collaborators will be familiar to fans of Parker’s music, though many are fresh names. The music is generally composed, although usually fairly loosely (focused on tonal centers, intervals, dynamic ranges, and groupings as well as notated themes). With well over ten hours of music, not every moment is riveting and not every ensemble will compel. But this is a fascinating journey into the aesthetic and worldview of one of the music’s most vital presences.

Parker’s arrangement of these discs’ sequence is quite intentional, but if you want to get a clear understand of where he’s coming from with this collection, I’d recommend starting with the seventh disc, Afternoon Poem, which is (save for a closing duet with pianist Yuko Fujiyama, from all the way back in 1993) a program of vocalist Lisa Sokolov interpreting Parker’s poems. They come across as little prayers, odes to joy or utopic bagatelles that feature Sokolov’s impressive vocal range. With just occasional multi-tracking, the pieces take in a wide variety of themes, phrasing, and dynamics, from the hushed “Morning Bird” (a highlight) to the excitable “Rocket Man” to the mini-symphony of moans that is “Essence Calling Out.”

Sitting with this music during a dark, rainy winter – one in which we’re all struggling through pandemic isolation – makes clear how fundamentally relational Parker’s music is. Sure, that’s true of all improvisation, but at the heart of his larger system is the idea of passing between different states, and moving between different roles, and openness to the flow of energies. All of it geared towards a larger transformation. So even the solo vocals model this continual becoming, as does the solo set from frequent collaborator Eri Yamamoto, Child of Sound. It’s here that you get a sense of how fundamentally lyrical Parker’s soundworld is, as these fourteen pieces are buoyant, filled with considerable color, dynamism, and emotional energy. “This Sweet Land” and “Malcolm’s Smile” occasionally move into dark and knotty spaces, but the overall feeling is bright and sunny. Yamamoto’s touch and interpretation of these songs (focused largely on Native American culture) are consistently sensitive, nowhere more so than on standouts “Sky Falling” and “Rez Sunrise.”

The bulk of the discs, however, document small to mid-size ensembles. In the vast majority of them, Parker operates in his multi-instrumentalist mode, something he’s long brought to the table. Raina Sokolov-Gonzalez’s voice anchors Blue Limelight, with a trio of violinists (including Jason Kao Hwang) and Jim Ferraiuolo’s oboe providing the most interesting textures to these soft invocations. Whether on the tasty groove of “Cosmic Funk” or the aching title track (dedicated to Cecil Taylor), Sokolov-Gonzalez’s diverse vocalizing sits confidently in this organic, tonally rich music. In it, you can detect hints of various genres (a bit of Latin in the piano, for example), that wide angle lens that Parker manifests in his poetry and his composing. On tunes like “A Great Day to Be Dead” or the slinky “Bennie’s Tune,” it comes together wonderfully.

One of the most arresting of these sets is The Majesty of Jah, where Parker is joined by trumpeter Jalalu-Kalvert Nelson and Ellen Christi, who contributes her customarily vivid vocals here but whose hand is even more involved in her electronic sound-scaping and sampling. There’s a generally spectral feel to these performances, heard immediately on the opening “Baldwin,” where the great writer recounts his adolescence, and his growing thoughts on religion and moral authority, among other affecting subjects. Christi doesn’t shy away from using her own vocals, thankfully, and the trio shines on the Codona-like “Sun Song,” the multi-tracked repeating chant “Majesty of Jah,” and, especially, “Freedom,” which samples music from 1981 as well as more recent musical encounters, a fierce bass propulsion driving a recitation of political woe.

William Parker                                                                                                            © Anna Yatskevich

Clearly, Parker’s intent is that each disc inhabits a very particular musical and thematic place, realized by the instrumentation primarily. Cheops features an instrumentally rich ensemble, centered around Kyoko Kitamura’s voice. In particular, I was compelled by the interplay between Kitamura, vibraphonist Matt Moran, and tubaist Ben Stapp. There’s a lot of floating tonality, dark timbres, and an air of mystery appropriate to the theme. Drummer Rachel Housle is really versatile in terms of textures, heating things up on “Entire Universe,” leaning into some sly swing on the title track, and leaving space for Kayla Milmine-Abbott’s soprano sax and Parker’s overtone flute to have a tasty exchange on “If We Play Soft Enough.”

A true highlight is Harlem Speaks, where Parker is joined by Hamid Drake and vocalist Faye Victor, two of his oldest and most sympathetic collaborators. Victor in particular is earthy, versatile, and endlessly inventive. And it’s always a sheer joy to listen to Parker and Drake (often on brushes), whose dialed-back groove on “Don’t Sell My Soul” is restorative. The mid-tempo “Harlem Dances” is a bright recitation of black creative artists, while the understated title track is a hush before the joyous, expressive “Paintings in the Sky.” The lament that is “Shutters as Windows” is appropriate to the history the musicians are channeling, but there’s more light than gloom.

Mexico has one of the most distinctive sounds of the entire set, with oud, multiple percussion, piano, bass, and harmonica, in addition to Jean Carla Rodea’s vocals. As with many of the other sets, the themes are powerful ones to consider in our fractured moment. These flickering sequences of color groupings seem to fit the focus on borderlessness and fugitive identity. This is some of the most heavily textural music here, and there’s a lot of lovely work from all the percussionists, with occasional moments of Art Ensemble whimsy alongside rapturous swells of sound. The melancholy “The Bleeding Tree” features Rodea’s most compelling work, while the group as a whole sounds in radiant form on the fanfares of the title track and the grooving “It is for You,” with fabulous harmonica and piano interplay.

Lights in the Rain (The Italian Directors Suite) might initially seem like a left turn of sorts, but when you consider how broadly Parker thinks about art and its multiple resonances, his passion for “Rossellini” (whose spirit is reflected in moods from antic to restful), “Pasolini” (big and declamatory), “De Sica” (oboe and arco bass twisting in ways both playful and slightly discordant), and of course “Fellini” (with a fabulous recitation about raining glitter and nuns becoming movie stars) makes a good bit of sense. Andrea Wolper’s voice is really effective in delivering the lines using a range of devices and techniques. She works especially effectively with bassists Ohad Kapuya and Peter Dennis, though the oboe and harmonica blend also merits mention here. The music is appropriately dreamlike and romantic in the right places.

I found The Fastest Train to be the least compelling of the sets here. It’s a summit for flutes and assorted wind instruments generally employed in indigenous cultures. Parker is joined by Coen Alberts and Klaas Hekman in a deeply felt set of varied tones and dynamics. I dug the use of overtones and vocalization on tracks like “Family Voice.” And the percussion on tracks like “Host for the Anointed” and the ritualistic “The Flute Reaches Out” is most welcome. But the music too often found its way to a static space that wore a bit thin.

Thankfully, the box concludes with the strong Manzanar, for the Universal Tonality String Quartet. In pieces ranging from interpretations of paintings (the fulsome, droning “Charcoal Paragraphs”) to those focused on particular instrumental properties (“Khaen,” named for the mouth organ Parker plays here), the rich string quartet (Hwang is a return guest on this disc) plays music that favorably recalls some of the string settings for Ivo Perelman’s music over the years. Particular favorites are the buoyant “Lakota Song” and the lyrical, balladic title track. And to cap it all off, longtime colleague Daniel Carter shows up on alto for the concluding “On Being Native,” an exuberant 21-minutes of spirited interplay.

This box is a broad statement from a major conceptualist. Parker’s fertile creative imagination is on display in all of its considerable range in a sequence of music that was richly welcome in dark days.
–Jason Bivins

Hat Hut Records

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