Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker


Farmers by Nature, 2012 Vision Festival                                        ©Michael Wilderman 2012

Can you imagine a classical music critic for the New York Times sniffing that the producer of a Bach festival or a concert series devoted to Impressionist composers “plays favorites and exercises biases”? Of course not; but Nate Chinen tossed out that sugarplum in the lead to his Times review of the first night of this year’s edition of Vision Festival. He also called the 17 year-old free jazz meeting “a tended garden like any other,” which surely made veteran festival-goers chuckle, having dealt with the stifling heat, spotty sound systems and mediocre pianos of prior venues. Although Vision Festival is now ensconced in the new Roulette in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, a wonderful old auditorium that rivals hallowed houses like the Vancouver East Cultural Center for its vibe and its every-seat-is-the-sweet-spot sound, it is a festival with a hard-scrabble history that mirrors that of the music it champions.

Chinen demonstrated rhetorical facility, however, when he stated in successive sentences that “(t)his year’s edition was programmed as usual with its constituency in mind” and then acknowledged the opening night set by Kneebody to be outside of the festival’s traditional purview. Actually, a wag thought the quintet – who appeared by age and style to be Chinen’s contemporaries – was the reason the critic was in attendance. Granted, Kneebody delivered a well-engineered set, centered on a four-section work underwritten by Chamber Music America; but their inclusion came off as community outreach of a sort. Bottom line: they did not pack the house with their demo.

Vision Festival’s core audience remains a flock of mavens; many witnessed the loft era; others fly in from as far away as Paris and Vilnius. They dug Kneebody’s brainteaser themes, close-order grooves and improvisational brinkmanship; but they identify with free music and the narrative of artists, shunned by commercial interests, creating community; and what they seek is not the banter of Kneebody but the testimony of the quartet that followed, comprised of tenor saxophonist Paul Dunmall – whose playing Chinen rightly likened to an open fire hydrant – pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist Joe Morris and drummer Gerald Cleaver. That’s the Vision Festival brand, and the inclusion of Kneebody – or, for that matter, Cat Power or Yo Lo Tengo, who played in prior editions – cannot really dilute it.

No musician better personifies Vision Festival than William Parker; the bassist-composer’s history is intimately entwined with that of the festival, stretching back to its precursor – the Sound Unity Festivals of 1984 and ‘88. Parker is a founding board member of Arts for Art, the festival’s presenting organization, and he is married to the festival’s producer, dancer-choreographer Patricia Nicholson. However, Vision Festival is not the primary or even a secondary reason why Parker is now recognized as a singular force in American music. There are many, including Parker’s recordings with the Brooklyn-based Aum Fidelity label; it was therefore fitting that over the course of two sets on the second night of the festival, a celebration of the label’s 15th anniversary, Parker reasserted his stature.

In addition to a rousing set-long composition dedicated to Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre performed by his quintet In Order to Survive (with trumpeter Lewis Barnes, alto saxophonist Rob Brown, pianist Cooper-Moore and drummer Hamid Drake), Parker played with Farmers by Nature, the co-op improvising trio with pianist Craig Taborn and Cleaver. The trio took the stage after Aum Fidelity’s Steve Joerg updated the audience on David S. Ware’s condition; the trio was added to the line-up only several weeks out when the tenor saxophonist’s Planetary Unknown cancelled because of complications with his transplanted kidney. The trio responded to the hushed moment with a set-long improvisation that could be heard as a metaphor for the cycle of challenges and victories faced by survivors like Ware, a churning build-up of intensity that never lost its tension when it reached full boil. Complemented by the resolute drive of his dedication to McIntyre, whose eyesight is severely diminished by cataracts, the two sets constituted a diptych depicting Parker’s compassion for his peers.

If Vision Festival is indeed a tended garden, then the metaphor can be extended to say that William Parker – and others – spent decades transforming it from a vacant, rubble-strewn lot. While the loft jazz scene of the 1970s is rightly romanticized for its creative energy and its push-back against the then-powerful jazz establishment, it nevertheless existed within an inimical economic environment: door gigs were the rule; the press was fickle at best; and self-producing records was way out of reach for most musicians. The lofts were handy for more established musicians to ready projects for the next shuttle to Europe; however, for Parker and most of his cohorts, the hours spent securing and publicizing a gig (read: put up posters), not to mention days of rehearsing, meant that their share of an often meager gate represented mere pennies per hour for their labor.

These conditions stymied Parker’s career for years. A cash crunch would snuff recording projects at various points of production; guaranteeing fifty bucks a man for a gig was a gamble with real-world downside; he occasionally went home with no money. There is a photograph from the ‘70s in the authoritative 66-page booklet that accompanies the 6-CD Centering: Unreleased Early Recordings 1976 – 1987 (NoBusiness) that says it all: an intensely focused Parker is playing a broken bass held together with straps and tape. Parker’s struggles during these years are enumerated in Ed Hazell’s booklet essay and his lengthy interview with Parker, and they permeate the eight studio sessions and concert tapes comprising this collection; Parker intended to release some of the music when it was recorded, but had to abandon the projects in post-production due to a lack of funds.

There are at least two ensembles heard for the first time in the collection that would have raised Parker’s profile higher and faster had they been released contemporaneously. Certainly, that’s the case with Parker’s 1980 roof-raising performance with Ware and drummer Denis Charles, who performed with Nicholson as Centering Dance Music Ensemble; but Parker only got as far as printing covers that featured his linoleum block print of the three musicians’ outlines. At the time, Ware was gaining initial notice for his first recordings as a leader as well as his work with Andrew Cyrille and Cecil Taylor; Charles’ return to the scene after a years-long absence was truly news; and Parker would soon begin his pivotal stint with Taylor. The energy red-lines for most of the proceedings; fueled by strong thematic material and the inspired interplay between Charles and Parker (something of a foreshadowing of the bassist’s continuous refinement of pulse with Drake), Ware delivers what are arguably his best performances of his earliest years. At a time when David Murray had yet to cement his reputation and Air, the most adventurous sax-bass-drums trio then recording for a major label, was being touted for reworking Joplin and Morton compositions, a powerful album by Ware, Parker and Charles would have found a niche and spiked their stock.

The other potentially landscape-altering ensemble documented in the collection is the Big Moon Ensemble, a double quartet including trumpeters Roy Campbell, Jr. and Arthur Williams, alto saxophonists Daniel Carter and Jemeel Moondoc, bassist Jay Oliver, and Rashid Bakr and Charles on drums. A “double” ensemble works best if each pair of players offers the listener a stylistic contrast. That was certainly the case with this ensemble, particularly the trumpeters and saxophonists. The time-obscured Williams was a bright new light at the time, a colorist who primarily worked the middle range of the trumpeter, turning phrases inside out with an impressive dexterity, whereas Campbell had a brasher, fatter sound and more of a penchant to wring energy and drama from high notes. Moondoc had a more tangible connection to Ornette Coleman than Carter, who was more of an energy player in the classical sense, but still capable of “doo-wopping,” a term Parker uses in the interview to describe Carter’s vocalizing generally – and specifically in regards to their flinty 1980 duos, which open the collection. On this disc-long ‘79 concert, Big Moon Ensemble plays high-voltage, loosely scripted music that sets it apart from such acclaimed, compositionally-driven mid-sized groups of the ‘80s like Murray’s Octet and Henry Threadgill’s seven-person Sextett; a representative LP would have created a consequential buzz.

To lesser degrees, something similar can be said of the other sessions included in the box set, particularly a pair of roiling duets with tenor saxophonist Charles Gayle from ‘87 and a free-wheeling big band set recorded at the ‘84 Kool Jazz Festival. The latter is significant in that it marks the successful lobbying of the then-towering Wein organization by musicians and grassroots-sensitive presenters like Soundscape’s Verna Gillis to fully represent the community. As Parker told Hazell: “(A)t least for this one concert, we were moving from underground to above ground. You’ve got more audience and publicity than if you played at Kiva or The Brook. There was the idea that maybe it will get reviewed in the paper ... As a musician, you feel left out. A lot of the guys didn’t get written up, didn’t get noticed, and it was a battle to keep your spirits up.”

That battle, however, is not won with reviews; at best, reviews pave the way to Europe. However, Parker didn’t need reviews when he began travelling to Europe regularly in the early ‘80s – he was Cecil Taylor’s bassist; the press can’t confer those bona fides. Parker soon began making pivotal contacts, beginning a decade-plus association with Peter Brötzmann and arguably more consequential collaborations with Peter Kowald, with whom the Parkers partnered on the Sound Unity festivals (funded in large part by a gift from A.R. Penck, the artist and musician). Still, the US press didn’t begin to pay much notice of Parker until the mid ‘90s and the release of In Order to Survive’s Black Saint album in ‘95. Joerg then began working closely with Parker, coordinating IOtS’ Compassion Seizes Bed-Stuy for Homestead before launching Aum Fidelity in ‘97. By 2000, Joerg had produced three 2-CD sets of Parker’s music: IOtS’ The Peach Orchard in ‘98 and two featuring The Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra – Sunrise in the Tone World (1997) and Mayor of Punkville (2000). Coincidentally, Ware’s quartet became the flagship ensemble of the so-called “ecstatic jazz” boomlet. By then, Parker was on every attentive critic’s radar.

And, by then, Parker had articulated imagist and fabulist approaches in his writings, which have proven useful for messaging through sundry media. In Alan Roth’s 2001 film, Inside Out in the Open, Parker seemingly improvises a parable about making one’s way in creative music: on the ocean alone, one meets others bobbing in the waves; they take the debris they are floating on and piece it together to make a boat and a sail and even a spy glass to reach a presumably friendly shore. In Sound Journal (most recently published by Buddy’s Knife), Parker has a Borgesian quality in describing another journey: “When sound vibrates at a certain level we can see a corridor. At the end of this corridor is a room where all the secrets of life are kept. This room is locked and can only be opened with sound. If we play the right combination of tones the door opens and we are allowed to enter the room. Once inside a secret of life is revealed to us. Every time we play music we can enter this room.”

When an artist speaks like this, it’s tough for the press to spin him or her into the flavor of the month or the pick of the week. The press’ default scripts about extending tradition and reaching new audiences just crumble when it comes to William Parker – not because he hasn’t extended the tradition or reached new listeners; but because that is the result of his work, not its inspiration. The latter is a much longer story: A young man happens upon an empty lot...

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