Wednesday, January 21, 2009

One Hell of an Overdue William Parker Review

As far as I can tell, I've been promising a review of William Parker's "Petit Oiseau" for at least three months. You're just going to have to take my word for it, though, that I have been incredibly, horrifically, hell, excruciatingly busy recently. As some of you know, I am a staff writer for the Berklee College of Music newspaper, The Groove, in addition to my responsibilities as a broke college student whose sources of income do not include amongst themselves "snarky jazz-blogging asshole." I do, however, keep up with the music (I can even get it for free now that I have two different papers I can use for credentials!), and whenever possible I plan on continuing to write reviews of new jazz albums and general nastiness about the jazz press (get excited for next time when I go through the Jazz Times Top 50, which includes Joe Lovano's syrupy "Symphonica" as the second best album of the year).

No one can accuse William Parker of being stingy or of allowing himself to sink into obscurity while other, younger free jazz musicians get all of the acclaim; he has appeared in a feature in Downbeat (remember the last time Downbeat had a feature article about a contemporary free jazz musician who wasn't young and sexy like Nicole Mitchell? Oh yeah, never) and has released two records a year since 2005. That said, however, Parker's recent outpouring of creativity has come at the expense of regular dates with his quartet, one of the best units in jazz. The last date, 2005's "Sound Unity," was the third part in a trilogy of sorts that included 2000's game-changing "O'Neal's Porch" and 2002's "Raining On the Moon." All three albums featured the trio playing lyrical free jazz in the OCDC ("Ornette Coleman Don Cherry") vein- the music was as melodic as any straight-ahead jazz but with enough craziness courtesy of saxophonist Rob Brown and Trumpeter Lewis Barnes that it retained its edge.

Those three records were all about the frontline, Barnes and Brown, coming up with crazy melodies. "Petit Oiseau" is all about the rhythm section, which in addition to Parker includes drummer and long-time co-conspirator Hamid Drake. The comparison's to Coleman's classic late-50s quartet are still relevant, of course, but by now Parker and Drake have been playing together for so long that they sound telepathic in comparison to Coleman's alternatingly madcap and pensive rhythm section of Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins. Besides, Parker is more interested in making his music funky: imagine an entire record of variations of the rhythm section part to Coleman's "Ramblin'" and you begin to get the idea. The grooves on tracks like "Grove Suite" and "The Golden Ball" recall funky world music, but with a looseness only heard in free jazz.

Of course, even though the focus has shifted a bit, Parker's horn players sound as good here as they do on his other records. Rob Brown's saxophone playing is rivaled in ferocity only by Rudresh Mahanthappa's, and on this album it is like an explosion in the center of Parker and Drake's grooves. Barnes, on the other hand, floats over the proceedings like the hummingbird on the album's cover. Together they make up the yin and yang in Parker's music; sometimes sweet, sometimes sour. On an uptempo number like "Four for Tommy," the difference in style becomes readily apparent: Barnes is interested in making music out of sheer sound, while Brown creates odd melodic and harmonic linear statements out of thin air.

No comments: