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Songs of hope
Two sides of William Parker
BY ED HAZELL

For sheer energy and inventiveness, few improvisers can match bassist William Parker. Yet as impressive an instrumentalist as he is, heís also been growing into the role of a great composer as he records more of his own music. Two recent releases reveal his new compositional depth. Raining on the Moon (Thirsty Ear) showcases his rarely heard songwriting. And Bobís Pink Cadillac (Eremite) finds him drawing on jazz history and his own experiences for some of his most convincing composing and performing.

Parkerís songs have emerged belatedly, though by his own count heís written about 200 of them. Raining on the Moon, by his newest quartet, with alto-saxophonist Rob Brown, trumpeter Lewis Barnes, and drummer Hamid Drake, features the extraordinary singer Leena Conquest, whose smoky soul-gospel inflections give these numbers sensual immediacy and dignity. The album, only the second to feature his songs, is one of the most accessible ó and powerful ó in Parkerís 30-year discography.

The music is unexpectedly stable. Drakeís beat remains steady throughout "Song of Hope" and the title track, as do Parkerís propulsive vamps. Although thereís plenty of creative interplay to keep things loose, this quartet never distorts songs beyond recognition. And though Parkerís writing and arranging stretch song forms so they can accommodate soul-music horn riffs, free-jazz soloing, and world-music influences, itís a mark of his stature as a composer that his stylistic syntheses sound completely natural.

Yet the primary source of Raining on the Moonís power is his lyrics. These are great free-jazz art songs that emerge from an African-American vernacular. Theyíre meant to speak on behalf of the defeated and the downtrodden, to offer hope, dignity, and compassion. The pacifist vision of Gandhi as Minister of Defense in "Raining on the Moon" is advanced with tongue firmly in cheek, but Parkerís outrage at lifeís injustices is palpable. "Song of Hope" is spiritual without being preachy. "Music Song," in which the "joy of Heaven whispers in my ear," is beautiful and healing. The poems seem simple and songlike, but theyíre sophisticated in the way they combine folk elements, fables, mystical nature imagery, surrealist juxtaposition, political ideals, and humor. The William Blake of Songs of Innocence might recognize their blend of childlike innocence and world-weariness; any beat poet would envy their democratic spirit and contemporary æsthetic. Parker wrote in the liner notes to last yearís Song Cycle (Boxholder), his only other album of songs, that "there should be no difference between singing and life." Raining on the Moon comes close to achieving that.

Parkerís integration of art and life likewise gives his instrumental music force and clarity. The first disc of Bobís Pink Cadillac, a double CD featuring clarinettist Perry Robinson and drummer Walter Perkins, features Parkerís compositions (the second is a live free improvisation) ó and as his liner notes make clear, they spring from the same concern with fundamental human emotions and experiences as do his songs, but on a more autobiographical scale. "Overcoat in the River" pays homage to some of his early friends and mentors. The title track is named after a car owned by the late Bob Reid, a little-known but highly talented loft-era bassist. The longest and most harrowing number, "Fence in the Snow," was inspired by a dream. It seems clear that Parker is building a personal mythology and folklore to structure his instrumental explorations.

The CDs are lightly textured, multicolored, and surprisingly lyrical. They also feature some of Parkerís most rhythmically varied performances. The trio slips so naturally into and out of different rhythmic approaches that the album often feels like straight-ahead jazz, though the organization of the music is actually quite radical. Perkins, who has backed jazz giants like Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins, and Robinson, who has played with everyone from Dave Brubeck to Gunther Hampel, help account for this fluidity. Perkins has the crisp drive of a master bebop drummer but an avant-gardistís interest in timbre and spontaneous structure. And Robinson is a seemingly endless well of melodies and riffs with a rich woody tone and a penchant for veering off into sonic abstraction.

These recordings reveal the dual purpose of Parkerís music. Itís a diary of his life and his evolving thoughts and spiritual beliefs, as well as a remembrance of the people who have shaped his life and thinking. But itís more than just self-expression. His belief in the social responsibilities and consequences of musicmaking and his acute awareness of fundamental human needs give it a political and social function beyond æsthetic pleasure. No one else in jazz is combining the personal and the universal with the same power or persuasiveness.

Issue Date: June 20 - 27, 2002
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