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William Parker on Freedom

By Published: April 7, 2005

A lot of musicians nowadays are trying to do something. You already are something - the music already is something. Its 2005, we dont have to worry about trying to be jazz musicians. —William Parker

This month, bassist William Parker celebrates the release of Luc's Lantern, his most recent recording for acclaimed Thirsty Ear Records. With pianist Matthew Shipp, as a part of David S. Ware's prolific quartet, with Cecil Taylor, Fred Anderson and others, the enigmatic performer has recorded over thirty albums, and almost that many as a leader himself. Yet it somehow seems as though William Parker's name remains stuck in the avant-garde scene, save some respect from hip-hop heads turned on by outstanding efforts in support of DJ Spooky and poet Mike Ladd. It doesn't seem as if William Parker's name is mentioned in glossy jazz magazines or well-funded jazz documentaries, in the same breath as Charles Mingus, or Ron Carter, or Dave Holland.

The lack of mainstream, "glossy success seems even stranger in the face of Parker's latest effort—an album that, by the bassist's own admission, is a "straight-ahead record, much in the same way Matthew Shipp's Pastoral Composures was. And, in a way, for the free-leaning Parker, this is a radical move in and of itself. To make an album that swings, that is laden with grooves and grit and soul and beautiful, poetic playing, when everyone associates you with that noisy, boisterous thing called free jazz, is radical. That is really what freedom, "free jazz even, is about. William Parker seems to enjoy that freedom.

All About Jazz: Tell us a little about your latest Thirsty Ear release, Luc's Lantern.

William Parker: This record came about through a suggestion of Matthew Shipp. He asked would I be interested in doing a piano trio album. I'm not sure whether he used the term straight ahead or not - perhaps he did. But I always wanted to do a more or less traditional instrumentation of piano, bass and drums, so I was quite interested in doing it. ...

I guess I wrote about twice as many songs than actually appear on the album - 15 compositions - before we discussed who the players would be. ...

Matt mentioned Eri Yamamoto—I had not heard her play. I didn't ask for a tape - he described her playing and I said ok, I'll call her and see if she's interested. So, I invited her to rehearsal - as a duo - just going over the actual written material, not knowing exactly how it was going to be executed.

AAJ: How was the experience of working with a new lineup—Yamamoto and Michael Thompson on drums?

WP: I've played with Michael a few times. ... When we rehearsed, and later recorded, it was never predetermined who would solo until it was actually done, which helped to guide us to the center point of each composition. The thing with music is you're not trying to play on the periphery of the sound but right in the middle part, where it can vibrate the most—that's where it can be most beneficial to the player and the listener. That's what I'm always shooting for when I play. The idea is not to squeeze the music so that it can't breathe—just touch it and flow with it—rather than push it in a particular direction.

Part of the idea of freedom is about being free to go where you want to go or follow the music where it wants to go. "It has to be up-tempo, or, "It has to be avant-garde—it has to be free —the only thing it has to be is itself. Once you get into that relationship with the music, then you're free to let it go where it wants to go. It's about having the confidence that the music is as strong, if not stronger, than the musician. [The music's] instincts are just as import as the interpreter. You have to trust the sound, and when that happens, the music will guide you and respect your intent as a musician.

AAJ: Does this album feel more straight ahead to you—it's not Little Huey or Bob's Pink Cadillac (Eremite, 2002). On a similar note, do you think that a straight ahead album meant that you necessarily had to work with some fresh musicians—as opposed to, say, Matthew Shipp and Guillermo Brown, who you have recorded with a number of times?

WP: I suppose it could have been done that way. This particular project was calling for a different approach. The final product was calling for different people to handle and make the whole task of the album come to life. And once again that was the idea of writing to the players, but also being instinctive to who should the players be and why. ...

It's very important to be in the calling of spontaneity - in every second in life. Playing music or anything else, it has its own set of rules, set of needs to that particular time. [That outlook] is what makes a good improviser.

If you know what something is going to sound like when you play it, why play. It's important not to be afraid of what something will sound like - keep it open to the mystery of sound. People want to control music. The mindset is, well it's not working, there's not an intellectual stream running through it, with it, 'cause it's not controlled. But there's a higher form of intelligence that is beyond our thought process. There are higher levels of thought that move faster than the intellect - something instinctive. People have to trust the idea of instincts - your higher senses. A lot of musicians nowadays are trying to do something. You already are something - the music already is something. You don't have to prove that you can tap into the music and get it coming through you. With this you can really get into the deeper levels of sound. Its 2005, we don't have to worry about trying to be jazz musicians.

AAJ: Your music has been called spiritual, poetic. Do you feel your music has this spiritual quality?

WP: It's very important in art that people feel joy in it and are moved by it, inspired, draped in the beauty of it. These are all aspects of spirituality. Even when it's not so up front - it's there, in all kinds of music. The idea of music is to reach people and change peoples lives - give them something that will strengthen them inside, see music in other parts of there lives so they can get through the day, dance to it, work to the music. [Music] has all sorts of purposes - all connected to this idea [of spirituality].

AAJ: Describe your relationship with Thirsty Ear? Also, tell me a little about what you think their importance to jazz music today is.

WP: Thirsty Ear is quite a different label than what I was used to working with. The content of the music is really concentrated; after repeated listening you begin to hear things that weren't there before and the idea of time dissolves and you're not thinking you want more time. It's just music. That idea was there that I like.

Each album I've done with Thirsty Ear has been different - related of course, but quite different. We haven't used the same group of musicians twice - not only when I've been a leader but as a side person as well. With certain musicians you need more than one label. Thirsty Ear has been able to stick to a particular aesthetic - I think it's paying off. I think the audience is growing and sales are moving along nicely. ...

One of the ideas is to get the music to the people. I think that's very hip because I think the things is, the record buying audience is young people - they're the consumers and there's really nothing wrong with tapping into newer sounds - using electronics, using beats, whatever one wants to use - not just to widen the audience.

AAJ: What does your relationship to Matthew Shipp mean to you?

WP: It seems to me that all the great musicians that I've worked with, throughout the years, who I have a close relationship with on the bandstand - as far as, when you played with them it was like you played with them all your life - Mathew Shipp fits into that. From the first time we played in '86 or '87, and the way we play now, it's the same way except its better cause you have all this experience playing together. We do have different aesthetics, and it's generational. He grew up listening to one type of music - when we play together it doesn't matter though. There's a very intuitive communication system - it all sort of fits in nicely together.

AAJ: Is the same true for David Ware?

WP: Again it's like there's just a hook up there, musically, that kind of works and this is one of the beautiful things about music. You can have a relationship - the music is one person no matter who's playing it and when it's working on one level - whether that's with Billy Bang, Daniel Carter, Roy Campbell - it works.

At a certain level a good improviser can do this. It works always with the universality of music - the idea that it must work when you do it right. The yearning for the perfectionism almost makes you reach out to find that place where you can connect to people. Repeated playing, when a person has a sound and they're really good at what they do - it works. You need that sound, you need each musician to give there all.

AAJ: Give us a quick glimpse at what's in the future for William Parker.

WP: Right now we're working on a new quartet album, with the same personnel as O'Neal's Porch [Lewis Brown, Roy Campbell and Hamid Drake] called Sound Unity, which will be on AUM Fidelity. There's also a Little Huey [Creative Music Orchestra] record we recorded live at Victoriaville and also in Italy, in the works.

Visit William Parker on the web.

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