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Live Reviews

William Parker's Quartet: Continuing the Story in Vermont

By Published: January 26, 2008

William Parker Quartet
Vermont Jazz Center
Brattleboro, Vermont
January 12, 2008

Devotion to a steadfast belief manifests itself through persistence of doing, the doing coming down to the choices made by the believer. Bassist William Parker embodies the ultimate believer: he not only believes in the evolution of the culture of his personal heritage but, through his efforts, he endeavors to make the best of that culture a vital part of his listeners' experience. His culture has breadth and is inherently self- propelling, like the music that carries him through his life. It is Parker's purpose to tell the story of that culture and the characters who create it, in as many ways and from as many directions as possible—words, imagination, sound. Everything is music to him...and music is everything.

No audience member for the two-hour performance of the Parker Quartet on January 12 at the Vermont Jazz Center could ever question Parker's belief, for the experience of his music is more than tunes washing over one's being. It's an experience that requires paying attention to all aspects of what occurs. It means listening, watching, absorbing and ultimately feeling the impact down to the marrow. It means realizing that everything is intended even when it is not planned. It means recognizing how tightly the musicians interlock both their musical differences and commonalities in order to have the musical conversation that is a William Parker performance.

This Parker Quartet was the same quartet that recorded the acclaimed O'Neal's Porch (AUM Fidelity, 2002): Rob Brown on alto, Lewis Barnes on trumpet, Hamid Drake on drums and Parker on bass. The context of this performance was completely consistent with that recording. It was concerned with not only the people of the immediate New England region but also the environment in which Parker grew up in the Bronx. Parker introduced both sets with dedications and hilarious, yet poignant, stories, weaving the nature of the music into the texture of the lives of those who listened. The unassailable musical unity of the group often gave way to solos, duos, and trios. These varying combinations lent flexibility to the sound and spatiality to the format. Equally important, the group's capacity to break apart and come together testified to the individual strength and committed responsiveness of each player.

When the time was right, the music simply started. Parker plucked the strings of his instrument at the same time as Hamid Drake opened up the expansive sound of his drum set. The rhythm was uncomplicated as a simply structured tune evolved clearly out of the opening salutations provided by trumpet and alto. As the rhythm section continued to ground the group, both instruments swelled up, then decrescendoed. Soon, the instrumental voices separated, their interaction marked by denser textures. Alternately, the alto and trumpet complemented each other contrapuntally or let their lines coalesce into harmony, their song bright and tuneful. During the synchronous, joyous choruses, the similarity of the two horns' timbre kept them on top of the low lustrous tones of the bass and the polyrhythmic symphony of sounds supplied by the drums.

When Rob Brown soloed on alto, the melodic lines ensuing from his chord progressions were grinding, tart and hard-bitten. The stringency of his alto sound resembled the tension implied by his physically elongated presence. The chord progressions he played from never ran into each other, instead moving vertically from the bottom to top register. He appeared to examine each ascending step as he approached the goal—the pinnacle of a final pitch. In effect, he redefined the arpeggio, the angular and un-fluid character of his attack magnifying a chord's individual elements in relation to the roundness characterizing the approach of his fellow instrumentalists.

Relaxed in his delivery, Lewis Barnes nonetheless planted his fingers squarely and assuredly on his trumpet valves. The bright and direct quality of the trumpet voice, whether muted or not, transitioned smoothly from fanciful improvisation into melodies. Barnes' playing was solid and dependable, serving to level the music. He brought the music home for the listener, coming across as the big brother figure in what had become a musical family: Parker seemed like the Father; Brown, the little brother; Drake, an uninhibited sibling.

Flanking the bass, Hamid Drake played assertively but with sensitivity to every instrument's journey. Without the numerous rhythmic changes that the drummer introduced, the musical conversation could not have remained active. Drake simply allowed no possibility for stagnation. Seated behind his drum set, his physical motion resembled a dance. A writer once described Drake's playing arms as limber. Limber they are, but they're also graceful. Yet form in his case cannot be separated from function. Drake could not swish a drumstick vertically on the edge of the hi-hats if his muscles did not feel the necessity for their control. He could not ring the center of his ride cymbal with such precision if he did not know where the end of the stick was and the extent to which he needed to flick it. He could not produce the ring of sibilant cymbals if he was unaware of the the application and release of tension in his lift. He could not travel so adeptly from snare to tom to cymbal without the movement being written into his body. Drake demonstrated nothing but his phenomenal capacity for personifying dynamic frequencies, whether using brushes, mallets, sticks or simply his hands.

Still, William Parker was the driving force behind the music. He kept a constant pulse and maintained the music's center, even his intense facial expression showing his determination for the music to reach the listener. His pizzicati were as deep and broad as the probable strength of the fingers that plucked them. The walking lines embraced the space between the leader and his band members, while corralling the dissimilarities amongst the colors of the other instruments. When, in turn, the leader took a solo turn with his bow, the sounds came from another place and time. His bowing painted pictures evoking nature and mystery, sorrow and longing, intensity and fortitude, melody and abstraction. He dug the bow into the strings with a down stroke, then moved it fast enough to create a vibrato, then moved the bow in a circular pattern over the strings above the bridge or elicited tonalities from below the bridge similar to those of a brass instrument.

In the first set, the bassist also played a small wooden horn in a duo with Drake, shifting the focus just enough to lift the vestigial heaviness of the bass. The horn sounded sprightly and was continuous, adding an air of youth, fantasy and innocence to the boldness, dignity, and fortitude that had already been constructed.

The second set featured a powerful performance by poet Naima K. Wade, with whom Parker has worked since the 1970's. She was accompanied by the doson-gouni whose strings Parker plucked with his thumbs while Drake's fingers brought forth gentle, thorough rhythmic passages from the frame drum. Wade's recitation of her poem "Ancestors transformed its verbal contents into music, the cadence of her delivery and her exaggerated gestures easing the aural perception and understanding of the text. The subject of the poetry coincided with the significance of Parker's essential message. "Ancestors, it soon became clear, stood for the shadows of ethnic history, constant reminders of how culture can either change and evolve or be caught in the rigidity of sameness and entrapment to the past.

Both the words and music of a Parker performance carry a message about community—encouragement to bond with a larger human community in a way that can create harmony, peace, and a life that is truly worth living, a shared experience capable of ending perpetual earthly wars and opening us to a realm of spiritual exchange emanating from the universal heart. Missing a concert from this quartet is like skipping out on eating a piece of the pie that is served at the Parker family dinner table. The pie's crust is a rich mixture of butter and flour, kneaded to perfection before being laid out in the pie pan and topped by the filling....a filling that contains all the ingredients of goodness imaginable.

Photo credit Lyn Horton

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