William Parker's Quartet: Continuing the Story in Vermont
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 communityencouragement 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