How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.
Years of gigs in various formations with the same musicians can create relationships where you learn your partners' tendencies and how to push them in ways that others simply cannot. And when these musicians come together to record, the results can often mark an apex in their respective recording careers. Sound Unity, taped during 2004 live performances in Canada, is such a milestone for this quartet led by William Parker.
To say the least, the bassist, composer, and bandleader is prolific and consistent. Just about anything that bears his name reflects the spirit of a musician who pushes himself and others to achieve new heights and abilities that lie just beyond their fingertipsand he often helps them to succeed in grasping these things, if only for a short time. A festival organizer, griot, and all-around hinge for improv groups pushing the envelope, Parker has had many apexes in his career, but Sound Unity is unique in that it's coming from a standing group of musicians who have created a unified identity unlike other ensembles in the post bop/free improv style of music.
Along with Parker, drummer Hamid Drake forms the foundation for the quartet. His ability to elicit sounds from his kit allows him to embellish the mood of a piece, rather than simply ride it, and that skill has attracted even straight-ahead critics to recognize his mastery. The quartet is filled out by Lewis Barnes and his subdued yet burnished tone on trumpet, plus Rob Brown, whose flat to sharp tone is not far from that of Jackie McLean's, marked by an ability to open up beautifully when called upon to do so. The horns contribute a sweet and sour mix that creates the slightest harmonic tension, which serves as a hallmark of the group's sound.
The music itself comes from a place not so dissimilar to the one occupied by Charles Mingus, especially on his Atlantic Recordings. The proceedings have a drive that nearly boils over but never actually spills. These are meditations on ideas and subjects, not notes on the page. And by the way the sound is pushed forward, you often think there are more than four musicians and instruments working together. Even when the isolated rhythm section locks together like it does partway through "Hawaii, the mood is brash and bold as Parker and Drake push the very limits of a swinging groove.
To be sure, this is bold music for the new millennia. What's changed between Mingus' widely recognized efforts in the '60s and the present is that jazz is now pursuing so many avenues that a recording like this can only reach a relatively small portion of the listening public. But if Parker's quartet could reach a larger audience through a recording like this, it would be interesting to see how his stature would change.
Nevertheless, when Brown and Barnes open "Poem for June Jordan with their slowly paced horns, this music reveals itself as an extension of both what has come before and the place where Parker and similar-minded men and women are trying to take it. In pursuing this music they clearly channel it, along with an mood of joy, from musician to listener.
Track Listing: Hawaii; Wood Flute Song; Poem for June Jordan; Sound Unity; Harlem; Groove.
Personnel: William Parker: acoustic bass; Rob Brown: alto saxophone; Lewis Barnes: trumpet; Hamid
Drake: drums and percussion.