Bill Cole and William Parker have much in common: belief in the healing and transforming power of music, respect for non-Western musical forms, and a commitment to free improvisation. Cole's Untempered Ensemble, which has included Parker in recent years, as well as Parker's prolific output with his own Little Huey Orchestra and a multitude of other lineups, have done much to challenge Western musical ethnocentricities and blow a fresh wind through creative jazz.
With all those credits behind and around it, Two Masters: Live At The Prism is, it's disappointing to report, unremarkable stuff. This is the first full-length recording Cole and Parker have made as a duo, and the nakedly unforgiving nature of the stripped-down lineup reveals a fundamental mismatch.
Parker is a world class musician with consummate technical facility and an awesomely inventive and fulsome talent for improvisation, a twenty-first century urban superhero griot out of the top drawer. Best known as a writer and academic, Cole the musician is simply not in the same league. He's coming from the right place, and he's technically adept on the Eastern double-reed instruments which are his specialty, but his improvisations only infrequently rise above blissed-out stasis, in great contrast to Parker's provocative, searching restlessness and talent for gripping motivic development. In the less exposed context of the Untempered Ensemble, Cole can make a more useful contributionhis exotic instruments provide color while other members of the band move things forward. In a duo, especially one cohabited by a stone genius like Parker, his limitations are all too apparent.
That said, Two Masters is no train wreck, and it has its moments. The opening "Angels In Golden Mud," with Cole on digeridoo and Parker on West African bow-harp, is calming and centering and works well because neither musician is required to do much more than maintain the vibe for nine minutes. "Waterfalls Of The South Bronx" is tremendous and enthralling, but overwhelmingly for Parker's contributions: it's one of only two tracks on which he plays bass, and he's all over it, sounding like a fully equipped string quartet at times. The closing "Ending Sequence And Sunset" reveals Parker to be a credible player of the Ashanti hour-glass drum, but at twenty minutes it overstays its welcome.
There's no doubting Parker's genius or Cole's good intentions, but one master in an unequal partnership does not, on this occasion, make for great or enduring music.
Personnel: Bill Cole, digeridoo, flute, voice, sona, shenai, nagaswarm, hojok; William Parker, bass, voice, doson ngomi, flute, nagaswarm, dunno, whistle.