William Parker: Mayan Space Station & Painters Winter

Eric Gudas BY

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"Ungentrified funk": that's how William Parker characterized the music of his Mayan Space Station ensemble after a Zoom-transmitted performance— plus Q&A session— in the summer of 2020. Like Duke Ellington and Cecil Taylor—the latter whose group he played with in the 1980s—the protean Parker has become a genre unto himself. Parker's brand of funk has deep musical and cultural roots in the 1970s loft jazz scene, which thrived in the (then) as-yet-ungentrified neighborhoods of Soho and the Lower East Side. For listeners still digesting Parker's massive boxed set, the ten-CD, ten-album, ten-ensemble (!) Migration of Silence Into and Out of The Tone World —which opens with the song "Cosmic Funk," a reminder that his oeuvre encompasses multitudes of funk—here are two brand-new albums, Mayan Space Station and Painters Winter, from AUM Fidelity, that feature Parker in a trio setting. "Composition is improvisation," Parker asserted in the same question-and-answer session mentioned above; in these intimate settings, listeners can experience Parker and his collaborators composing together in real time.

William Parker
Mayan Space Station
AUM Fidelity

Mayan Space Station, which features a different set of personnel from the above-mentioned 2020 Zoom concert, finds Parker digging deep into the rough edge where ungentrified funk—especially guitar-heavy funk, say, Parliament Funkadelic with Eddie Hazel—edges into psych rock and free jazz into a generically unclassifiable stew that rocks with the force of the Mayan space station itself, which Parker evokes in a poem that accompanies the album: "cymbals gongs and strings navigating through space / we enter into the earth's atmosphere." Parker's collaborators are no strangers to this stew: guitarist Eva Mendoza, who collaborates in the studio with Parker for the first time, leads her own avant-rock trio, Unnatural Ways; while drummer Gerald Cleaver's quintet, Black Host, churns up a brand of avant-free-acid-psych jazz-rock perhaps best described as heavy. Parker and Cleaver, who have played together in any number of ensembles, including the trio Farmers By Nature with Craig Taborn, lock effortlessly into grooves that allow Mendoza, this album's shining star, to take off: she shreds, she wails, she burns, she pours the whole vocabulary of ungentrified free guitar playing from her fretboard. Mendoza listens, too, because Parker and Cleaver's grooves evolve, spiraling from in the-pocket-rhythms to increasingly exploratory bass-and-drums dialogues. The nearly fifteen-minute title song, for instance, gives Mendoza a chance to solo on top of tight rhythm; but at about the halfway, that rhythm starts gradually, and then forcefully, to unspool, creating unexpected spaces for Mendoza to explore as she, Parker, and Cleaver take part in a slow-burn, three-way dialogue that, one imagines, in a live setting, would just keep going. Somebody book this trio for a tour before its members' calendars fill up.

William Parker
Painters Winter
AUM Fidelity

If Mayan Space Station is a "crank it up" album, Painters Winter (no apostrophe) sits more on the "listen closer" end of the spectrum. Parker has been collaborating with Daniel Carter (alto and tenor saxophone, trumpet, clarinet, and flute) and percussion mastermind Hamid Drake for decades, and the resulting rapport radiates from every track of this joyfully meditative album. The title Painters Winter positions the album as a continuation of this very same trio's 2000 outing for Thirsty Ear, as the William Parker Trio, Painter's Spring. "Painters love the winter, they hunker down and begin masterpieces," writes Parker in Painters Winter's liner notes. Note the verb begin: the performances have an open-ended, exploratory, constructively tentative quality that can only be achieved by masters with nothing left to prove. Essentially, the album centers on performances where Parker puts down his upright bass for other instruments—trombonium on the title song and shakuhachi flute on "Painted Scarf." He plays the latter instrument with the grace and prowess of a true adept while Carter, on clarinet, lets him take the lead for much of the song. On "Painters Winter," Carter and Parker engage in a dialogue between flute and trombonium, two instruments rarely heard together. On both compositions, Drake performs with a restraint that is itself a form of power. He lets loose, however, on the opening track, "Groove 77"—one of Parker's many compositions with "groove" in the title—which will get anyone's toes tapping.

William Parker's ungentrified genius—as composer, musician and collaborator—shines through on both of these albums, each recorded in early 2020, just before the Covid-19 pandemic's initial lockdowns. Parker has no doubt been busy in the intervening year and a half, so, one suspects, these albums won't be his latest releases for long. Stay tuned.

Tracks and Personnel

Painters Winter

Tracks: Groove 77; Painters Winter; Happiness; Painted Scarf; A Curley Russell.

Personnel: William Parker: bass, trombonium; shakuhachi; Daniel Carter: trumpet, alto & tenor saxophones, clarinet, flute; Hamid Drake: drums.

Mayan Space Station

Tracks: Tabasco; Rocas Rojas; Domingo; Mayan Space Station; Canyons Of Light; The Wall Tumbles Down.

Personnel: William Parker: bass; Ava Mendoza: electric guitar; Gerald Cleaver: drums.


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