William Parker: 65th Birthday Celebration Concert at the Painted Bride

Victor L. Schermer By

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William Parker and Friends
Painted Bride Arts Center
William Parker 65th Birthday Celebration
Philadelphia, PA
January 21, 2017

To celebrate the 65th birthday of legendary bassist William Parker, the Painted Bride Arts Center, Ars Nova Workshop, and Bobby Zankel's Warriors of the Wonderful Sound joined forces to sponsor a top of the line sextet including Parker in the catbird seat and Zankel at the helm. For those who don't know about Parker, he is an outstanding bassist, composer, and band leader, who for many years has been a prominent force in the New York and world-wide experimental jazz scene. Socially conscious and deeply spiritual, he came to Philadelphia not so long ago to present a stunning original composition based on the Civil Rights Movement. Some of the same musicians participated in this birthday event.

The concert consisted of two sets of lengthy improvisations based on Zankel's original compositions incorporating thematic material from John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman among others. For example, the first of the two movements of Zankel's "Trickster" quoted liberally from Coleman's ballad "Lonely Woman," and Trane's song "Welcome" from the album Kula Se Mama (Impulse, 1965) was played at the end of each set. Its striking resemblance to the familiar "Happy Birthday to You" served as a a backdrop to the presentation of a birthday cake to Parker. Afterwards, Parker made an impromptu speech that was in itself a literary statement, honoring his fellow musicians and calling for love, peace, and compassionate action in a time of deep political conflict. It was perhaps a reference to the women's marches for equality and justice which occurred earlier that day.

The music was of a very advanced nature. Some critics would call it "free jazz," the term that was applied to the avant garde music of the 1950s-60s, but in this performance the continuity to the mainstream was in evidence throughout despite the fact that traditional forms were stretched to the outer limits. (See further remarks below.) The musicians went wherever they chose, yet their coordination was remarkable. What resulted was masterful improvised music that left the audience at the edge of their seats anticipating what would happen next. The technical prowess and musical imagination of the musicians was dazzling. Some, like Parker, pianist Dave Burrell, trombonist Steve Swell and drummer Muhammad Ali are long-term participants in avant-garde jazz. Saxophonist Zankel and violinist Diane Monroe are Philly-based virtuosos who defy categorization but fit in perfectly.

Beyond the fact that these musicians intuitively understand one another from years of playing in similar circles, the music was further held together by a firm jazz idiom rhythmic pulse provided by Ali, by the unrelenting energy that reminded one of the great Cecil Taylor and is a Zankel trademark, and by musical ideas presented by each player which were accompanied and elaborated by the others in the group. Most notable were the exchanges between Burrell and Monroe where each took off from each other's super-complex changes to generate solos of monstrous virtuosity that were yet palatable to the ear and emotionally expressive. Zankel, Parker, and Swell came along as rugged individualists. Zankel invented imaginative phrases in perfect form and sound. Swell pulled off rapid-fire double and triple tonguing in neat, concise phrases. Parker generated countless ideas and unique sonorities that most bass players don't even know are there. At times, he sounded something like a whole film studio orchestra playing music to accompany a variety of characters and action.

As always, the audience at the Painted Bride consisted of serious listeners who gave the music the sustained attention it deserved. The Bride, as it is affectionately called, and its musical curator Lenny Seidman, are to be praised for their high standards and daring in pushing the envelope of jazz and all the arts in this city. Similar kudos are due Mark Christman for the funding he provides as Artistic Director of Ars Nova Workshop.

Postscript: Does Free Jazz Really Exist?

The music in this concert reminded this reviewer of the struggles and controversies that arose at the onset of the so-called avant-garde movement when Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, and others went "outside" the conventional forms and which many listeners and critics dismissed as noise. It was a classic case of when you don't understand something, you debunk it. Critics used terms like "free jazz," "avant-garde," and "the new thing" to talk about what they perceived as oddities and speculative ventures into the unknown. The musicians, however, felt wholeheartedly that they were just extending what was already there. Yet these artificial labels continue to be used to this day.

It may be time to consider dropping such terminology all together. Jazz needs to be approached in an open-minded, non-judgmental manner without applying labels to it. Like all the arts, its merit can only be decided by repeated exposures and respect for a variety of opinions. When extraordinary musicians like those in this concert come together, you just have to shut up and listen. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, "Of that about which one cannot speak, thereof one ought to be silent." Music is its own language and cannot always be easily formulated in words.

After the performance, the reviewer asked Zankel to explain his own understanding of what the group was doing. Succinctly, he stated, "I don't think what we did or what I do is what I would call 'free jazz.'" Elaborating on this point, Zankel added, "In our music, there are tonal motifs, there are rhythmic themes, there's harmonic material, [sic] there's language, and there's sound grammar. There is a clear line between Bird [Charlie Parker], John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. I know from personal contact that Ornette and Cecil Taylor didn't like or use the label "free jazz." It bothers me to have the music described that way. It's a marketing phrase that doesn't describe musical thought. There are melodic ideas, rhythmic ideas, different concepts and methodologies that we apply when we improvise and compose. They are all time honored highly evolved approaches."

Today, there is no longer a sharp distinction that can be made between one kind of jazz or another. As the music evolves globally, everything is flowing together. Maybe it doesn't need to be said, but it's time to stop using terms like "free jazz," "third stream," and "avant-garde." What we are talking about is jazz that allows more freedom of movement than conventional "jazz standard" form. The truth is that from the very beginning, jazz has constantly evolved new ways of expression. Without such spontaneous creativity, any art form would perish under its own weight.

Personnel: William Parker: acoustic bass; Bobby Zankel: saxophone; Diane Monroe: violin; Steve Swell: trombone; Dave Burrell: piano; Muhammad Ali: drums.

Set List: (All compositions by Bobby Zankel unless otherwise noted.) Set I: The Trickster (Movements I and II); Time without Beginning; Anthem from the Ancestors; Welcome (Coltrane); Set II: Continuance (Movements I and II); The Solution; Song Why Not; Welcome (Coltrane).

Photo Credit: Eugene Lew.
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