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William Parker: Embracing The Unknown

Luke Seabright By

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His is one of the most distinctive and respected voices on double bass today. William Parker, the tireless composer, multi-instrumentalist, educator and poet, is still today omnipresent on the contemporary free jazz scene. What's more, he has been consistently for the last four decades. The William Parker Sessionography: A Work in Progress by Rick Lopez clocks in at just below 500 pages, and, as the title suggests, it hasn't finished growing. In it are of course referenced his many acclaimed sessions as leader but also the wealth of collaborative efforts he has been involved in, with leading figures in experimental jazz from the US, such as David S. Ware and Bill Dixon, but also from Europe where he has developed strong ties with musicians such as Peter Brötzmann. All About Jazz got a chance to meet him at the close of 2017, the day before a concert with his quartet (Hamid Drake, Rob Brown, Cooper Moore) at the Théâtre Garonne in Toulouse, France for a special New Year's Eve event. A good time to reflect on the past year, its highlights and challenges.

''You try to stay focused on what you have to do. There's a lot of distractions, particularly with the politics of America. At the same time, you lend an ear to what's going on. Part of the year we've been going to a lot of marches and doing a lot of street protesting. I'll play gralla [traditional Catalan double reed instrument], other double reeds, bombarde. We've been doing that since November, since the election. That was good. In terms of collaborations, I recorded music for my vocal anthology that I'm putting out in June. I wrote music for Fay Victor, singer Raina Sokolov-Gonzalez, singer Bernardo Palombo from Argentina. That was interesting. But you know, everything, whether it's old, whether it's new, you always try to make it come to life. When things are alive, they're not old or new, they're just in the moment, and that's kind of what you're really trying to do. I play with a lot of different people and right now I'm not really interested so much in doing a piece with this person or that person because I haven't played with them. I'm sticking to the family, the people I've had a musical relationship with all these years, because it's hard to form a musical relationship with somebody. I've been playing as much as I can, talking to people, helping people out when I can, doing musician social work, writing, playing music. Protesting."

Musician social work. An apt description for many of the initiatives of a man noted for his generosity, his commitment to transmission, and to community-driven projects. He is one of the founding members of Arts for Art, which describes itself as a "multicultural, artist-initiated and artist-run organization whose purpose is to build awareness and understanding of avantjazz and related expressive movements." This desire to place the artist at the centre of the industry (one of the many respects in which we see his affinity to Charles Mingus) echoes back to his early days playing in the New York Loft Jazz scene, when avant-garde musicians would gather to improvise and record in converted loft spaces in lower Manhattan. That drive to continuously create, even in the face of adversity, and actively foster one's own creative environment, is still with him, albeit tinged with a certain pessimism.

"Society will always try to kill the artist. It will always try to step on the flowers, and try to put handcuffs on the flowers. That's a statement from a play by Fernando Arrabal. They'll always try to do that because the flowers make people think, dream, have visions, awake and protest. The people in power don't like that because they're afraid people will find out that a paper bag has been pulled over our eyes and we're being pushed towards an abyss. The reason people don't like art is because it's awakening. That's why in the music industry, you can't worry too much about acceptance. You have to focus and proceed to create your own industry. Arts for Art was not created by a musician. It was created by Patricia Nicholson who's a dancer. But it was created for the musicians, and they love it, they participate, they gain exposure, they're able to come over to Europe sometimes for these events. That was the whole thing with the Loft scene. If no one is hiring you, you create work for yourself. You create an environment for yourself to blossom and work in."

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