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William Parker: Embracing The Unknown

Luke Seabright By

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"I was very lucky, I always ran into the right people, always heard the right things. You know, you get up and James Baldwin is speaking, he's taking about how difficult it is being James Baldwin and you think "oh wow, it's difficult for him?" and he says "yeah, but it's all I could be, James Baldwin." You begin to hear about Thomas Merton, Kenneth Patchen, Stan Brakhage, Langston Hughes, Julius Lester, Amiri Baraka, and then you learn about the Modern Jazz Quartet and Duke Ellington, Bill Dixon, Milford Graves and Cecil Taylor. I'm standing on the corner and I run into Don Cherry, he says "come play with me at the Five Spot," I says okay! This was 1975. I played with Don Cherry for a week at the Five Spot. He didn't even know I was a bassist but we talked and walked all the way up to the Chelsea Hotel, we ate, we were talking about the Dalai Lama, about peace, about inspiration. As soon as I saw him, we just connected. I was very very lucky. And I still feel that everybody I meet is inspirational, in some kind of way. We need to feed each other, and that's what we do, by being, by talking, by communicating, by playing, by listening. It clicks sometimes the first time you play with someone. The first time I played with Cecil Taylor, I clicked with him. Bill Dixon, Milford Graves. We clicked right away. First time I played with Matthew Shipp, I clicked with him."

Pianist Mathew Shipp has been a frequent collaborator of Parker's and they've recorded over 15 albums together. It's a partnership that's lasted over 25 years, an example of the kind of strong musical connection he has fostered over the years with many artists, and which he interprets through the lens of shared musical philosophies and an idea of universal tonality.

"When we play, it really works. There's a lot of things happening in music. There's space, there's time, there's movement, there's all kind of energies. There are a lot of things that can vibrate to turn sound into tone. And that's what we try to do. Daniel Carter does it one way, Roy Campbell did it another way, Billy Bang, Milford Graves, Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon all did it another way. The other idea is Universal Tonality, which came to me in the nineties. I was doing a concert with a trombone player, Steve Turre (he was bringing his shells), and it was organised by this drummer called Harold E. Smith. There were a lot of didgeridoo players, from all over. Harold had got injured in a car accident and couldn't really play his left foot on the drum so he took up didgeridoo. He also had some Cherokee Indian dancers. Nobody said you play this, you do this, you do that. It just happened. A vision came to me after that, that if you took a master musician from every country and you put them in a room together and said on the count of three we're going to play, you'll be able to play with them. And there'll be music. The idea of universal tonality is that you can bring musicians from all over the world and not have them sacrifice anything they do, not have to tell them what to do, not have to talk about it, you just do it. That gave me hint of something, a tonality, that's universal. We all laugh in the same language, we all cry in the same language. You can take someone from Japan, from Russia, from Australia, they'll all laugh in the same way. And that's what music is, a universal language. All these things help you connect, but it just happens beyond our control sometimes. We don't know why they connect. You're playing with opposites. But it works. Joe McPhee for example. Why does his music work all the time, in lots of different situations? He doesn't alter what he does. Everybody is going all over the place and he'll just come out and play his thing. And that's what every good player does, he comes out and he does his thing. I was studying bass with Jimmy Garrison years ago. Every recording I ever heard of Jimmy Garrison you think 'Oh yeah that's Jimmy Garrison.' He didn't alter too much from what he was doing. There weren't ten Jimmy Garrisons. It's your musical DNA. All these things help bring people together. Now does it mean that people can't mesh? Yes, people who have different philosophies about music. So sometimes you make sacrifices. This guy wants to play bebop, this guy wants to play changes, because every time you go off the changes they look at you and say, 'I need those changes to play.' You have a choice, whether to say 'Okay, get someone else to play these changes' or keep playing and maybe he'll figure that you he doesn't need them. You can keep playing with this person or move on to someone else. The right person for him, the right glove for the right hand will come eventually, and this person will find the right player for them that will make his universe light up."

So what are the next steps?

"I'm doing a residency at the Stone in June and I'm doing a piece with trombones, dedicated to the late trombone player Johannes Bauer. I'm also doing a piece that I haven't completely settled yet, it might be an ensemble of skakuhachis [Japanese flutes]. I also have a record coming out, of aquasonic music. It's music played on an instrument called the waterphone. I wrote music for that, it'll come out in the spring. I'll be called 'Lake of Light.' It's four people playing waterphones. It's the first time I've done something like this. I've played the instrument for about ten years though. We're doing a concert at the Stone with maybe 20 aquasonics. Little Huey Creative Orchestra will also resurface soon. Little Huey is always ready. We're playing in the spring."
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