There is an old jazz joke about a group of explorers being led through the jungle by a local guide. As the men march and tear through the overgrowth, the guide warns - "Always listen for the drums. When the drums stop - bad things follow." On day two, the group continues to hear the incessant drumming, and they are eased by the distant din. The guide implores "Always listen for the drums. When the drums stop - bad things follow." On day three - the drumming was steady, and the group continued their journey with an easy mind. On the fourth day, however, the drums suddenly halt. The birds stop their singing. All is still in the jungle. The guide is panicked and his face is fraught with fear. The explorers are now also concerned - "What happens now that the drums have stopped? Tell us, what should we fear?" The local guide informed - "When the drums stop, there is a bass solo."
Unfortunately, this hesitation about solo bass performances is reflected in the paltry selection of solo bass recordings. There are, of course, some exceptions: Peter Kowald's landmark and exhausting Was Da Ist (FMP), Dave Holland's not oft cited Ones All (Intuition) and the Marks Brothers, consisting of Mark Dresser and Mark Helias, duo recording entitled The Marks Brothers (W.E.R.F.) are some examples that come immediately to mind. William Parker has contributed at least three albums to the solo repertoire discography: Lifting the Sanctions (No More 6), Testimony (Zero In) and Painters Autumn (Centering Music). Based upon Parker's solo performance last week, he should also include a video element to a future project.
On Friday, January 29 in a small hall at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, the free jazz and creative improv legend played to a small, but grateful, audience. It need hardly be stated, but Parker has been, for the last quarter of a century, a fiery and creative fountain of consistent improvisational brilliance in the creative music field. William Parker never disappoints and his solo performances are a luxury to all those fortunate enough to appreciate the gift of sound.
Decked out in his usual and colorful garb of brightly colored stripped and abstract designs, he mounted the stage carrying his bass, a small gong, and a Japanese shakuhachi flute. He began by lifting the gong and striking it with a small mallet for several minutes - titling the metal disc at varying degrees and heights, and striking the circle at different points. The result was a multi-toned incantation that blossomed into a blessing of the instrument and the forthcoming performance.
When Parker picked up the bass, the instrument becomes a vehicle for the expanse of his limitless imagination. As those who have seen Parker before realize, much of the treat is to witness his astounding bowing technique. I had wondered why two bows were deposited in the pocket attached to the instrument - and only Parker could validate this seeming excess. At one point, he cradled the bass with his left forearm and raised the instrument to a horizontal position - like an overgrown violin. His right hand picked up both bows, using them to play the strings both below and above the bridge. He bowed furiously, while harmonizing his voice; harmonics and overtones were the hushed result.
While doing so, Parker began to dance, shifting his feet and rotating around an unused chair placed in the center of the wooden planked stage. "One circle," he intoned. He stopped suddenly and rotated in the opposite direction. "Two circles," he announced. After some time, the bass was again resting on the ground, but the strings were not shown any reprieve. They were hammered, hit, struck, plucked, bowed and caressed. The left hand often spread apart the strings so the bow could articulate notes and runs not available with their usual placement. Approximately fifty minutes passed, and an exhausted audience witnessed Parker carefully resting his bass on the floor, and picking up his wooden shakuhachi flute. He improvised upon a plaintive and restful melody, which was broken only by his words:
Death has died today
And God is in tears
The devil has a smile on his face
With his feet in the sand
And his head in an oil well.
Finally, Parker picked up the gong again, and intoned a concluding message. He circled the stage while playing, and proceed to step from the stage into the audience. While striking the gong, he circled and stepped around the auditorium, until he returned to the starting point on the stage. He stopped, and placed the gong gently upon the chair and asked the audience "Is that enough?" I replied, "It was perfect." We felt as if we had witnessed more than a concert; we were exhilarated and calmed and, somehow, a bit more at peace with the world.
Parker concluded by informing us of the title of the eighty minutes performance: "Don't put the root beer in the bag with the sandwich (because the sandwich will get cold)." Perfect, indeed.