Whenever I see William Parker in action, I’m reminded of the first time I watched him play, at New York’s Sweet Basil as part of Cecil Taylor’s band in the early ‘80s. Thirty-five years later, he’s an icon of the NYC experimental-improv scene, a keenly physical jazz bassist who can make a fierce thump come from his instrument whenever need be. The same fervor the 65-year-old used to parallel the density of Taylor’s attack so long ago remains a key element of his current art.
Parker works in numerous groups. At the start of the summer he thrilled with Farmers By Nature at NYC’s Vision Festival, and the same volition that marked his earliest work was actively resonating from his corner of the bandstand. Of course, Parker’s just as adept at lithe rumination and tactful agility as he is at thickening any given ensemble passage. If you want to learn more about how he pulls it all off, his new double album Meditation / Resurrection finds him helming a pair of bands and deploying a wealth of gambits. For a few reasons – the legibility of the tunes, say, or the eloquence of he and his confreres – this is one of his most entertaining discs.
The joyous freebop of “Criminals In the White House” is driven by the honking and swinging of a foursome that’s bent on making a statement. The first disc’s music is created by the William Parker Quartet, and from his longtime mate Rob Brown on alto to his new associate Jalalu-Kalvert Nelson on trumpet, the chemistry at hand is fetching. The two front-line players flipping back and forth conjures memories of the exuberance that fueled early Black Saint albums like Frank Lowe’s Exotic Heartbreak and Julius Hemphill’s Flat-Out Jump Suite.
Parker’s flexibility is remarkable. “Handsome Lake” is wiry and off-hand; the bassist says the tune arrived as a “full thought,” and was written in five minutes. Compared to the decidedly more elaborate pieces on 2015’s For Those Who Are, Still, it borders on elementary. Like “Rodney’s Resurrection,” it virtually prances as it dispenses its info. A twirl of brass and reeds, some fluid rustles from the rhythm section (Hamid Drake, who the leader calls the band’s “connecting force,” is the drummer on both discs) – the exchanges are mercurial and engrossing, especially when everything gets sparse and Parker trades his bass for a tarota, a double-reed folk instrument from Spain, on “Horace Silver Part 2.”
Parker’s group on the second disc is called In Order To Survive. It’s the trio referenced above with Cooper-Moore on piano rather than Nelson on horn. Here the music gets a bit more gnarly, but in some ways its effervescence increases as well. The pianist provides sprawls of notes on “Some Lake Oliver,” and Brown’s articulation leans toward the Jimmy Lyons realm: a torrent of abstraction that manages to be earthy, precise, and engaging.
Romanticism sometimes takes on an odd character in Parker’s work, and his use of a bow occasionally signals that his dramatic side is being called into action. On “Sunrise in East Harlem,” he spends the first few minutes waxing sentimental with his bow as the group lightly pores over a pulse that gives everyone some solo time. It’s sparse, effective, and perhaps a smidge formulaic. But by the time it concludes, there’s a feeling of catharsis in the air, as if the particulars of a genuine event have marshaled themselves towards some kind of transitional experience.
Ultimately, Meditation/Resurrection illuminates Parker’s personality. This is very candid music made from an activist’s mindset. But anyone stymied by the meaning of these collaborative efforts can have their curiosity easily sated. One of the most illustrative parts of the package are these six sentences from Parker’s notes. “Listen to the music; if you have any questions call me, write me, I will tell what it is. What do you think it is? Do you like it? Hate it? Love it? Let’s Talk.”
William Parker’s In Order To Survive plays Shapeshifter Lab in Brooklyn, Thursday July 13 – Friday, July 14