A Match Made in Heaven Turns Into a Near Miss
This review should be prefaced by a simple acknowledgment: William Parker has few peers in contemporary music. For the better part of two decades, he has been releasing statement after statement, steadily cementing his name on the all-time roster of jazz immortals. Because he is a bassist, it might seem facile to name-check Charles Mingus, but the comparison is apt and inevitable. Like Mingus, Parker is, in addition to being a monster on his instrument, a prolific and first-rate composer. And like Mingus, Parker is ceaselessly weaving together a tapestry that integrates tradition with the avant-garde. Many musicians would love to attempt this, and a lot of them try. Few have been as successful as Parker, just as a mere handful could hold a candle to Mingus when he oversaw the scene.
With considerable regret, then, I find I would rather talk about every other album in Parker’s catalog before getting around to his latest effort. It’s by no means a failure (concerning Parker such an assessment is impossible); rather, it’s a disappointment. On the other hand, for the genuinely interested but uninitiated jazz novice, this could be a suitable point of entry. It is for the hardcore William Parker fans that these reserved words are primarily intended.
It’s interesting. Jazz musicians have been covering popular music forever, using both commercial and obscure songs for a variety of reasons: to engage with the audience using accessible tunes, to pay homage to the individual being interpreted, to utilize traditional or “safe” material as firm if friendly ground from which to leap and explore. In recent years, artists like The Bad Plus, Marco Benevento and Stanton Moore (to name three acts that non-jazz fans may be familiar with) have utilized contemporary pop and alternative rock to satisfactory effect.
Part of what makes the enterprise enticing—particularly for listeners who wouldn’t readily gravitate toward jazz—is the novelty of re-imagining works, both the beautiful and the banal, that have infiltrated the public consciousness. As such, these exercises are seldom literal (note for note) and rarely incorporate lyrics or vocals. And, for myriad reasons, this is a good thing.
Which brings us to Parker’s eight-piece ensemble, The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield, and their new release I Plan To Stay A Believer. On paper, this project is inspired and appealing: 11 songs collected from a series of concerts recorded over the past decade. There is not a long list of musicians who could (or want to) try and pull off a full-scale tribute to the late, great Mayfield. And as he has frequently illustrated with his unique and indelible covers of adored songs such as “Come Sunday” and “There Is A Balm In Gilead”, Parker is quite capable of putting his own imprint on the classics.
It is, therefore, regrettable for a band this talented, performing material this good, to wind up with a well-intended, but underwhelming product. This is one of the better bands anyone could assemble, so it’s a shame you can barely hear them. You can hear the band, of course, but what you really hear are the vocals. In fact, these are not only (overly) literal interpretations—there are often more vocals here than on the original songs. This, putting it plainly, is not a formula for success.
In all fairness, your mileage may well vary. If you find instrumental improvisations of well-known tunes a bit played out (or just “out”), the relative structure and curiously tame renderings of these songs may resonate. If you are an ardent Mayfield fan, you might find yourself racing to the shelf for the original item(s). Mayfield’s catalog, after all, is not merely well-known, it is miraculous. It would, needless to say, require a radical or at least inventive revamping in order to make a project like this sufficiently intriguing (over two discs, no less).
Unfortunately, Leena Conquest’s effusive if occasionally overwrought vocals run the constant risk of reminding even the most open-minded listener that if you can’t improve upon a particular work, you’d better put it in a different wrapper. Too often, the presentation offers the worst of both worlds: it invokes Mayfield (but in a way that is distracting, not enlightening), while suffocating the exceptional performances of these remarkable musicians. When they are not being (inexplicably) drowned out by Conquest, they are ceding the stage to a legend that ought to be read and not heard. Amiri Baraka, who contributes original (though not particularly interesting and certainly not incendiary) poetry, also loudly recites it on more than half the selections. Baraka’s credentials (as a writer, thinker and provocateur) have long been largely unassailable. Alas, on this misadventure, he pretty much sounds like what he is: an older man trying to rap. (I know, his poetry from back in the day was rap before scratching and the wheels of steel, but its magic was conveyed on the page.)
There are, to be sure, stretches of songs that convince and delight, and these are not coincidentally when the band is able to cut loose without the vocal histrionics. The first 20 seconds of “If There’s Hell Below”, for instance, offer tantalizing impressions of how scintillating this material could (should) have been. So many Mayfield masterpieces are incorporated (including lesser-known gems like “We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, and “It’s Alright”), it causes one to wish for an alternate version of this release, without the words. For now, we can still have the best of all worlds: the enduring Mayfield albums and the ever-growing list of treasures from Parker.