Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series, a collection with more than a dozen discs from “out-there” jazz artists, would seem to be the perfect vehicle for those artists to use the label’s relatively mainstream status to drive their most adventurous sounds deep into the ears of listeners.
Instead, most of the artists in the series, from curator Matthew Shipp on down, seem to see the series as a way to mainstream their own sound, to strip away the odd, discordant elements than might have kept them out of the CD players of otherwise curious jazzbos. Rather than use the series as a bully pulpit, they are using it as a sales pitch: Look at us! We can swing!
Accessible seems to be a dirty work to jazz performers, but it’s the best way to describe the series. These works, almost without exception, are the best place to start with any of these artists. You get an idea of what they’re trying to do, then explore out from there to hear the different ways in which they go about it.
William Parker, a bassist without peer in the creative music realm, is a fine example. Parker has been involved with some of the most challenging music out there, working with the David S. Ware Quartet, Shipp’s many groups, and other artists who push right through the envelope in search of new sounds.
But on Raining on the Moon, Parker offers eight tracks that, while still more abstract and rewarding than anything being issued on major jazz labels, is among the most straight-forward things he’s ever recorded. The best reference point is his previous Blue Series release, 2000’s Painter’s Spring, recorded with Shipp and drummer Hamid Drake.
Still, there are challenges. The bulk of the recording features a quartet, with Parker on bass, Rob Brown on alto and flute, Louis Barnes on trumpet and frequent Parker collaborator Drake on drums. This is the same group that joined Parker on O’Neal’s Porch, released in 2000 on Parker’s own Centering Records.
But it is a fifth performer, vocalist Leena Conquest, who keeps things interesting. Her contributions, giving voice Parker’s powerfully poetic lyrics, enliven the disc, and give the music a focal point sometimes lacking in Parker’s work.
The group gets off to a quick start. Louis Barnes’s trumpet blasts, cut by manic trills, fuel the opening “Hunk Pappa Blues”. Rob Brown brings his alto saxophone is about two-thirds of the way through to spar with Barnes, the two issuing jabs back and forth over the swinging beat just before joining together to restate the jaunty theme. Parker and Drake work well behind the scenes here, their simpatico groove giving the tune a solid base.
Conquest lends her vocals to the next track, “Song of Hope”. It’s a startling departure, a rousing lyric delivered with power. “I clap my hands and birds fill trees with sweet melodies,” she sings. “I have a ragdoll filled with sunlight and when I squeeze her the world gets brighter and brighter”.
After the melancholy instrumental “Old Tears”, Conquest is back with the title track. If the idea of “Raining on the Moon” seems odd, that’s the point. This lunar precipitation comes at the same time the White House is being painted red, Gandhi is being named Minister of Defense, and John Wayne and Huey Newton go into business together as fried chicken proprietors. You get the point, obviously, but it doesn’t come off as overly simple when conveyed as part of this lightly swinging track.
The tune is the disc’s longest, clocking in at 14 minutes. Musically and lyrically, the time is well used. The simple form is fully explored by the musicians while Conquest sits out for extended stretches, and Parker’s repetitive lyrics are driven home by her soulful voice.
“Music Song” is a nice palate-cleanser after that massive track. Over an acoustic figure from Parker on a donso ngoni—a six-string African harp—and light percussion from Drake, Conquest quietly sings. Barnes and Brown, who complement—but never overpower—her vocals, join her later in the track.
“The Watermelon Song” continues this simple groove, a short tune that sets up the longer “James Baldwin to the Rescue”, the disc’s penultimate track. A companion piece of sorts to the longer “Song of Hope” and “Raining on the Moon”, the tune again finds Parker, given voice by Conquest, again stumping for peace and equality.
“James Baldwin” was first aired on Parker’s The Mayor of Punkville disc in 2000, a recording by his 15-piece Little Huey Creative Orchestra. That track, 18-minutes long and with vocals by Aleta Hayes, is a much different creature from this newer version, yet both are vital.
The closing track, “Donso Ngoni”, again finds Parker playing the harp of the title to create a haunting melody. Here, as on “Music Song”, he and Drake accompany Conquest on a short, organic tune. It’s a light way to end the disc, perhaps too light given the power and sway of what came before. But it leaves the listener a chance to take a breath, an after-dinner mint following a multi-course meal.
With “Raining on the Moon”, Parker gives evidence to back up his large stature in creative music, showing himself to be a modern day Charles Mingus. Here, he proves once and for all that any divisions between mainstream jazz and its more avant garde brethren need only be drawn in the minds of myopic listeners.