It can be acknowledged that the avant-garde or “free” jazz of the 1960s was pretty alienating. It was ugly to most people’s ears—it shrieked and honked and eek-onked. It eschewed consonant harmony and rhythmic groove for virtues of expression that drove many jazz fans away—and pronto.
By the mid-1970s, however, the outcats started to realize the value of courting an audience. There are scores of “free” recordings from that time onward that are funky and fun and just plain beautiful—a list that might begin with Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds or Arthur Blythe’s Lenox Avenue Breakdown and might include 2001’s Up Popped the Two Lips by Henry Threadgill. For most folks, though, the die was already cast: free jazz was scary. STAY AWAY.
Among the finest and most accessible recordings made by “free players” in recent years is Piercing the Veil by the duo of bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake. You can tell it’s a bunch of kooky-crazy out-jazz because—“What?! Just drums and acoustic bass and no ‘real’ instruments!?” And then you listen and what you hear is: swing, groove, excitement, melody, and beauty. And you thought you didn’t like “free jazz”.
Piercing the Veil has now been reissued along with a live concert recorded the previous day, First Communion—a glorious release that reminds fans how good the original 1999 disc was. (A cool remix/dub version of Veil was released in 2002, and Black Cherry is still in print.) This two-disc reissue comes out simultaneously with a brand new Parker/Drake recording, Summer Snow. The opportunity to talk about all three recordings is, of course, impossible to pass up.
Hamid Drake is one of the busiest and most versatile drummers in the music—a guy who has always been swinging, even though he mainly plays with the likes of Fred Anderson, Peter Broztmann, Don Cherry, Pharaoh Sanders, and the like. He plays the full kit but also hand drums, and he is grounded in world music as well as jazz—a guy born in Louisiana, raised and based in Chicago, Illinois, but a citizen of everywhere.
William Parker is primarily a composer and acoustic bassist who trained with Jimmy Garrison, Richard Davis, and Wilbur Ware. Based out of New York, Parker meets Drake as a peer—he has played with an equivalent roster of free greats, beginning with pianist Cecil Taylor. In addition to bass, Parker plays the West African kora (a stringed instrument), and a variety of eastern flutes and percussion instruments.
Together, however, Hamid and Parker are something else entirely—a driving rhythm section capable of propulsion normally associated with natural phenomenon like hurricanes or earthquakes. What they forge together seems absolutely “free”—and given their resumes, you would expect nothing less—but also absolutely locked-in and tight. While many of the best “free” rhythm teams create a sense of loose interplay (like Blackwell and Haden or Motian and Swallow), Drake and Parker are like a veteran rock group playing with singular, driving purpose.
The opener to Piercing the Veil, “Black Cherry” is the perfect start. A hip-moving groove in 7/8 time, it starts purely funky and then Drake loosens the grips so that is starts to swing like a fat elastic band—just a drum kit and a repeated figure on acoustic bass becoming a whole symphony of feeling. “Chatima” puts the bow in Parker’s hands, but it is no less grooving, with Drake playing a deeply syncopated figure that shatters and comes together again as the bassist squiggles and swirls on top in both melodic and rhythmic fashion. The title track combines a funky bass drum patterns with repeated bowed figures that cycle around in brilliantly Reich-ian patters that fool you ears into thinking they’re hearing multiple melodists at once. “Loom Song” actually swings—almost as if the duo was channeling a particularly audacious Max Roach/Charlie Mingus date from the early ‘60s.
Other tracks from the first studio release groove differently. “Bodies Die” and “Nur Al Anwar” feature Parker on a nasal reed instrument that rolls about the tonal centers with an eastern tinge. “Chang Tzu’s Dream” and “Heavenly Walk” feature percussion only, with tablas and other hand-drums taking on the melodic duty. “Japeru” is a beautiful wind of shimmering flute and frame drums—like water lapping against a deck in waves of music.
First Communion was recording the day before Piercing the Veil in concert, and it features longer tracks that move gently through textures and melodic/rhythmic patterns more gradually. The first 30 minutes don’t feature a note of bass playing—mainly percussion patterns that shift and metamorphose hypnotically, then a section of vocalized flute work. The grooves are unstoppable through “Part III” of the concert, when the bass and drums lock-in and start to outline a new kind dance music.
Generally, this live set meanders (purposefully) more than Piercing the Veil and was not designed to grab your ears in the same way. But its pleasures are equally notable: a dedication to laying out the grooves and sticking with them over time, allowing the music to bubble up and gradually shift.
Summer Snow, recorded in September 2005, is a more textural outing than Piercing the Veil but less stretched out than the live set. “Anaya Dancing” and “Konte”—two consecutive songs that play like a small suite—are the only tracks that feature a Parker’s plucked bass in a more conventional or driving jazz style. Though they are in the minority, these tracks are tours de force for Drake as a light-handed track drummer and for Parker as a jazz bassist—swinging and funky at once, each one doling out poly-rhythms like soup.
More typical of Summer Snow is “Sky”, where Parker’s bass sounds more like a guitar, strumming in 7/8 with Drake’s tablas, or “Pahos”, where hand drums are finally joined by eastern flute in gentle duet. “Sifting the Dust” gets at the overtones of gongs and flutes together—an exercise in pure, quiet sound. On “Faces, Drake’s hand drums seem to be joined by the bass as, itself, a percussion instrument. But, frankly, by that point in your Summer Snow journey, the question of what instrument is making the sounds is almost irrelevant. What Parker and Drake do together is less a string of classic jazz duets—the kind of thing, say, that Jim Hall and Bill Evans used to do—than an act of collective groove and sound that happens, almost incidentally, to be performed by jazz musicians.
Taken as a whole, the body of duets represented by these two releases suggests how deep and diverse the modern edges of the music can be. As a rhythm team, Parker and Drake lock in like few others. And though their more aggressive jazz or funk grooves can be heard more compellingly on their recordings with other musicians, this work connects those grooves to a body of subtle dialogue and textural experimentation. Though Piercing the Veil remains my favorite disc in this group, the new discoveries here amount to much more than footnotes.
Any searching jazz fan should be reaching out for this music. It reaches more than halfway for you.