Like every other part of American culture these days, there is a right and a left. While I would not want to accuse any jazz musicians of having an explicitly neo-conservative bent (jazz bent on establishing democracy in the Middle East anyone?), there is certainly always a camp in jazz that yearns for the comforts and verities of traditional values—swing, standards, good old-fashioned melody. On the flip side, there is jazz that carries a progressive agenda: songs of liberation, opposition, and justice. From Armstrong singing “Black and Blue” to Mingus’s “Fables for Faubus” to Gil-Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, it is a proud tradition.
Bassist and composer William Parker marches in that line of liberation musicians. Parker is one of the most accomplished and prolific leaders on the New York scene, and his music long ago stepped beyond avant-garde limitations to speak directly to any jazz fan who appreciates a driving rhythm section and exuberant freedom. Teamed frequently with drummer Hamid Drake, Parker makes music that shouts with joy. If you haven’t heard it, his quartet record from 2002, O’Neal’s Porch, is one of the decade’s best—a recital for trumpet, alto sax, bass, and drums that perfectly straddles the line between inside and outside playing and never fails to swing like mad.
Corn Meal Dance is an extension of Parker’s quartet, adding pianist Eri Yamamoto and vocalist Leena Conquest, a line-up Parker calls Raining on the Moon, after the quartet album of the same name featuring Conquest on several different songs singing Parker’s own lyrics. The new record is a full program of vocals, with the piano making Parker’s melodic songs even more accessible than ever before. Yamamoto is just the pianist for the job—free-wheeling and open with the quartet, but also capable of carving out huge slabs of gospel and jazz piano when the songs require it. For those concerned that the pianist might handcuff the perfectly balanced quartet, you can rest easy.
The centerpiece of the disc, however, is inevitably Ms. Conquest and the songs she is putting across. Parker is consciously working in the tradition of jazz liberation music—music that speaks about injustice and social change from within the jazz tradition, but reaching out toward other social music in the African-American tradition. In his notes, Parker specifically evokes the history of female vocalists teaming with male musicians to talk about politics and the world: Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, Sun Ra and June Tyson, Roy Ayers and Jean Carne. In Conquest, Parker has certainly found a voice of conviction and blues-drenched beauty, a partner in nine songs that ask her to be a preacher, a politician, and a storyteller as well as a singer.
Musically, Corn Meal Dance is an achievement. Most notably, Parker finds ways to let the horn section (trumpeter Lewis Barnes and altoist Rob Brown) fully participate in songs. “Doctor Yesterday” is driven forward by the loose-limbed approach of the horns before the vocal even enters, and Barnes and Brown play crucial patterns beneath and supporting the lyrics additional to the improvised obligato and solos. “Soledad” builds quiet steam for a full minute before Conquest enters. These songs, unlike some of Parker’s past work, are uniformly in the pocket—he gives them not just grooves, but actual pop grooves and hooky licks that help each tune to stick in the mind. And these memorable elements are as often the horns as the vocals.
The title track, “Corn Meal Dance”, is the gentle best. The band sets up a harmonically pastel bedding over a rolling 6/8 rhythm—the kind of thing that could be the start of a good Van Morrison song. The horns enter with a declamatory melody in mostly unison. By the time Conquest enters, the band’s hypnosis has already got a sweet hold on you. Barnes accompanies the singing with buzzing Harmon mute. The horns return with their melody briefly, then they play written figures under the singing that shuffle, stagger, and finally fade out. You can sway or dance to this music, your choice.
Stylistically and melodically, the songs are a surging pleasure. “Gilmore’s Hat” is plain funky, an off-kilter tune with a snapping backbeat. Yamamoto plays it all dirty and Monk-ish, in the pocket and not too neat. Conquest sings the blues. “Tutsi Orphans” uses a West African-sounding counterpoint that acts almost like a round—irresistible. Perhaps most powerfully, Parker has penned two gospel tunes for Conquest and Yamamoto in duet. “Poem for June Jordan” (for the late political activist and poet) is melodically majestic, sung simply and accompanied with a clarity grounded in church harmony. “Prayer” sounds even more gospel-driven, with Conquest letting her voice rise up with a bit more stridency and point. It sounds less like jazz, perhaps, but more sincere for that shift.
Corn Meal Dance‘s weakness is in the marriage of lyrics to song. This is an area where listeners’ reactions are likely to be highly subjective. Working in a tradition of calls for social change, Parker might be expected to get preachy, allowing an easy self-righteousness to invade his command of imagery and lyricism. That is certainly in evidence here. “Doctor Yesterday” is some kind of three-headed monster in a “Circus of horrors / Surrounded by assassins” who “kills everything he can’t see”. “Soledad” trots out the old saw that “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth / Is a formula for eternal war / Revolution / Evolution from the inside out”. Huh? When jazz gets political like this, without the burden of actually putting forth programs or solving real political problems, it all seems too easy. Because these lyrics can be both obscure and holier-than-thou, it’s hard to really relate to them.
The lyrics fare better when they are absurd, fantastical, or emotive. “Gilmore’s Hat” begins with this novel conceit: “Rocket ship to the moon has injured the rain god”, but it goes on, inevitably, to describe “A man in a red, white, and blue coat / Selling dreams that won’t come true”. But it’s pretty tough slogging even here: “Logs water soaked in the stream of conviction / Emergency! emergency! of music muses”.
But then lyrics always look silly when they are separated from their music. What still works so well in the Raining on the Moon band is the way it recaptures a certain kind of hip soul-jazz from the 1970s, but keeps it feeling loose and free. A favorite band in that style was lead by Gary Bartz—his Ntu Troop—and Parker does a great job of evoking that idiosyncratic style, while still allowing his brilliant quartet to play Ornette-style across a large set of harmonic and rhythmic possibilities.
Corn Meal Dance is hardly the best of William Parker, but as yet another facet of his considerable jazz spectrum it is a graceful expansion of territory. Whether it is for the jazz content, the politics, or the accessible jazz-soul grooves, this latest release for the outstanding jazz bassist is a strong effort.