Bassist William Parker has become a legendary figure in certain jazz circles. He’s been a major player in the New York jazz scene since 1972 and has played with a wide array of free jazz musicians, including Cecil Taylor and Don Cherry. Also a teacher and a poet, he’s as omnipresent and prolific in the modern jazz world as Bob Pollard or Lou Barlow are in indie rock circles, though Parker’s not nearly as much of a showman.
On his trio’s latest album, Painter’s Spring, the emphasis should be on the word “trio” more than on his name. Though he did compose all of the songs except two here (covers of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” and the traditional “There Is a Balm in Gilead”), he makes no attempts to steal the spotlight with his bass playing. He plays with a lot of creativity, but he’s seldom showy or in the front of the track. The other two members, saxophonist/flutist/clarinetist Daniel Carter and drummer Hamid Drake, are as much the focus as Parker. In fact, Carter almost seems to take on the spotlight even more than the other two, since his instrument is often the most dominant sound.
On the whole this is a fairly low-key, mellow affair. It’s soothing music, but without being mundane or conventional. Any sort of habit that they set up on the majority of the tracks is broken by other more surprising tracks, like the drum energy of “Flash” or the winding path of saxophone on “Foundation #2.” Throughout, the three musicians improvise well together, taking the songs to a number of interesting ends. Carter in particular has a knack at playing all sorts of ways, making his sax squeal and spurt and then sweetly sing.
One of Painter’s Spring‘s key traits, being experimental without drawing attention to itself, is also what keeps it from really blowing me away. Sometimes the trio gets into a quiet groove and just holds it for a while, moving along without really doing anything. At these times, like on “Blues for Piercy,” the music gets so moderate and hushed that it almost disappears. The collective nature of the group’s efforts results in a unity of creative focus that leads them to unique places at some times, and into a spiral of sameness and invisibility at other, fewer times. Still, Painter’s Spring is more creative and interesting than what passes for new jazz on most major record labels, and is the product of a trio of gifted musicians who tackle sounds old and new with not only skill but also a dose of imagination.