After more than 40 years in music, I didn’t think that a musician like jazz bassist William Parker would have anything more to prove. But the release of the gargantuan For Those Who Are, Still portrays Parker as a composer who is absolutely going for broke. Not only is this “album” large in quantity (three discs, 27 tracks, over three-and-a-half hours), but the music itself is denser than anything you might have heard recently. Sure, Parker may be remembered in the long run for his work with the likes of Matthew Shipp and David S. Ware where modern jazz attempted to reach out to the post-rock inclined, but For Those Who Are, Still is a whole different ballgame. The first disc contains two large works, the first one being an ode to civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, commissioned by the Kitchen for their ten-piece house band. “Vermeer” is a “nine-song series” where Parker jams with some long-standing colleagues of his. “Red Giraffe With Dreadlocks” comes in six movements and was written for a completely different eight-piece ensemble. “Ceremonies for Those Who Are Still” is Parker’s first symphonic composition with Jan Jakub Bokun conducting the NFM Symphony Orchestra. I should also mention that two of these 27 tracks lasts nearly half-an-hour. Intimidated yet? You should be. This stuff does not go down easy.
There is no ‘accessible’ place for us to start, so we might as well move through this box in the order assigned on the back. “For Fannie Lou Hamer + Vameer” starts with a 28-minute piece, with lyrics spoken word lyrics written by Parker and enunciated by Leena Conquest. As the music moves from the front of the disc to the back, the music itself shifts from a slightly-recognizable form of modern jazz to head-scratching Schoenbergian forms of modern classical. The “Vermeer” suite is performed by a chamber ensemble, but this by no means limit the complexity of the music. With only Darryl Foster on sax, Eri Yamamamoto on piano, and Parker and Conquest covering the rest, it creates an intimate atmosphere for the challenging music. At least 11 musicians are on hand for “For Fannie Lou Hamer”, including JT Lewis on drums. It goes several ways at once, which is probably not a bad musical backdrop for Conquest’s recitation of the story where Hamer gets beaten by authorities.
“Red Giraffe With Dreadlocks” finds Parker moving things a little to the east. Vocalist Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s sharp Indian cadences, mimicked by Rob Brown’s saxophone, sets the stage for jazz of an entirely different flavor — one decorated with a m’bira and an ngoni and is stretched into elongated, droning shapes. Looking at the personnel listed, you would think that this would be a more ‘boppy’ session. It is, but only to a point, and that point arrived very early on “The Giraffe Dances”. Parker’s usual compatriots Cooper-Moore and Hamid Drake may be on board for this session, but the giraffe is not interested in the Newport festival or the Village Vanguard or anything like that. But you probably already knew that.
The third disc may be the most challenging one of the box, and that’s certainly saying something. “Ceremonies for Those Who Are Still” is a ten movement work that combines the NFM Symphony Orchestra with members of the NFM Choir. William Parker dedicated the piece to bassist Rustam “Roost” Abdullaev. The lyrical content of these pieces deals heavily with loss and longing and a quick glance of the lyric sheet inside the box may convince a reader that Parker is being overly dramatic. But this is classical music of the romantic persuasion, a thrust of Debussy on top of lines like “Let all rainbows come now” — say what you will, but you can’t say that it doesn’t fit. The disc wraps up with an unrelated number, “Escapade for Sonny”, a 25-minute jam dedication to Sonny Rollins performed by Parker, saxophonist Charles Gayle, and drummer Mike Reed. To say that this moment truly kicks out the jams is not unlike saying that grass is green.
It’s as if For Those Who Are, Still dropped out of the sky in order to remind us that William Parker is one deathly serious composer. Just when we thought we was relaxing with the funk and with the swing, he unloads a thick slab of contemporary jazz/classical on our toes lest we forget that he knows how to follow the romantics. He’ll probably get back to funking and swinging in no time. Meanwhile, enjoy unraveling the knot that is For Those Who Are, Still.