No Piano No Problem

William Parker Quartet
Petit Oiseau
AUM Fidelity

2008 has been a great year for jazz pianists, with players such as Aaron Parks and Eri Yamamoto putting out recordings of startling originality and vision. But sometimes a piano is the last thing you want to hear. Jazz piano often acts as the ringmaster of the tune, laying out all the harmonies in ten-finger detail, specifying voicings and extensions and therefore defining — or narrowing — the direction in which the music can go. A stranglehold.

And that’s why the late 1950s gave rise to several groups that eschewed a chording instrument altogether. The Gerry Mulligan Quartet featured a rhythm section of only bass and drums, with Mulligan’s baritone saxophone and Chet Baker’s trumpet weaving contrapuntal harmonies over the top. A few years later, Ornette Coleman used the same idea, but his alto sax and Don Cherry’s trumpet were less intent on replacing the piano than on breaking free. Coleman and Cherry often played in a loose — some thought “out of tune” — unison and then soloed with limited regard for “chord changes”, the progression of harmonies in a tune that usually determine what notes should be available in improvising a solo.

Since then, there have been a steady stream of jazz quartets built without a piano or guitar, and each has had to wrestle with legacy of either the Mulligan or the Coleman quartet. In recent months, two exceptional such quartets have released new music — stunning new music. Both quartets have a bass player at the helm, yet their approaches are utterly different — and utterly wonderful.

The William Parker Quartet, Petit Oiseau (Aum Fidelity)

William Parker has been presiding over a downtown music scene for nearly two decades, a New Yorker with roots as the bassist for avant-granddad Cecil Taylor. Plenty of his music is super-free, but his own bass playing has always been grounded and grooving. He is an out-cat with Motown in his meow.

Parker’s quartet, featuring Rob Brown on alto sax, Lewis Barnes on trumpet, and old friend Hamid Drake on drums, is his most accessible and irresistible band. Their first outing in 2000, O’Neal’s Porch, may have been the first great recording of the new century, and their live recording from 2005, Sound Unity, is equally fine. The group has also recorded with vocalist Leena Conquest on Raining on the Moon (2002) and Corn Meal Dance (2007, but as a quintet with pianist Eri Yamamoto).

Petit Oiseau was released in October of this year, and it extends the quartet’s reach and proves how extraordinary the range of a piano-less group can be in jazz. It is more than one of the finest discs of 2008. It is a stellar piece of work, a mind-bender and a finger-popper at once. The title translates as “Little Bird”, and the album cover depicts a hummingbird approaching a cluster of blossoms — a rich suggestion of the nectar that lies inside the music.

The greatness of Parker’s quartet begins with the partnership between Parker and Drake, a rhythm team to rival the finest in jazz history. Their playing is perfectly elastic but never excessive. Where one leads, the other follows, but then it seems like it is the other way around. Their traditional swing is impeccable, but they switch to free time without losing an ounce of joie de vivre. Is there a hint of reggae in their groove? You bet. Would George Clinton or James Brown feel their groove. Ha! What do they do to toes? Make ’em tap. And yet they are also pranksters who surprise you from inside the music at every turn.

Just dig “Shorter for Alan”, which begins with a grooving two-chord vamp in 6/8 time that could have been the bassline on a hit Herbie Hancock song in the 1960s. Parker gives you just what you want. But at the same time, Drake plays the jester, dancing around the groove with syncopations and distractions, fiddling with it, double-timing it, dragging it. Barnes and Brown could settle for being secondary, but their written part is tart and melancholy, played with a mournful tenderness. When the two-part theme is finished, the tune flutters into an a-rhythmic group improvisation, but it has no time to become aimless, as Parker directs traffic from the bottom — a trace of swing here, a ballad feel there, a Mingus-like vocalism everywhere and anywhere.

The opening track is like a statement of indelible purpose. “Groove Sweet” certainly is. The opening section is a funking 8/8 ostinato, hip and catchy. Barnes and Brown play the melody like Ornette and Cherry — with a puckish series of jabs and yelps — but the whole feeling is more down-home by a factor of ten. Even so, in the midst of Brown’s solo, the time moves into a ripping swing, and then Barnes’ solo is set to a stop-start snap. The evolution continues, however on a second theme that is set over an off-kilter groove that hints at Drake’s roots in reggae. Resist it? You can’t. Until the band shifts yet again into a faster groove that lets Drake play with joy until Parker finally just breaks into a walking, galloping swing. Trumpet and alto dive and dip around the flow. It seems incredible to write it, but there is yet one more groove in the song, a slinky, shifting bassline over which the horns play a mysterious unison theme while Drake taps out a back-alley soft shoe.

William Parker Quartet (Photo by Nick Ruechel)

Amidst all this rhythmic joy, it can be easy to miss the wonderful writing that Parker does for the horns. Barnes and Brown are usually given simple themes to play in an array of unisons, harmonies, and counterpoints. But as elemental as this music is, it is usually counter-balanced by surprise: sudden growls and slurs, atonal runs, or fantastical tumbles. As soloists, they are given the formidable task of competing with impeccable groove and arresting melody. For me, they are best as a team, improvising as a pair against the rhythms, curling in and out of each other’s invention. Barnes’ tone is flowing but tart, and he productively stays mostly in the middle register, making surprising interval leaps and using bends and growls in puckish moderation. Brown plays with plenty of freedom, but his tone is often lilting. Even his cries into the upper register have an ease about them. Between the two horn players, there’s just enough substance to balance out the quartet.

The William Parker Quartet takes the piano-less quartet and gives it the silly-putty treatment — twisting it into nearly any shape the musicians choose. Always free but always soulful, the band suggests that it has no limitations.

Mostly Other People Do the Killing, This Is Our Moosic (Moppa Music)

Petit Oiseau is a recording I expected to be great. But This Is Our Moosic, by the tongue-in-cheek renegade quartet Mostly Other People Do the Killing, is the most fun, exciting, and pleasurable surprise of the year. Another quartet with the Coleman Quartet instrumentation, this group has its own sound and its own aesthetic. And it’s a WOW.

The leader is bassist Moppa Elliott. The band also features drummer Kevin Shea, trumpeter Peter Evans, and alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon — who just won this year’s Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition. Also based in New York, MOPDTK is just as stylistically free as Parker’s group, but their vision gives them a wholly unique approach. Mixed with their reverence for the Coleman Quartet is an antic sense of humor and the sonic presence of rock ‘n’ roll. MOPDTK is louder, madder, and more fun.

The name and cover of This Is Our Moosic demonstrates the reverence and humor perfectly. The cover design is a close parody of the design of Coleman’s This Is Our Music, the groundbreaking 1960 LP that was the third in a string of recordings to define jazz in that era. Moppa and his chums dress and pose just like Coleman and his band, with near-identical graphics. “Moosic”, however, is a town in Moppa’s home state of Pennsylvania — and indeed every song on Moosic contains the name of a Keystone State municipality, including the last track, a weird-ass cover of Billy Joel’s hit “Allentown”.

But all the tracks on Moosic are a bit mad. Like William Parker, Moppa is quick to think in rhythmic terms with strong bass lines defining most songs. MOPDTK, however, creates a rhythm section identity that is less pliant than aggressive. “Drainlick” begins with a fat, arpeggiated bass line, no doubt, but Shea’s drums are quick to dig into a rocking punch. The tone is more like the Bad Plus or Electric Masada than it is like Ornette Coleman. This is a jazz quartet with a setting for overdrive — a jazz band that “goes to 11”.

But along with volume and strength, MOPDTK uses wit and a strong dose of down-home jazz history, which makes the band easy and fun as well as edgy. After “Drainlick”‘s beefy opening, the lyrical trumpet solo is over a gentle half-time feel, though it eventually descends into some comical low tones. Irabagon’s solo sounds like it was plucked from a Mingus album, with blues wails of the most authentic kind. “Fagundus” is even more Mingus-y, with delicious blues harmonies and stop-times galore. “Two Boot Jacks” begins with a straight two-step groove, as if Ornette had decided to record some ragtime, but the solos are stratospheric: the alto over a free dash, and the trumpet solo starting unaccompanied and then backing into the raggy groove. All of this musical play is given a sense of energy and fun that the neo-classical preservationists just don’t understand. This is jazz history of a sort, but played with antic glee.

Each member of MOPDTK plays as if his life depends on it. Evans can be economical, but more often he strafes the air with notes, all of them ripe and fat and emphatic. His solos demand attention. Irabagon can have a clean, straight tone, but his range is remarkable: he gets raspy, he overblows, he reaches outside the harmony, he scrambles beyond written rhythm. Shea and Moppa are capable of soloing whenever the feel arises, even while the rest of the band is playing. Shea sounds less like a free jazz drummer than like a wild-eyed kid who just wants to play the coolest things possible at all times. It’s not that he can’t settle into the groove when necessary, but more that he loves to converse with other soloists at their own level.

But for all the fresh-as-tomorrow modernity of this jazz playing, it is always framed by ingenious writing. Every tune on This Is Our Moosic is memorable. “The Bats in Belfry” is a sly waltz that lodges in your ear. “Biggertown” is a hip toe-tapper that combines the “I Got Rhythm” chord changes with several key changes — masking technique with irresistible melody. “East Orwell” has a soulful sound at first, then it morphs into groove that nabs a little disco, a little prog-rock, and a little funk. “My Delightful Muse” is a plain old cooker than could have appeared on a Blue Note circa 1965, but it’s played here with a fragmentary spirit, the solos quickly falling happily off the swing tracks.

Both of these albums offer the finest spirit of jazz today. They look backward for inspiration but forward in every other sense. They are aware of giving the listener a big dose of fun — urgent rhythm, big slabs of blues feeling, melody and invention with hardly any limit — but are also intent on providing a thrill-ride of surprise. William Parker and Moppa Elliott, with their similar quartets, show that a few simple jazz tools can provide a kaleidoscope of sounds. It would be hard to mistake a William Parker Quartet track for a Mostly Other People Do the Killing track — the music is that different despite use of the same instruments.

Neither of these quartets is going to sell millions, or even hundreds of thousands. But, listening to the music and feeling the unabashed heart and fun of it, I can’t help but believe that most people — not just jazz snobs or adventurous listeners — would respond to it if they had the chance.

Give yourself that chance. Petit Oiseau and This Is Our Moosic are the very best that American music has offered in 2008.