Soul Food is pianist Christopher Parker’s debut album, but that doesn’t mean he’s a rookie. He’s spent 30 years being a sideman for many live bands and has only recently gotten around to forming his own little group. And what a group it is. Calling themselves the Band of Guardian Angels, there is Parker’s wife Kelley Hurt on vocals, Daniel Carter on saxophone, flute, and trumpet, Jamie Branch on trumpet, William Parker on bass, and Gerald Cleaver on drums. “I picked the players I did on purpose,” explains Christopher Parker in the liner notes, though he hardly needs to justify himself. When you have the connections to make a supergroup happen, why wouldn’t you use them?
That doesn’t make Soul Food an easy listen. If you are unaccustomed to free jazz, then your ear could use a little stretching before pressing play. The moment “Guardian Angels” begins, it’s as though you’ve opened the door to a free jam session already in progress. As Cleaver rolls over his snare and William Parker saws away with his bow, Christopher Parker is playing an impossibly intricate melody that, against all odds, repeats itself to demonstrate its deliberate nature (just like Cecil Taylor). With only three instruments playing in the first few seconds, a storm has already brewed. When Hurt’s vocals make an entrance, it’s clear that her voice serves as another instrument alongside Carter and Branch rather than a vehicle for lyrics. Her sustained moans make for a good match with the flute and trumpet, seeing as how none of them are going crazy like the rhythm section still is. Christopher Parker and one of the trumpets then lock into a contrary motion that lets him perform rapidly ascending trills. One trumpet solos with a mute and the other one without, creating an eye for the storm.
“Morning Ritual” is tranquil in dynamics but tense in interplay. Starting with William Parker on the shakuhachi flute, Hurt enters the picture but does a spectacularly confounding job of singing quietly but still at full force. The simmer gradually turns to a boil as the two trumpets play off one another’s non-musical utterances, and Christopher Parker’s piano contributes to the harmonic tension. Under other circumstances, “Over Your Own Two Feet” would not feel like a release to said tension, but on Soul Food, that’s what you get. Naturally, it doesn’t stay that way for long. The longer the track lasts, the more the dynamics build and build. Things don’t exactly go wild, instead opting to build a sturdy framework for Christopher Parker to play seemingly every note he can in a given space.
At seven-and-a-half minutes, the title track is the shortest one here. William Parker is back on the shakuhachi flute while Christopher Parker scrapes his fingers over the piano strings. Cleaver turns his attention to cymbal swells, creating a nebulous foundation for everyone to do whatever they feel like doing. From there, “Soul Food” is the sound of everyone simultaneously searching for purpose, unity, and resolution. They find it together many times over, but that doesn’t stop them from pushing ahead some more. “Truth and Fiction” follows as the longest track at 15 minutes, closing out the album. Cleaver solos for about a minute before bringing Carter and Christopher Parker in to paint the available space with broad strokes. Branch, for her part, relies on more traditional melodic figures because using her horn as means for hollow breaths and barely-buzzed utterances (just like Natsuki Tamura). Overall, the song finds Soul Food wrapping up in a subtler way than its mad opener.
Soul Food is an impressive if not totally compelling album. There was a lot of freedom and excitement that went into making it, and there is a chance they might be lost on some listeners who prefer to have their jazz take a more conventional shape. On a technical level, it’s impressive that jazz this free can be played with so much restraint. Christopher Parker hammers away most of the time, but it’s Carter, Branch, and especially Hurt who have perfected the art of playing it close to the chest while dishing it out at high energy. That is the main takeaway here. Aside from that, Soul Food is a stepping stone for Christopher Parker in finding his voice as a bandleader.