Bassist, composer, and scene-maker William Parker has a colossal figure in creative music since the 1970s, particularly as a musician who has defined the sound of New York beyond the mainstream. His range is astonishing, but so is his focus. His recorded output is vast, particularly lately.
Shying away from dealing with it all is understandable. Parker’s recordings as a leader exceed 100 albums, with sideman work—particularly with Cecil Taylor, Charles Gayle, David S. Ware, and Matthew Shipp—easily tripling that figure. How can we begin to grasp it all, particularly when the music ranges from modern jazz to free improvisation, from string quartet to vocal art songs?
Cisco Bradley, a professor at the Pratt Institute and the editor of jazzrightnow.com, has chosen to look at Parker’s legacy dead on, however, with Universal Tonality: The Life and Music of William Parker (Duke University Press, 2021). Bradley’s book is a full-on biography, both personal and musical, that never gets lost in academic jargon. It traces Parker’s influences and early years, demonstrating the power of his exposure to Black artists such as Amira Baraka; the most difficult stages of his musical career, times when he and his partner, the dancer Patricia Nicholson, could barely afford groceries; his early work with jazz giant Cecil Taylor in big band and smaller band settings; and then his own series of bands and collaborations. The book succeeds in its sheer storytelling of a life, through interviews with Parker and his fellow musicians, who consistently connect Parker’s music to his life and to the politics of community.
One comes away from Bradley’s book quite humbled by a journey that seems never to have compromised on creativity or its possibility to bring more justice to the world. The musician that emerges from Universal Tonality is also a poet and a political activist—or maybe it’s clearer to say that we come to see Parker as having erased the lines separating those different roles.
Equally humbling is Parker’s latest recording, The Music of William Parker: Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World, Volumes 1-10 (Centering Records, AUM Fidelity). These ten wholly conceived albums each focus on a single band or performer and concept, presenting ten wildly different refractions of Parker’s musical light beam. All the sessions are from 2019 except as noted below.
Like the sweep of music that appeared in Parker’s three-disc set Voices Falling from the Sky (Centering Records, 2018), most of the music contains a vocal element—and a great deal of this music comes in the form of carefully composed songs with lyrics. For all his bona fides as a “free” music giant, Migration of Silence demonstrates for the umpteenth time that Parker’s music is “free” to be tonal and atonal, composed and improvised, vocal and instrumental, “jazz” and folk music and classical, local and international . . . and mainly that polarities are not useful in analyzing his art. The predominance of vocal elements in Migration of Silence simply signals that all of Parker’s work—whether it includes vocal artists or not—is grounded in the concept of “voice”—that all creative artists draw from inside themselves to put something out into the world. Inevitably, then, he is a musician who incorporates human voices in a kind of democracy with musical instruments.
In sorting out the universe of sound in Migration of Silence, I found it coalescing into a narrative, not unlike the story of Parker’s life that unfolds in Universal Tonality. And it begins with Harlem Speaks, technically the fifth volume of the box set. The six Parker constructions here are defined by his family’s to New York’s Harlem neighborhood and set out by a trio that sounds more connected to the “jazz” tradition than most of the other music in this project. The rhythm section is the classic pairing of Parker on bass with drummer Hamid Drake, who work in limber, swinging tandem to give this session the groove and feel of classic jazz. The singer is Fay Victor, the vocalist who most effortlessly bridges a “classic jazz” sound and rhythmic feel with the liberties—both harmonic and timbral—of free jazz. With Drake and Parker sounding like Max Roach and Tommy Potter and Victor evoking the likes of Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald, the connection to another era is clear. “Dancing at the Savoy” allows Victor to make the simple line “My momma and daddy would meet there” and spin it into a web of throwback blues-scat that sounds particularly free because she is accompanied only by Drake, swinging but as playful as possible. Similarly, “Harlem Dances” gives Victor a lyric containing a string of famous names that she can cast to whatever melody she is feeling.
The second half of the program becomes more varied in sound, however, arguably tracing Parker’s own progression from one tradition to a wider lens of global traditions. “Harlem Speaks” sets up a delicate percussive background of drums and balafon (a percussion instrument similar to a xylophone) over which Victor’s lyrics about how “Harlem lives across the street, in my heart and in my feet” suggest the connection between New York’s African-American high culture and the sounds of Africa herself. Parker plays the three-stringed West African guembri on “Paintings in the Sky”, with Victor shifting her timbre to a breathier, lighter soundspace, with the groove and vocal sound all moving distinctly away from “jazz”, even as the lyrics remain about Harlem. Finally, “Shutters as Windows” features Parker playing the gralla, a wind instrument with a nasal tonality, daring Victor to make her lyric and line that much more raw and responsive.
Individual Voices on Afternoon Poem and Child of Sound
The next “chapter” of the set, for me, is in a pair of recordings on which Parker does not appear except as composer, designed for two distinct solo artists: one a vocalist and the other a pianist. Each is uncluttered and beautiful.
Afternoon Poem is a collection of songs for voice only. If that sounds like a slog, then things are helped enormously by the singer being Lisa Sokolov, whose voice is gentle and warm while also full of pleasing colors. It is also helpful that she is given the chance to multitrack her voice on occasion. “Essence Calling Out” is the prettiest selection, with Sokolov singing wordless chords to add the most lush accompaniment on the the album. More common are forms of counterpoint where she sings multiple lines at once, circling around herself, echoing herself, coming together in unison for a moment then splitting off again, as on “Morning Bird”. Almost all of the 15 songs in this cycle are brief sketches that Sokolov sets spinning by her approach. They are mostly spare, filled with air and empty space that allows the listener to really hear the words: sonic poems. Some are less than a minute, such as “I Believe”, which is just a jabbering round: “I believe / That life goes on / and on and on”. It makes its point and ends in a small burst of beauty. “I Will Die for You” begins wordlessly and then becomes a quick meditation on peace in the Middle East. We see the range of Parker’s concerns in his lyrics, spanning simple pleasures of nature and global conflict.
Child of Sound comes to us without words, a set of compositions (some previously recorded) interpreted only by pianist Eri Yamamoto. There are hymns and gospel pieces, slightly “out” tone poems, swinging blues miniatures, all played with a gracious simplicity. Piano is the instrument we may least associate with Parker—his bands haven’t leaned on it heavily and his short essay for this disc notes that he has “tried to get away from the dominance of European Diatonic music”. At the same time, he writes “I am a melody person”, which both pushes him away from the lush chords that the jazz piano tradition is known for and gives Yamamoto permission to play with a direct line to our hearts.
A touch of Fats Waller and a touch of Thelonious Monk are present in something like “Ascending Earth”, with its drunk-walk stride laced with growling dissonance. And a habanera left-hand bass line on “Broken Promises” connects this minor blues back to Jelly Roll Morton even if it sounds a bit more like an Ahmad Jamal performance. There are also gorgeous ballad sketches here (“Child of Sound”, “Trail of Tears”) that do not rely on the older piano tradition. Some even suggest the kind of folky piano romanticism that some people may associate with Keith Jarrett. But what Yamamoto brings to Parker’s music is not Jarrett’s kind of flash but very much his kind of focus. That is, she makes the piano sing in a highly vocalized way, despite the mechanics of the instrument.
Vocalists Fronting Bands on Blue Limelight, Mexico, Lights in the Rain, and Cheops
Four of the sessions within Migration of Silence are somewhat conventionally configured as vocalists fronting bands. It’s not that simple, of course, as there are long stretches of open improvisation where the vocalists become the equivalent of, say, saxophones. Additionally, the bands are unconventional in format and function. But, even so, there are times when these sessions simply cook like good soul records. And that’s a good thing.
Blue Limelight, recorded in 2018, features the young vocalist Raina Sokolov Gonzalez performing with an ensemble that can hit hard. Gonzalez has a voice that cuts with a significant trace of R&B, and when Jason Kao Hwang plays some Hendrix-esque violin on “Cosmic Funk”, it sounds like Parker has briefly gotten together with George Clinton. There is also some hip oboe playing here from Jim Ferraiuolo, so surprises are everywhere. The rhythm section is supplemented by a trio of violins on most tracks, most of which are somewhat theatrical, drawn from various larger works of the composer, usually with unusual instrumental sounds but largely tonal arrangements. Even the Cecil Taylor-dedicated “Blue Limelight” is a tonal and delicate piece that tells a simple descriptive story—it could almost be a soundtrack to a short film of domestic life, with the transparent piano of Mara Rosenbloom rubbing interestingly again the strings.
The Mexico session features vocalist Jean Carla Rodea, along with a global ensemble from Israel, Mexico, Morocco, and the U.S. This is possibly the most beautiful session in the box, with a unique set of crossing textures: oud, piano, harmonica, drums, brass, and reeds. Parker’s Serbian flute winds through the crosscurrents of “Tilted Mirror” beautifully, with that track settling into a comfortable flamenco groove over time. “Mexico” uses an insistent bass line that connects to the vocal line to create a more throbbing groove, punctuated with brass. “It Is For You” uses a similar tactic, with the central riff coming from the oud and being picked up by harmonica, bass, and vocal—all setting up a strong piano solo from Illay Sebag. Three of the four tracks here are swaying and danceable, filled with global polyrhythms.
Parker has a long connection to dance but is apparently also a film buff. Lights in the Rain (The Italian Directors Suite) consists of ten compositions dedicated to different Italian film auteurs. A reshuffled version of the Mexico band supports vocalist Andrea Wolper, with Illay Sabag’s piano leading a trio along with harmonica, oboe and Parker playing some . . . cornet. Wolper rides over the groove of this band in a manner similar to what is heard on Blue Limelight—a good amount of old-fashioned grooving happens, such as on the strong two-chord vamp that “Fellini” turns into. There is also some of what makes free playing tiresome—”Rossellini” begins with wide open feedly-bip-schkkkchtkty-plooping on vocals, harmonica, and oboe—all of which might have been cut out as an introduction to the intriguing melody that follows. When Wolper is given a fine, dramatic melody to sing, she is wonderful, and the music is, in fact, cinematic—suggesting landscapes and camera movement.
Perhaps the best of these singer/band sessions is Cheops. Kyoko Kitamura sings with and through an ensemble featuring Matt Moran’s vibes, Parker’s bass, tuba, drums, and soprano saxophone. Kitamura’s wordless voice can be harsh or lush, depending on the context, and it often blends with or winds around the soprano (Toronto’s Kayla Milmine-Abbott) in thrilling ways, as on the title track. On “The Map is Precise”, Kitamura blends spoken word and singing in interesting ways, with the chattering band playing pretty behind her in a somewhat Threadgill-ian manner.
21st Century Vocal Art: The Majesty of Jah
Ironically, the session here that could only have been produced in the new century is the oldest one in the box set—recorded in 2010. The Majesty of Jah features Parker songs that were produced and largely sung by Ellen Christi, with Parker also appearing as a “live” acoustic musician amidst sample, beats, and electronic sounds. “Freedom” may be the most dynamic track, with sampled performances by a band interlacing with spoken word and wordless vocal improvising. But the larger elements of The Majesty of Jah comes from its use of layered samples, with Parker’s bass, the trumpet of Jalalu-Kalvert Nelson, or Christi’s voice tying it together. “Baldwin” is the other standout track, built on a sample of James Baldwin speaking. Baldwin’s buzzing tenor is immediately identifiable as music in and of itself.
Purely Instrumental Music Across the Spectrum: The Fastest Train and Manzanar
For music without voices, Parker features two additional sessions that use distinctly different tools but are otherwise joined in purpose and strategy. One is a trio for a series of globally diverse flutes and percussion, and the other is an album performed largely by the Universal Tonality String Quartet. Both recordings create a loose, chattering dialogue among a group of musicians using similar timbres. The effect in both cases is a weave, looser or tighter in different moments. The flutes and the strings both shimmer and scrape with pulsing interest.
On The Fastest Train, Parker plays a series of wind and percussion instruments along with Coen Aalberts and Klaas Hekman, both musicians from Rotterdam. These are trios of great delicacy and hush, the three improvisors leaving each other space and listening with a gentle care, in a world music tradition that seems not to be tied to any single culture. Unlike most Western music, of course, the trio is improvising without a linear/repeating harmonic framework—a set of “chord changes”—which opens up the space without necessarily making it atonal. Tonal centers are established and maintained, as the performances on Fastest Train are mostly brief.
Manzanar might come with a different set of expectations, as the string quartet format suggests Western form. True to Parker’s personal form, however, the violin/violin/viola/cello group mostly works in a chattering manner with a brief core of written material from which improvisation grows. “Lakota Song” is the most focused track, with the cello playing a repeated pizzicato line that functions as a grooving bass line over which the conversation takes place. “Charcoal Paragraphs” set up in loose waltz time, the instruments all seeming to have written melodies that are not firmly coordinated, making the ensemble sound blurry even before the collective improvising begins. The title track is the one that sounds most “classical”, with written parts that work in a coordinated way and hang together for a longer stretch, creating some sense of harmonic direction. But, even here, Parker allows these fretless instruments to be played with microtonal variation, suggesting non-Western traditions (and the blues tradition). The composer appears on “Khaen”, playing wind instruments in a series of disruptive blasts, and Daniel Carter adds seductive alto saxophone lines to the box set’s final track, the 21-minute “On Being Native”.
This last composition may be the most carefully notated and arranged piece on all of Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World. I almost feel guilty for loving it so—because it is both extremely tonal, relatively traditional in the Western classical tradition and, in places, the jazz tradition too, with a walking bass line supporting a horn lick. It is, to one extent or another, “proof” that Parker can hang with the tradition and make it sound good, even though it still sounds so much like Parker’s aesthetic too: ambling, soulful, sincere. This is the string quartet music that might be written by the guy who made the great jazz quartet album O’Neal’s Porch, for sure.
And that may be true of most of Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World, really. The Parker we learn about in Cisco Bradley’s biography of Parker is not a prankster or a rebel: he the most sincere kind of artist, trying to reach the maximum number of listeners he can without compromising his sense of heartfelt honesty. That sincere impulse is shot throughout these ten new albums of music: William Parker is coming for your heart and soul, but he’s doing it without wanting to sell you anything inorganic. Mainly he wants to sell you on the idea that the human heart and its voice—including yours—are universal and gorgeous if we all just get an equal shot.