Photo courtesy of AUM Fidelity via Bandcamp

William Parker Swings and Plays on Jazz’s Edge with ‘Live/Shapeshifter’

On Live/Shapeshifter, William Parker goes way back to Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus in muscular swing and melodic grace while still seeming to play out on the edge.

William Parker / In Order to Survive
AUM Fidelity
5 July 2019

For the first 50 years of its lineage, jazz usually had a couple of camps: traditional and some music that was more out there. The older musicians, the guardians of the tradition, were suspicious of the new stuff, which was usually stretching the boundaries of the music, bending or broadening the rules of the game toward more freedom. The New Orleans players had reason to be unsure of the swing bands. The big band players and New Orleans veterans thought that bebop just “wasn’t jazz”. So-called “Third Stream” music in the 1950s didn’t swing enough, and when Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor started to play with genuine dissonance in the late 1950s and 1960’s, no less a forward thinker than Miles Davis accused the music of being no good.

Today, these simple dualities have been left behind. There may still be camps or rivalries, sure. But older music or styles are no longer the “traditional” ones, with the younger players stretching or eliminating the rules. The New Jazz is built on elaborate systems in many cases (more rules, at least in isolated pockets). Harmonic freedom can be tied to exacting grooves, or harmonic clarity can be wedded to an approach with no set rhythm. Any sense of linear progression in the art form ended by 1965 or so.

So, in 2019, we can enjoy a double-disc set from a band that is a quarter-century old that plays music rooted in a tradition that goes back 30 years before that. And yet that band can still sound wonderfully part of the vanguard.

Bassist William Parker, a critical figure in New York’s downtown scene for three decades, created the band In Order to Survive in 1993, with alto saxophonist Rob Moore and pianist Cooper-Moore. The drum chair has shifted some (Denis Charles, Suzy Ibarra) but, with Hamid Drake now in place, the band sports one of the premier rhythm sections on the continent. The band’s new recording, Live/Shapeshifter, catches the quartet doing what Parker’s bands have done for so long: creating pliant and propulsive improvised music that uses relatively brief written themes to inspire searching improvisation. More often than not, the music is not a string of individual “solos” but a group improvisation during which listening, conversation, and texture are just as important as the idea that one musician is out front, baring his soul or telling a story.

The concert recording comes in two episodes of five acts each. The first is a five-part suite, “Eternal is the Voice of Love”, that cycles through different moods and degrees of structure. The second uses four different themes, with transitions, including the band’s eponymous theme song.

The suite opens with a 20-minute free improvisation that is a thesis statement for what this band has been preaching for decades: musical democracy that doesn’t suffer from being open. Though it never establishes anything like tempo or pace, preferring to move in the form of free time that allows Drake to play in musical phrases rather than a groove, there is always something swinging. Cooper-Moore plays in gestures here, clusters of notes or swirls, tumbles of phrases rather than articulated melodic lines, but he is an architect, setting up a foundation. Rob Moore plays his alto saxophone equally freely, but in a manner that lends a clear voice to the collective.

Each successive part of the suite—while also improvised in the moment—is more clearly structured. “Part 2” sets up a cracking but irregular groove for Drake. The solos here are passed off from Moore to Cooper-Moore, then into an established bass line from Parker that tames Drake’s groove into something almost like a boogaloo. “Part 3” grows out of that groove, with Parker walking a bass line even as Cooper-Moore invents a childlike sing-song tune for single notes in his upper register. This sound melts into a silence, from which Parker emerges with his flute, playing a melody that hints at “Amazing Grace”—fragile and fluttering, as the band colors around him. The rejoinder, then, in “Part 4”, is a duet of dazzling daring between piano and alto, with Cooper-Moore playing a fast walking bass line with his left hand as his right answers the speedy saxophone splashes of response. Moore plays with vocalized joy, swinging as well, but freely. Half-way through, Parker and Drake replace the piano, even as the walking drive continues, which eventually frees up Cooper-Moore to join into the linear improvising.

The coda to the suite, in “Part 5”, is a trembling thing, with Parker playing a shivering tremolo on his bass, which eventually turns into a quiet dialogue for bowed bass and saxophone. It slowly evaporates.

The second half of this concert consists of four Parker compositions from the band’s book. Its theme song, “In Order to Survive”, is rendered in a nearly 15-minute version that certainly sounds like a manifesto. The band swings in a forceful, deep 4/4 that evokes Duke Ellington’s groove as much as it sounds like Ornette Coleman’s first great band. Drake and Parker walk a simple but compelling four-chord pattern that repeats every bar. In doing so, they set Rob Moore free to play an exceptionally vocalized blues solo that just keeps regenerating its power. The chant “in order to survive, you gotta keep hope alive” repeats through the improvisation in endless variation, creating a sense of (slightly goofy) counterpoint as Moore keeps spinning his variations.

The highlight of so many of these performances is the interplay between saxophone and piano. Parker creates themes that are often simple motifs that repeat, turning in circles, and this gives Moore and Cooper-Moore the chance to echo each other playfully. “Newark (for Grachan Moncur III)” features a repeated, descending three-note motif, and Cooper-Moore begins quietly and amplifies his responses as the theme evolves. This is also the pianist’s most thrilling improvisation of the concert, reversing the written motif by starting with a repeated line that rises and then continuing to develop more and more variations that follow this rising pattern. Eventually, Cooper-Moore returns to the written melody, briefly, only to begin a more wild, expressionist section of the improvisation, letting the rhythm section fall apart around him as he plays in gestures.

As with so many Parker projects, it is Cooper-Moore who makes the most out of freedom because he works, intuitively, with a sense of constant structure. There is something inherently tonal and organized about his playing, even when he is not required to color within the lines. As a result, he can and does slip easily from wild flights of harmonic and melodic daring back into a sense of direction. And this approach beautifully mirrors the rhythmic attitude of the rhythm section. These are free jazz mavericks who delight in old stand-by joys of blues and swing. On “Demons Lining the Halls of Justice”, one of those simple, repeated-lick tunes of Parker’s, Cooper-Moore is the player who takes it into true lift-off, but every note he plays during his feature references the melody or the carefully crafted accompanying figure that is part of the theme. He is arguably the Thelonious Monk of his generation: always playing the heart of the performance rather than just showing off his ability to fly.

On “Demons”, we also get Drake at his best. He plays with a defined purpose, not swinging in a straight manner but marrying a rock-solid sense of funk and groove with the freedom to accent daringly. He is both explosive and orchestral, particularly on the second of Cooper-Moore’s solos, where he combines pressure rolls, subtle cymbal work, sudden snare bombs, and a set of gorgeous Afro-Cuban rattles and clicks into a landscape that suggests—yet again—how the world of supposed “free jazz” and old school swing-based music connect to contemporary music. Hip-hop grooves also turn off-kilter explosion into something danceable, right?

Finally, the concert ends on a beautiful ballad, “Eternity”. This is a tune that reminds us that Parker has been a leading light in this music for reasons beyond his playing or his leadership of bands that can jam so well on the border of tonality and freedom. The melody is gorgeous, begging for words (not uncommon in Parker’s world), with Brown’s alto mixing with Parker’s bowed bass to carve it in octaves and breathtaking harmony. Cooper-Moore and Drake color it as if they were Ahmad Jamal and Paul Motian. Your ears tingle because no flights of wild fancy are necessary for a complete experience. Parker writes with concision, yes, but not everything is a catchy riff.

Live/Shapeshifter is another standard outing from one of Parker’s small bands. You could argue that he’s made enough of these recordings to last a lifetime. But part of Parker’s legacy is that his stake in the ground still holds over decades. He goes way back to Ellington and Mingus in muscular swing and melodic grace while still seeming to play out on the edge. It’s a balancing act that deserves to keep reminding us where this music can be most compelling.

RATING 7 / 10