Two slightly different quartets led by bassist William Parker, each ferociously swinging and free, to breathe life into your listening.
When Ornette Coleman made his impact around 1960, his music was dubbed “free jazz” largely because he invited his bands to improvise “freely” in terms of pitch, not necessarily locked in by the harmonic forms of his tunes. It was considered revolutionary at the time -- heresy even. But, in the retrospect, his music wasn’t that crazy. He wrote beautiful tunes and, despite recording without piano or guitar for years, they usually had lovely harmonic structures. Rhythmically, his bands sounded pretty much like bebop bands. Goodness knows, they swung like mad, with Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, Charlie Haden and the like in charge of cooking beneath the horns.
William Parker’s wonderful quartets have worked this territory for the last few decades with equally joyous results. While Parker’s bands indulge in long rubato sections where the rhythm is non-standard and play adventurously with complex clashes of time signatures, their default setting remains a muscular if pliant swing. These bands also cook like mad -- and they are not playing the angular, almost mathematical rhythms of the New Jazz. Parker’s feel has historic roots.
Meditation/Resurrection is a two-disc set that features two different quartets, each marvelous in its own way. Like all of the William Parker quartets, these bands are bathed in deep, exuberant swing, they express singing and memorable melodies, and they practice a devotion to improvising from the core of the song and the soul rather than “by the numbers” of the chords. Happily, all the improvisors in these two bands are up to the task.
Both quartets here include Parker’s elastic and vocal acoustic bass, paired with his longtime partner on drums, Hamid Drake. They are hand-in-glove, peanut-butter-jelly, whatever is your metaphor for Belonging Together. Also in both bands is alto saxophonist Rob Brown, who always seems to be launching into the most interesting part of his solo. He plays with a rich tone and an allegiance to the blues that connects him to the tradition that stretches from Johnny Hodges to Oliver Lake. A trio with this instrumentation might be enough, but this collection brings in two catalyst musicians to take the music in particular directions.
The first quartet is rounded out by trumpeter and composer Jalalu-Kalvert Nelson. He is almost totally unknown (not just to me but to Google as well), a resident of Switzerland since 1994 by way of Oklahoma City and Indiana University. What we hear within the confines of this recording is fascinating, however. Nelson is a skilled motivic improvisor, able to work over a nugget of melody from different angles, both rhythmic and harmonic. He doesn’t fly around his horn but, rather, takes his time trying this approach, that approach, maybe a third. I like his patience.
On “Leaves/Rain” Nelson uses his Harmon mute, and he jabs at the tune for a moment before catching a sweet ride on Parker’s bass line which hops in and out of a swinging waltz time. On “Handsome Lake” he gets a cool, strolling theme to play with, though there’s enough funk in it to give him a proper push. He bats ideas back and forth for a while and then its him who pushes the rhythm section into a more hard-fought swing section. Nelson opens “Horace Silver part 1” with an improvisation in duet with Drake only. The theme emerges only at the end, but the solos are where it’s at.
The highlight of the first quartet’s program is the last track, “Give Me Back My Drum”, which uses Nelson’s brass tone to give the listener harmonized stabs followed by a shaken theme that matches Drake’s Afro-Cuban/swing combination. Nelson mixes it up nicely, but Rob Brown steals the show, swinging without a single cliche, constantly pushing the rhythm while being always surprising.
In fact, though it was fun getting to know Nelson somewhat, it is Brown who is most compelling soloist. When he is playing over just the rhythm section, his tone and his note choices prevent you from ever missing another color in the band. At the end of “Drum”, he pushes Nelson to ecstatic heights and brings the recital to a fitting end. Nelson’s sound, to my ear, is so much less interesting. He is defined by his note choices and his musical thinking, but it’s Brown who simply plays one note and gains your interest.
The second quartet (called In Order to Survive) is one of the best in Parker’s discography. It adds pianist Cooper-Moore, of whom my ears can’t get enough. Cooper-Moore (the names of his maternal grandmothers, by the way) is a master who played a key role in New York’s jazz scene in the 1970s and then again since he returned to the city for good in 1985, playing with Parker, David S. Ware, Bill Cole, Gerald Cleaver, and others. But he is utterly his own — also a builder of instruments, a composer for dance and film, a hero to some of the young musicians who dazzle me the most.
Though these two quartet dates were recorded on the same day, in the same studio, it’s this session with Cooper-Moore that keep luring me back, full of inspiration and complexity.
On the piano, playing with Parker, Cooper-Moore simply takes over the band to my ears. Why? Because he plays every part of the music. He’s a drummer, a strummer or harmonies, a melodic force, an orchestra. “Sunrise in East Harlem” finds Cooper-Moore laying down the simplest of two-chord vamps with a gentle touch but -- as Parker plays an emotional solo with his bow -- he varies it, gives it depth, and makes the simple into something rich and complex. Brown plays a solo that seems premised on the intriguing voicings being fed in by Cooper-Moore, and then Parker joins again on his bow to make it a collective improvisation. Finally, the pianist breaks through to create a mysterious landscape, mostly on his own. Rather than a “solo”, it is like a series of nudges, gestures, and elisions that are more musical than 10,000 notes by almost anyone else.
Cooper-Moore is equally essential to the rest of the tracks here. “Some Lake Oliver” doesn’t have a defined melody but a four-note bass lick in 5/4 (and, sometimes, 6/4) that defines it tonally and rhythmically. Brown is soulful throughout, with Cooper-Moore as his sparring partner. “Things Falling Apart” stretches out over 18 minutes, fully improvised for all but (maybe) its last two. “Urban Disruption” is a tense but funky theme set over a suspended 3-over-2 feeling. Brown runs patterns over the groove that bring to mind Charlie Parker, but it is the pianist who more completely converses with Parker and Drake as he improvises with a ravishing kind of ecstasy.
“Orange Winter Flower” is the most intricate composition on either disc, with a detailed piano part, a set groove, and defined melody for Brown. As the performance develops over almost 13 minutes, the structure slowly gives way to variations, decay, elaboration, and mutation. But the original structure seems to put all the musicians on notice that this is a composition against which to push, pressure, and find limits. By the four-minute mark. all four members of the band are improvising freely, but not without frequent references to the composition, though there are no “chord changes” over which to play, restricting note choices or set rhythms. Just as the band is reaching total liberation, Cooper-Moore starts bringing back a piano lick from the composition, and you expect a full reprise. But the improvising continues onward until the melody returns in a different form that at first — quieter, less insistent, more beautiful.
And that might legitimately be the theme of these quartet recordings: that time changes everything, music included (or especially?). Rather than theme-variation-theme, William Parker’s performances seem like living things: birth, growth, maturity, decay. The cliche is real -- they are organic.
All of the music works because of “time” in a different sense. Parker and Drake are utterly wonderful as they create a platform that is based on every kind of swing. As improvisors, they take “solos”, but more often they are simply improvising within the framework of the band. They are the stars of these performances as much as the horns and piano that feel like center stage. They are the primeval soup from which the “organic” music grows.
As long as you have a taste for some daring harmonic work, this is truly live-giving music.