William Parker does nothing on a small scale. The celebrated contemporary jazz bassist and composer has been releasing numerous albums each calendar year and each one is just as expansive as the last in sound and quantity. Of the three albums he released in 2021, one of them, Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World, was ten CDs long. His personnel are always stuffed with A-list talent willing to take his challenges head-on, creating singularly monumental slabs of free jazz that would either delight or frustrate anyone willing to set aside the time and mental effort to take the plunge into any one of the most recent works. Universal Tonality is the title that biographer Cisco Bradley chose for his book on Parker’s life and work and it’s the title of Parker’s latest double album, a recording he has been holding onto in his back pocket for just about 20 years now. It’s a surprising reminder that one can enjoy a high-minded concept even if they don’t fully understand its meaning.
Universal Tonality isn’t so much a large-scale composition as it is a 110-minute blob of music that somehow came into being through cloudy circumstances. Parker is credited as composer for these six movements, but his liner notes suggest that he’s willing to dish out unofficial credit to the other 16 musicians who participated, albeit in his own little abstract way: “There is a gentle breeze blowing through the window. A feather floats in on the gentle air stream. When the feather touches the ground, the music begins. Nothing is said. There are no keys, no chord changes, modes, or notations.” Is Parker taking poetic license, or did a feather really blow through a window of the Roulette TriBeCa on the evening of 14 December 2002? Do venues in New York keep their windows open in mid-December?
Enough about that, let’s focus on what’s important, like having trombonist Steve Swell and guitarist Joe Morris in the same room, reedist Daniel Carter and drummer Gerald Cleaver being in the same room, Leena Conquest’s inimitable vocal presence, and the inclusion of the late Billy Bang, the violinist visionary who suffered an untimely death at age 63. That barely scratches the surface of the personnel, though Parker gives each individual a generous amount of ink and support in the liner notes. If you don’t know anything about the komungo or the koto, Parker’s got you covered as he describes the instruments and heaps praise onto Jin Hi Kim and Miya Masaoka.
Universal Tonality is comprised of six tracks, some with cryptic parentheticals, like “Cloud Texture (death has died today)” and “All Entrances (it is for you the sun rises)”. The shortest song is ten minutes long. While the listener certainly is free to drop in at any old place in this double album, Universal Tonality is best experienced holistically. While a lengthy free jazz album with spoken verse that mentions mustard and name drops Coleman Hawkins are nestled into titles with subheadings that say things like “[t]he blankets are full of sadness” may sound pretentious, but here’s the thing – it’s not. It doesn’t have to be. Switch off the analytical side of your mind from the beginning, and you will be pleasantly overpowered by sound.
Being such a long listen, Universal Tonality doesn’t dwell in one place for too long. There are moments of Ornette Coleman-inspired racket, quietly taut moments of simmering action, and nearly everything in between. “Cloud Texture”, the lengthiest track at 31 minutes, packs the most sound and dynamic variety into the mix. Conversely, the opener “Tails of a Peacock” features only Swell on trombone, Parker on bass, and Jerome Cooper on percussion. But whether the sound is being filled by three musicians or 17 musicians, it’s all performed in the same spirit of freedom and musical telepathy. With William Parker, it’s in for a penny, in for a pound.
Whether or not Universal Tonality winds up being one of Parker’s most significant works isn’t the best way to evaluate it. Instead, put it on and take note of how it speaks to you. If it confuses or agitates you, save it for another day. If even a fraction of it starts to excite you, you could be on to something. Parker has written and recorded so much music over the decades that it’s becoming impossible to stack them up against one another. One objective fact remains, and that is that holding on to Universal Tonality for 20 years is borderline crazy.