AND OUT AND BOTH AT ONCE [A
Listener's Guide to O'NEAL'S PORCH]
William Parker is not only one of the world's most accomplished and creative bass players, he is one of the great melody makers, song writers, of our time. In song after song on this CD, through the sheer beauty of his sweet melodies, his bubbling, effusive, good humor and the energizing, life-affirming, great joy that infuses everything here, William gives us the gift of his love for us and for the world. As pianist and composer Cooper-Moore says, "William is like Duke Ellington to us; he's like Mingus, even beyond that because neither Mingus nor Duke had the compassion William has." (50 Miles of Elbow Room, Issue #1)And it is compassion and love that drives this album forward--that and the killer rhythm section!
Which brings up the drummer on this date: Hamid Drake. Lewis Barnes, the trumpeter here, says," William and Hamid play together like twins separated at birth! No two guys can better anticipate each other's musical moves than these two men, and on top of it all they play in and out better than anyone and at the same time!" Or put another way, Hamid Drake takes in with him when he goes out. In short, the propulsive force of Hamid's drumming means that no matter how far out a solo may go, it always swings. Louisiana-born, Chicago-based, Hamid Drake, who is in constant demand as a Reggae drummer--and when you listen to him on this album you'll hear why--has been playing regularly with William only since 1998, yet it seems like they've been together for years. When a drummer who is as great a time keeper as Hamid is gets in a situation where he is free to go outside time you get the best of both measured and free playing.
In front of this rhythm section stand two soloists: alto saxophonist, Rob Brown, and trumpeter, Lewis Barnes. Rob Brown has never sounded better; his playing here is full of passion and confidence. As Lewis Barnes says, "I don't know what Rob Brown had for breakfast the day of this recording but he played like a man possessed." Lewis Barnes, if he weren't so modest, could have said the same thing about himself. Again and again Barnes's playing here makes me think of Kenny Dorham, yet Lewis's tone is rounder and fuller than Dorham's was, less angular, thus adding yet another element to the warmth and sweetness of the tunes on this album. Lewis's self-effacing, almost reticent, way of playing adds, in its quiet way, great dignity and richness to these tunes. And Rob and Lewis together make a sound sublime. Again and again here, they play together as if the alto saxophone and the trumpet had been recast into a single instrument. Call it an altompet. Miles and Cannonball played the altompet too, lots of other players have, but none any better than Lewis and Rob.
PURPLE, the opening tune, and perhaps the hardest swinging number on the CD, begins with a statement of the melody line, then a little ensemble improvisation, then Rob Brown's solo, then back to Rob and Lewis and off to Lewis's solo. These players pass the tune between each other as effortlessly as a well rehearsed 400 meter relay team. Hear also how closely they keep to the melody in their improvisations. No matter how far out they go, they always carry with them fragments of the head. Lewis concludes his solo and passes the baton to Hamid. Very quickly William enters playing the Talking Drum. William begins by responding to a figure Hamid has just played, and off those two go. All four then back in, some ensemble flights of fancy, and back to the head twice through and fade out on the retard.
SUN opens with a figure in the alto similar to the one in PURPLE, yet this is a totally different tune. Bass intro, drums in, the simple six note figure of the melody in the alto, trumpet in playing quarter notes under the alto, then trumpet and alto together working out on the head. Now off to the solos. First Lewis's sweet, legato trumpet solo. There is no rush here. This is thoughtful, pensive, graceful improvising, and Lewis always staying close to the melody. Rob's alto solo is more out and away from the head than Lewis's. Back now to the head, alto and trumpet together. Then William's rich, deep pizzicato solo and Hamid always there keeping the groove going. William out and Hamid into a very brief outside drum interlude, William back in and back to the melody again for all four, repeating the original theme with delicacy and grace.
William's Uncle O'Neal who lived in South Carolina must have been a wonderful guy with a great sense of humor. I wish I could have sat on O'NEAL'S PORCH. After the bass and drum intro, there's that wonderful altompet to begin this good natured tribute to William's Uncle. Rob's solo here goes further out than is customary for this album, but his brilliant flights of imagination are always rooted in the groove-heavy, dancing bass and drums. It's this combination of in and out, and both at once, that makes this tune, and all the other tunes on this album so remarkable. Listen to the bass line--William playing dance rhythms--as always--and Hamid's in-the-groove drumming accentuating, driving forward William's joy. Now Lewis; that rich and luxurious tone; those thoughtful phrases, adding up to sentences, paragraphs, a statement of his own. Then a bass solo, and a drum solo. And then all four go out, out there in the front yard in front of O'Neal's Porch and dance in the yard. Then, as with all the tunes on this album, back to the head and out with all the joy and good humor imaginable.
RISE begins with William's bass line walking down the street, that steady, determined, even stride of his, then Hamid in, playing on the rims, then the altompet again, then an ensemble dissembling in which Lewis even plays the call to the horses, yet as always when the players go out they take the in of both the melody and the rhythm with them. And also as always in the cacophony of the ensemble improvisation there is William holding everything together and at the same time driving everything forward. Then arco bass under Hamid's solo evolving into a quiet, introspective section full of space and emptiness out of which William's walking bass line emerges again and leads the four players back to the head and out.
The bitter-sweet, touchingly beautiful ballad, SONG FOR JESUS, opens with the melody on alto and Harmon muted trumpet. Rob is at his lyrical, yearning best here in his solo, while Lewis's meditative and muted trumpet provides just the right foundation for Rob's explorations. Opposing tempos in Hamid's brushes on the drum heads and William's bass create a rhythmic counterpoint against which the soloists play. Lewis's solo is especially poignant and all the more so because William and Hamid engage in an up tempo dialogue, inspiring each other ever onward, right in the middle of Lewis's meditation which takes place at half the tempo of the bass and drums. Then, as usual, back to the tender and sweet melody and out. Here, as elsewhere on this album, William's great gift as a melody maker provides the foundation for these melodic and rhythmic flights.
LEAF is the story of a day in the life of William Parker. The tune begins with William's bass line walking down the street, that usual, determined, focused walk of his. Hamid comes in, then Rob and Lewis, their horns--the altompet--the horns of the city--blaring and crashing in the welter and confusion, the energy and excitement--and the distraction--of the city. Yet plowing though all that hustle and chaos, is the determined William Parker intent on going somewhere with that steady, focused walk and his calm, undistracted manner--that ten note figure in William's bass. While the sounds of the city crash and bang all around him, William moves steadily on, not oblivious to the life around him, but rather totally within that life, yet always focused on his own life also, always listening for the music coming from The Tone World. William Parker is a black, urban, Zen monk, a roshi, a self-possessed, yet completely modest and humble just-another-one-of-us, and therefore someone able to be fully outside himself and attentive to the world. William Parker is, as Christians would say, "totally in but not of the world." As he moves through the weltering swirl, he is the point of reference, the inner eye, the stillness at the center of the storm.
SONG FOR JESUS 3/4, a reprise of the sweet ballad, up tempo now and the rhythm in three/quarter time, the melody in four/four. Lewis's muteless trumpet retains its lyrical sweetness as it lags slightly behind Rob's inventions, each soloist's distinct personality defining itself in relation to the melody, and as always Hamid and William propelling it all forward.
MOON--up tempo and swinging--opens with that altompet sound as smooth as it's ever been. Here as throughout this date Lewis's trumpet makes a somewhat spare, almost reticent, statement compared to the fullness of Rob's improvisations. Here also, as elsewhere, Lewis stays closer to the melody than Rob does. Then it's out with that wonderful altompet sound again.
Each player in this group is a distinct individual with inclinations and ways of playing all his own. Each man knows musically exactly who he is, and all four men are radically different from each other. Because of their distinctive personalities and their differences, they make together a new song of great beauty. Here then is the debut album of The William Parker Quartet, four men and eight tunes packed full of all the groove and sweet soul of Reggae, the crackle and snap of Hard Bop, and the emotional intensity and outside flights of imagination of what some people call Free Jazz. This music, however, is beyond category. This is simply joyful and compassionate music full of love for this world. And, oh, my, does it swing!
Lewis Barnes summed it up better than I ever could when he said, "I felt so excited by everyone's playing that I felt just as thrilled as a musical fan as I did as a musician on this date. These cats play!" Indeed they do.
DAVID BUDBILL is a poet and a playwright. Find out more about him at: www.davidbudbill.com