by carl wilson

William Parker: The Mayor Comes to Town

William Parker. Photo by Francesca Pfeffer.

Any genre where reissues get attention ahead of new work and there are more students of the form than listeners has to provoke worries over its continued health, and for the first time in my life, in the mid-2Ks, I'm starting to feel more sympathy with the "jazz is dead" crowd when it comes to instrumental, improvisation-based jazz. Not that there's not great work in the field, and "dead" is always a ridiculous formulation - music mutates, branches, burrows, migrates, but forms almost never really terminate. But it's hard not to feel that jazz as a popular form, as a non-academic music, is in a pickle; its feeding currents (whether in dance, song interpretation or identity-remolding experimentation) are mostly turning other wheels, in electronic music (including hip-hop and remixing), non-jazz-based-improv, noise and other hybrid forms. Which would be fine except that it's happened less consciously than it might, so some of the electricity of jazz's legacy and knowledge is leaking out of the code along the way. (One of the reasons I was such a partisan of the Anthony Braxton-Wolf Eyes live CD was that it seemed to resist that dispersion.) The upheavals in the Toronto jazz scene - venerable clubs collapsing, new ones seeming uncertain in their identities - haven't helped my mood on the subject - which is probably a temporary one, but it's a question that's on my mind.

One of the few developments in the past couple of years that's helped to stave off such pessimism has been the Interface series staged by improv-community group AIM Toronto (whose founding has also been very encouraging). Interface has brought guests such as Lori Freedman from Montreal, Wilbert Dejoode from the Netherlands, Stephen Grew from the UK, Joe McPhee from the U.S. and many others to collaborate with members of the Toronto improvising scene. It's inspiring to see the effect of these more experienced players on the local ones, to see people learning and stretching and reconnecting with a global tradition in real time, undoing the isolation that it sometimes feels afflicts the scope and ambition of the music here. It's a reminder of the potent informal processes that helped jazz's place in the previous century remain so compelling for so long, that helped it spread and change as a vernacular music, an oral culture.

The incarnation of Interface taking place this week is likely to be a pinnacle in that process. The guest is New York's William Parker, a figure whose ubiquity, artistry and immensity of spirit has been a binding agent, an essential ingredient in the glue that's held the jazz-improv tradition together in the past few decades. For those who don't know Parker's work, a quick survey: He was best-known from the early 1970s through the 1980s as a sideman with Cecil Taylor (though he also played with artists such as Frank Lowe, Don Cherry, Billy Bang, Jemeel Moondoc, Charles Gayle and Peter Brotzmann) but in the later part of that period he started playing with the likes of David S. Ware and Matthew Shipp, who helped drive the 1990s renaissance in free jazz that took over from the John Zorn/Knitting Factory "downtown" scene (which I'd argue ran into certain dead ends around the same time). In the early 1990s, he began playing and recording solo, participated in the Brotzmann-Vandermark axis that connected Berlin to Chicago, and founded his groups the Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra and the In Order to Survive ensemble, among others. (If I had to recommend one Parker disc as a place to start, it'd be 2000's amazing Little Huey double-album Mayor of Punkville.)

Since then, it'd be little exaggeration to say that Parker's been everywhere and played with everyone in east-coast U.S. and northern-European jazz improvisation, including the electronic and hip-hop crossover projects curated by Shipp for Thirsty Ear's Blue Series. His alliance with percussionist Hamid Drake has to be noted as one of the most formidable rhythm sections in any genre in the past decade, probably the equal of any drum-bass pairing in jazz ever; he's also been the force behind the vital Vision Festival of music, art, dance and activism in New York.

What stands out for me with Parker, more than any specific detail of his rapid, rumbling walking bass lines, or his ultraviolet-spectrum bowed atmospherics, is the stunning empathy that he brings to every session. To intuit, underline, echo, counter and reply to the underlying thoughts of your fellow players is arguably the essential skill of improvisation, but Parker seems to raise it beyond a musical form to a humanitarian one - he has an uncanny ability to make his fellow players seem more themselves, to pinpoint their emotional and expressive potential and subtly guide a piece towards that territory, while balancing out their weaknesses. I'm not sure that he's technically superior to any of a hundred other bassists, and he's certainly not the most bravura or innovative of soloists, but in his performances he seems to put fewer barriers between himself and others than most people can manage - not only to follow the music where it wants to go without imposing his ego or will on it, but really to create an environment in which the audience, too, feels embraced, and in that security, can let its own imagination (collective and individual) range freely as well.

All of which makes Parker the ideal Interface guest, and I'm thrilled for the Toronto musicians that will have a chance to meet, play and learn from him. The series begins tomorrow (Thursday) night and runs to Saturday night at the Arraymusic space in Liberty Village, at 9 pm each night, $15 a show. (Parker's also holding a free participatory workshop on Friday from 3 to 5 pm at U of T - the Boyd Neal Room, Edward Johnson Building - that musicians ought not to miss.)

If you're the sort who always intends to catch improv shows but never quite gets there, make a point of coming to one of these performances, and see jazz the way it's meant to be, not reissued but issued into the world as if for the first time, a newborn answering the cry of the moment-to-moment, and very far from dead.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, January 10 at 6:56 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)



Well, I've not heard the recording of that evening yet, so I'll reserve my opinion of that performance 'til then.
However, there is one thing that I have observed over the years and that is that there is sometimes the tendency of local players to be a bit intimidated by visiting 'heavies' especially in the free improv scene. This results in improvisations that await the motivation of the visitor.
I have no such tendency and am up there at the service and attendance of spontaneous composition regardless of who I'm up there with.
I quite enjoyed most of the music I played with the musicians that I played with that evening, but there were dead spots that were contributed to by EVERYBODY on that stage.
Thanks for the floral critique, though.

Posted by nilan on January 24, 2007 9:27 AM



The Arraymusic Studio has felt uncannily warm and inviting during this event. Large crowds may be the obvious reason for this feeling, but William's enormity of spirit and generosity fill the space in comparable if less tangible ways.

Credit too should be given to folks at Array who have gussied the place up with new carpets, a fridge that works, new artwork, and black curtains that block out residual illumination from Lamport Stadium.

Many who see and hear Parker solely in large festival settings these days (in Guelph, often) have commented on how wonderfully intimate the Interface is, how the 'fourth wall' convention is in effect only insofar as is necessary to make the music happen. Though AIMToronto will (almost inevitably) outgrow the Arraymusic Studio -- with all its (oft-cited) limitations -- it is this virtue that will be most greatly missed and most difficult to replace.

Posted by Scott Thomson on January 13, 2007 1:42 PM



Thanks for the toot to get to AIM. Went last night; three hours of important exchange and sometimes mini whirlpools of click. Duets between William Parker with first Rob Piilonen on flute and next Rob Clutton on bass walked with synergy. I learned watching Parker kindly hand self-absorbed Nilan Perera licks, cadences and tonal registers on a platter only to note Perera drop each one like a rock. Hansen's turntable gutterals and flashy static stippled several pieces to their benefit. I'm often trying to fit and fix some relationship between writing, speech, oral poetics and my limited exposure to excellent improv jazz, and last night the superfluity of language wafting under the umbrella of improv sound sat well in among my own brain matter. This music's suspension of language --within which every syllable and semantic particle shivers and chunks itself silly, to a depth, back into rabid desire for language-based articulation -- argues for more immersive interface. Overall, the massively sentient ears on Parker just blew me over. Mayor, maybe, or Conductor, in the most organic sense.

Posted by Margaret on January 13, 2007 10:54 AM



Also: a second to your Mayor of Punkville nod.

Posted by Drew on January 11, 2007 12:45 PM



Just wanted to add an amen to this wonderful encapsulation of Parker. It often feels as though he (and his wife) are singlehandedly holding the NY scene together (which no doubt shortchanges the contributions from other corners, but that's just the sense I get). I think you're right to highlight his tremendous empathy, both musical and ... just ... generally human, which is not wishy-washy at all, but generous almost beyond belief. Someone with Parker's skills could be doing a lot of different things. That he elects to spend his life in jazz is a gift. The mayor, indeed. Thanks for the post.

Posted by Drew on January 11, 2007 12:43 PM



In regards to the "dead end" comment about the NY Downtown scene: I would argue that the dead end came exactly when Zorn decided to move away from improv almost entirely, except with Masada, which is not really in the spirit of that scene to begin with. Composition has been Zorn's focus both in his work and the work that he has been promoting with Tzadik for more than ten years. I agree that the pure improv/Free Jazz records from the past while from the Downtown scene have been disapointing but the composition work has been more than adequate.

Posted by Simon on January 11, 2007 12:36 PM



mr zoilus,

my sincere thanks for a wonderfully well-written and informed article.

peace and good music to you and yours,

Posted by joe sorbara on January 11, 2007 11:02 AM



wow. you sold that. I'm just one of those "who always intends to catch improv shows but never quite gets there", and ima get my ass down there.

Posted by andrew on January 11, 2007 2:22 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson