ALBUMS: William Parker’s Tones of Home

The excellent Universal Tonality calls back to the legendary free jazz leader’s early ’00s era

William Parker (Image: AUM Fidelity)

Sharing the title with his biography, Universal Tonality is the latest release from legendary free jazz bassist William Parker, which came out on September 30th courtesy of AUM Fidelity.

This two-disc release documents a concert from December 2002, featuring an incredible line-up of musicians and includes both standard jazz instrumentation and African and Asian instruments. 

Parker’s term Universal Tonality is meant to signify an approach to performance that incorporates both written and improvised material. He speaks to an earlier performance in the nineties where an ensemble he led performed fantastically without any rehearsal and he points to the group mind they achieved when playing together as an approach to music itself. This is Universal Tonality. The primary rule he puts forth is that the musicians follow their instincts. While Parker composed written music for both that performance and the concert we hear on this recording, the musicians are never required to play any of it. They are allowed to go wherever inspiration leads them. 

Artist: William Parker

Album: Universal Tonality

Label: AUM Fidelity 

★★★★ (4/5 stars) 

Not surprisingly, this is an avant-garde approach to the music. Yet, this particular record, at least at times, sounds more traditional than one might expect, especially given the personnel involved. The opener “Tails of a Peacock” illustrates the point. While much of the ensemble blows free, the rhythm section of Parker on bass, Gerald Cleaver on drums and Dave Burrell on piano plays a relatively straightforward swing. The result is not unlike some of Charles Mingus’s work or even some of the group improvisation from jazz’s earliest days in New Orleans. Three-quarters through the piece, Leena Conquest makes her first appearance, her voice an important presence in not only this performance but also much of Parker’s work. 

While delivering a bluesy vocal to that piece, she eventually works into a more spoken word approach for the second song, “Cloud Texture (death has died today)”. Here she tells the story of Parker’s parents meeting and living their life together against the backdrop of swing-era jazz. It’s important to note that Conquest is given the same freedom as the other instrumentalists. Not only in regards to the musical elements of her performance but the texts as well. Parker gave her a wide variety of his writings, poems, stories, and lyrics. She could choose what to perform and when, taking the pieces apart and putting them back together as she saw fit.

William Parker Universal Tonality, AUM Fidelity 2022

Throughout the record, Conquest and the band often mirror each other. When she sings the ensemble leans towards a more traditional approach but when she performs spoken word they tend to drift to the abstract. It’s a fascinating push-and-pull, one that provides this two-hour set strong sense of flow. Perhaps the best example of this occurs on “All Entrances (it is for you the sun rises)”. The first half of the piece dives deep into the avant-garde, the music delicately whispering an abstract message. But then Parker begins plucking a steady quarter note bass line and Conquest begins to sing. Much of the band remains in abstract territory, but the bass becomes a center of gravity, a sound for everythone else to coalesce around. 

Universal Tonality constantly engages and surprises throughout the duration of the recording. While the ensemble primarily engages in an egalitarian, group improvisation, voices emerge and seem to temporarily grab the spotlight, intentionally or otherwise. Maybe its Joe Morris’s guitar with Billy Bang and Jason Kao Hwang’s violin engaging in dialogue with each other on the aforementioned “All Entrances (the sun rises for you)”, or Matt Lavelle’s trumpet on the back end of “Leaves Gathering (headed back to tree)”, there’s always something fascinating going on. This band is packed from front to back with talent and it’s a testament to Parker that he could guide them into creating such beautiful and cohesive music.

William Parker is one of the elder statesmen of free jazz and the avant-garde, and recordings like Universal Tonality reminds us that he’s been producing music at this standard for a long time. It’s hard to imagine all the recordings that may exist throughout Parker’s career, but if this illuminating title is any indication, they all deserve to see the light of day. 




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Todd Manning

Todd Manning is a recovering musician who mostly writes about Metal and Jazz various places around the internet, including Burning Ambulance, Cvlt Nation and No Clean singing. He lives in Indianapolis, IN.

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