William Parker and the Tonal Universe

A new book and ambitious box set cements the legacy of New York City’s double bass kingpin

William Parker (Art: Ron Hart)

For listeners tuned into the free jazz and improv scenes of the past few decades, William Parker stands as a towering figure.

As a bassist, Parker has been a sideman on what seems like an infinite number of recordings, often alongside many of the music’s most important figures. His own ensembles, such as In Order to Survive and the Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra, highlight his importance as a composer and bandleader. A new ten-disc box set of his work, Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World, is out now on Centering/Aum Fidelity.   

This isn’t Parker’s first box set, but nevertheless, one could see such a massive collection as a gesture toward cementing his already impressive legacy. However, the material here is almost completely new, and recorded specifically for this release, and it serves to highlight particular aspects of his work, and to expand on what is already best known about this free jazz legend.

Universal Tonality: The Life and Music of William Parker by Cisco Bradley 

The collection is being released in tandem with a new book about Parker, Universal Tonality by Cisco Bradley, and they pair well together. The book, while essentially a biography, explains aspects of his musical vision that are exemplified by these recordings. There is an emphasis on vocals and lyrics, and the book goes in some depth with regard to Parker’s interest in poetry and literature, and his love of music from other cultures as well. All these influences coalesce on Migrations of Silence….

The first disc in the set, “Blue Limelight,” features Raina Sokolov-Gonzalez on vocals, singing Parker’s lyrics. She is backed by an ensemble that not only contains drums, bass and piano, but also four violins and an oboe. Longtime collaborator Jason Kao Hwang’s violin is featured prominently throughout this album. Much of the lyrics here, and throughout all the albums, deal with the blend of Parker’s childhood memories and his profound spiritual beliefs. For instance, “Cosmic Funk” deals with the smell of a homeless man he encountered as a child on the subway. Parker states in the liner notes that the odor should be bottled up and put to a positive use, and that it “could save the world.” Such a perspective portrays the boundless empathy Parker is well known for. 

The second disc, “Child of Sound,” consists of a set of solo piano pieces, performed by Eri Yamamoto. The music here was inspired by the sounds of the Bronx where Parker grew up. He credits the music of the street people with helping him escape the dominance of European musical modes and diatonic methods. The opening piece, “Malachi’s Mode,” is dedicated to Malachi Favors, best known for being a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and it illustrates these ideas in practice. The melody is deceptively simple, but the execution is quite skillful. The right hand work interrogates every possibility from the rather joyful material, and displays both rhythmic and harmonic complexity. Other highlights include the rather unpredictable “Mexico,” with it’s stop-and-start structure, and the harmonically challenging closer, “Ascending Earth.” 

The following two discs, “The Majesty of Jah” and “Cheops,” take things in more ambient directions. The former features a very sparse sound, featuring William Parker himself on double bass, doson ngoni, and percussion, Jalalu-Kalvert Nelson on trumpet, and Ellen Christi on vocals, sampling and production. A host of others are credited for “trace” contributions. The sound is skeletal, with the primary players often performing over vocal samples. Christi’s vocals alternate between jazz-like improvisation and an almost sacred glossolalia. The overall sound is like deconstructed electric Miles. “Cheops” features the vocal work of Kyoko Kitamura, whom Parker describes as a “one-woman choir,” and her performance is even more boundary-flouting, full of gasps and growls along with a singing voice that jumps registers frequently and unpredictably. The ensemble supporting her plays fairly freely, but are focused in their expression. 

William Parker The Music of William Parker: Migration of Silence Into And Out Of The Tone World, Centering Records 2021

The disc titled “Harlem Speaks” is the most direct evocation of the past in the set. Parker joins frequent collaborator Hamid Drake, and they accompany singer Fay Victor. Her approach is more traditional, despite the sometimes challenging work of the rhythm section operating beneath her vocals. Opener “Dancing at the Savoy” finds her scatting and singing in tribute to the legendary club where Parker’s parents first met. The second half of the disc sees Parker switch to more unusual instruments: the guembri, balafon and gralla. This is particularly effective on the closer, “Shutters as Windows,” which lend Victor’s harrowing slave narrative a powerful sense of ritualistic tension. 

“Mexico” casts the musical ensemble as freedom fighters and places Parker’s passion for liberation at the forefront. An important takeaway from Universal Tonality is Parker’s belief that music is in and of itself a revolutionary act, a rebellion against the hatred which he sees as inherent in the current organization of the world. So despite the somewhat Latin-influenced music on display, the ensemble features members from all over the world, including Morocco, Israel and Mexico City. The material often walks a line between form and freedom, yet is uniformly gorgeous in either mode.

The disc “Afternoon Poem” consists of pieces Parker composed for solo voice, performed by Lisa Sokolov. She describes the rigorous yet intimate process of learning these songs in the liner notes, saying “I live with them until they become family.” It goes without saying that this is the most intimate recording in the set. In some ways, it is also the most inside yet, the material still finds way to stretch past the conventional. “…Is Always Beautiful” finds Sokolov dueting with herself in an ingenious use of multi-tracking. Often her voices dance around each other in an intricate dance, yet occasionally find a moment to sing in unison. The same technique is utilized on “Rocket Man”, but here the effect is used to create a complex rhythmic tapestry, almost confusing on first listen, but a beautiful puzzle reveals itself as the experience unfolds. 

Another important influence on William Parker’s artistic vision, revealed in the biography is film. In the box, “Lights in the Rain (The Italian Directors Suite)” pays homage to various Italian filmmakers. Much like “Mexico,” some elements point directly to the music of that country, while others wander far afield and link to Parker’s jazz and avant-garde heritage. Often, the music here implies a rhythm but plays it loosely or abstractly. Andrea Wolper’s voice bounces back and forth between singing and an almost spoken-word approach. It might be too simplistic to call these pieces noir-ish, but they certainly revel in atmosphere.

“The Fastest Train,” one of two instrumental discs that close out the set, and finds Parker playing with Klaas Hekman and Coen Aaberts for the entirety of the set. While Hekman is known for his work with the bass saxophone and Aaberts as a drummer, none of the trio use their primary instruments here. Instead, they utilize a vast array of exotic and found instruments to create a set of improvised pieces. The sound is subdued and sounds like a concert under the stars without an audience. The back-and-forth between wind instruments and percussion is sparse and conversational, yet always enthralling. 

The final disc is titled “Manzanar” and is also instrumental. The heavy employment of Western string instruments (violin, cello, and viola) lends this album a greater sense of formality than its predecessor, but communication between the performers is still paramount. In Universal Tonality, we learn that Parker often sees the strings of his double bass as beams of light, and the performance of notes on the instruments as applying filters to these rays. On “Charcoal Paragraphs,” he describes the music as a “dissection of string paintings,” once again evoking a visual element to his conception of music. The films often mentioned in the book as influences are often abstract, and one can begin to link together those works and his passion for avant-garde jazz into a coherent whole; the music is a picture but not a simplistic one. 

Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World is a staggering work from a pivotal figure in the free jazz scene. Nothing here is a surprise necessarily, but the elements emphasized uncover and bring to the fore parts of William Parker’s vision that had usually appeared more in the background. When paired with the book Universal Tonality, an understanding emerges not only of Parker’s music, but of the man himself. One could argue that his role as a musician is only one aspect of his life, but it seems in this case that the man and his music are so deeply entwined that one informs the other to an even greater extent than with most musicians.

This music is his life; it is the stories told of his family before him, the books he read, the films he watched and the world he would like to see. The man is in some sense an open book, one that deserves to be read. 






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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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