William Parker: Big Sound, Expansive Vision and Beautiful Sky

Photo by Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images
Photo by Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

I like this picture of William Parker, playing a reed instrument, because it captures some essence of his warmth and intensity.
Yet the insistent sound of Mr. Parker’s bass has long expressed the values of the Vision Festival, which he helped found 20 years ago, and of a community of musicians and artists that has its center of gravity in New York City and in improvised jazz but that is also truly international and unbound by genre.
With his fingers, Mr. Parker produces big, broad tones that, even unamplified, can fill a room. With his bow, he creates textures rich with intriguing overtones. Where most bassists rely on single notes to build lines, he often pushes, pulls and plucks his strings to build complex webs of sound. Mr. Parker’s discography—more than three-dozen albums as a leader, dozens more in leaderless collaborations, some 400 credits overall—attests to the breadth and depth of his work.
Yet what most distinguishes Mr. Parker are his ability to lead other musicians with a balance of compassionate looseness and firm direction, and his gifts for creating music that navigates the divide between composition and improvisation (or perhaps, reveals the unity of the two endeavors). In an interview, he recalled advice from one of his earliest employers, pianist Cecil Taylor: “When you improvise, it’s like, ‘wow.’ The inclination when you compose is to cross all the t’s and dot the i’s. But don’t erase that ‘wow.’”
Mr. Parker favors grand gestures. His 2013 release, “Wood Flute Songs,” spanned 8-CDs and six years of live recordings, documenting his leadership of groups ranging from four to twelve instruments. His new “For Those Who Are, Still” (both on Aum Fidelity) is his most ambitious work to date. Its three CDs present four long-form works, including his first composition for symphony orchestra, and a commissioned piece for the standing ensemble of The Kitchen, A Lower East Side Manhattan arts collective with its own deep avant-garde tradition.
My review of Parker’s new release in the Wall Street Journal is here.
I’ve got a long interview with Parker running soon in Jazziz magazine. But for now, I’ll leave you with something Parker told me when I asked him about the pressures of gentrification on his Lower Manhattan neighborhood, and the drying up of venues and opportunities for many musicians. I asked whether he felt as though he was being “confined to a reservation.” And he said:

Maybe three months ago, I was lying on the couch and I dozed off. When I woke up, everything made sense to me. This is how I saw it: Every musician is assigned a list of people they’re supposed to reach. Might be 40, might be 3,000 or three million. And that’s what you’re supposed to do. It’s not supposed to be like Taylor Swift, though she has her assignment, too. My assignment is to reach those people who are reaching out to me. And that’s all there is to success and to feeling whole. It’s not about a bigger audience or even a bigger community. It’s about those who want to hear your music. Those who might come over to your music. That’s maybe narrower than we think, but it might be wider than we think.
When I’m riding on the subway and someone says, “Are you William Parker?” and then they say, “Man, I never thought I’d see you again. I just want to tell you that you played at my school 25 years ago. You played this solo. That thing changed my life.” Now, you can’t top that. Suppose I’d have never run into that guy.
I may be on the reservation, but the sky is so beautiful.

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