Once, it might have been hard to imagine bassist and composer William Parker headlining two nights at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club in Manhattan.
It will happen July 26 & 27. And really, it makes perfect sense.
As a bassist, composer and bandleader, Parker is one of modern jazz’s defining presences; as much as any musician, he fulfills a vision Dizzy Gillespie, the club’s namesake, had decades ago of jazz as an expansive and cross-cultural music, one never stuck in place and always connected to a larger social and political awareness. And by now anyone’s wrongheaded view of Parker as simply a “downtown” musician (though that’s where he’s lived for a long time, and where he has anchored a community) have been erased by two forces: the sheer breadth and depth of Parker’s work; and the collapse in general of limiting categories when it comes to real jazz. Also, more than a decade past the organization’s founding, Jazz at Lincoln Center has notably broadened its bookings and ethos.
At Dizzy’s, Parker, who composes music at a dizzying pace, will present new compositions. These will be performed on July 26 by a quintet, and on the 27th by an 8-piece edition of his In Order to Survive Ensemble (the second set, billed as “Extended Breath,” may involve yet more musicians). Both nights will feature the wondrous tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan and drummer Hamid Drake (and any chance to hear Parker and Drake together is a reason to show up and get a good seat.)
Once, it might have been hard to imagine Parker absent from New York City’s annual Vision Festival—this country’s essential gathering of avant-garde improvising musicians, and a broader celebration of artistic purpose that also highlights dance, poetry and visual arts.
Yet that, too, will happen.
Parker was a founding force behind the festival, now in its 21st year, and a ubiquitous onstage presence. This year, he’ll be in Calgary, Alberta, as composer & musical director of the Decidedly Jazz Danceworks brand New Universe piece & performance space during Vision Fest.
Oddly perhaps, that circumstance makes a certain sense, too: The Vision fest’s offerings (June 7-12) are so broad and strong, its cast of characters so deserving of their spotlights, that this year’s edition is no less satisfying with Parker on the road. (Full schedule here.)
As happens annually, one artist is honored for a lifetime of achievement with a full evening as headliner. This year’s focus (June 7) is on bassist and violinist Henry Grimes, whose elemental work in the late 1950s is worth seeking out on recordings, and whose unlikely career resurgence in in 2003, involved a helping hand from Parker.
Grimes’ story is itself wondrous. He was among jazz’s most sought-after bassists in the late ’50s, and he played on free-jazz recordings in the ’60s with the likes of Ayler, Cecil Taylor and Don Cherry. Then he just dropped out, disappeared from the scene for more than three decades.
I’ll never forget hearing Grimes, playing a green-stained bass given to him by Parker, during a triumphant appearance at the 2003 Vision Festival. “Something happened,” Grimes told me following that performance. “It was like a thick air came into the club and came right down on everybody in it. Everything that I’ve strived for came true, with bigger implications for the future.” Those implications have turned into realities in the years since.
On June 7, Grimes will lead two powerhouse groups—one a quartet that includes one of Grimes’ contemporaries, drummer Andrew Cyrille, the other a septet including guitarist Marc Ribot, who has worked closely with Grimes since his return to the scene. In between, Grimes will be joined by several vocalists, performing songs by Lisa Sokolov, drawn from the original poems Grimes sometimes recites in performance.
There are many highlights to this year’s fest. Among them:
—Jen Shyu‘s genre-and-border-defying songs (June 8)
—Sun Ra Arkestra 60th anniversary celebration (June 8)
—Saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc leading a quintet including pianist Matthew Shipp (June 9)
—Garland of Blessing (Hamid Drake – drums, Kidd Jordan – sax, Cooper-Moore – piano, Michael Bisio – bass—June 9)
—trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s with a viola Quartet and Electronics (June 11)
—saxophonist Kidd Jordan leading a quintet to close the fest (June 12)
And I’ll especially highlight the June 10 performance by Michele Rosewoman’s New Yor-Uba, a group that showcases no just a rare union of religious and folkloric Afro-Cuban forms with modern large-ensemble jazz but also the place of Afro-Latin lineage within the Vision Festival’s legacy.
I’ve been following New Yor-Uba closely. In an email, Rosewoman described the extended new work she will present at Vision as her attempt to “jump the octave” with this group, through a rhythmic suite and tribute to 23 orishas. The group includes batá and conga master Román Díaz, surrounded by others suitably skilled in rhythmic magic, such as bassist Yunior Terry, drummer Robby Ameen and percussionist Mauricio Herrera.
I first put William Parker on the cover of Jazziz magazine in 1999, when I was editor-in-chief. I’ve since written about Parker—who is best known as a bassist, but whose sincerity is nicely depicted in Jack Vartoogian’s photo, above, of Parker playing a double-reeded horn—in many contexts, including the Wall Street Journal and New York Times.
I returned to the pages of Jazziz for a long and, I think, meaty interview with Parker (you can find it here on pag 38; if you can’t access it, feel free to contact me for a file version).
Below are some excerpts, beginning with a section about the Vision Festival, which Parker helped found 20 years ago. Continue reading “In William Parker's Words”
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.
To call New York City’s annual Vision Festival this country’s essential gathering of avant-garde improvising musicians is both true and incomplete.
The music is world-class, sure, and never predictable or rote. As bassist William Parker, one of the event’s founding figures, told me for a 2010 Wall Street Journal piece: “The aesthetic isn’t so easy to define. Nobody does notated pieces. There is improvisation in each band, which sometimes comes out of jazz, sometimes blues or world music or European music or just what I call the X-factor.”
So there’s that X-factor.
There’s also dance, poetry, film, visual art, not to mention the one thing absent from most of the festivals that dot New York from June through August—a true and deep sense of community.
That community is filled with musicians who defy easy description. Some, like Cooper Moore, design and build their own instruments. Some, like Parker, don’t so much bend rules as craft their own systems for musical development. Even in such a context, this year’s honoree for Lifetime Achievement (there’s one showcased at each Vision Fest), Charles Gayle, stands out—for the peculiar beauty of his music and his unwavering pursuit of elusive truths through art. Not to mention his versatility: Gayle, a singularly expressive saxophonist, is also a compelling player on piano and bass.
On opening night of this year’s festival, which runs from June 11 through June 15 at Brooklyn’s Roulette, Gayle will play all three instruments in separate sets during an evening in his honor. The last of these features an all-star “Vision Artist Orchestra” that includes tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan. Jordan is revered as an educator and mentor in his hometown, New Orleans, yet his music is rarely heard and not often genuinely appreciated there. At the Vision Festival each year, Jordan is received in deserving fashion, as a conquering hero. Continue reading “New York's Vision Festival Honors Its Heroes And Gathers Its Tribe”