WILLIAM PARKER

Luc's Lantern
Thirsty Ear THI 57158.2

WILLIAM PARKER QUARTET
Sound Unity
Aum Fidelity Aum 034

Conventional and unconventional sounds reflecting the improvisational and compositional talents of New York bassist William Parker, both these CDs are noteworthy. What's most surprising though is that the unconventional one is LUC'S LANTERN. Known as one of the prime movers in New York's avant-garde scene, Parker is still able to create a session that could have been put out by such classic 1960s piano trios as Ahmad Jamal's, Bill Evans's or Oscar Peterson's. It's unconventional in its very conventionality.

More expected, but in truth conventional only if you're very familiar with Free Jazz, SOUND UNITY features the bassman's quartet working out on six exciting tracks recorded live in Montreal and Vancouver. Even though the compositions nod powerfully to Ornette Coleman's legendary 1960s' quartet, they, along with Coleman's work, are really modern mainstream, no matter what musical neo-cons tell you.

Ranging from slightly more than eight to more than 21 minutes, the selections are stylish and graceful. Taking the Coleman comparison a bit further, Parker's measured pacing allow him to assay Charlie Haden's role, while trumpeter Lewis Barnes and alto saxophonist Rob Brown - who both also play in the bassist's Little Huey orchestra - become an updated Don Cherry and a Coleman respectively. However Chicago-based Hamid Drake, who sometimes appears to work with half the improv bands on the planet, is the wild card in the bunch. Sure his drumming is sympathetic, but his power is such that comes across like a combination of Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell, who split drum duties with Coleman.

Less famous than Drake, Michael Thompson who occupies the drum chair on LUC'S LANTERN holds his own when dealing with Parker's stentorian bass playing. That shouldn't be a surprise, since he's worked in combos with the likes of Parker associate, trumpeter Roy Campbell, and reedist Joe Giardullo. This CD's surprising component comes from pianist Eri Yamamoto, usually heard in certified mainstream settings. A native of Kyoto, Japan, Yamamoto has lived in New York City 1996, and on the faculty of The Mannes College of Music. Someone who has worked with other powerful bassists such as Ron McClure and Reggie Workman, her playing here encompasses the impressionism of Bill Evans and the swing and technique of a clutch of hard bop key thumpers.

In a way, this pianistic link to earlier time is quite appropriate to the CD, for some of the 10 Parker compositions honor fallen jazz heroes such as pianists Jaki Byard and Bud Powell, bassist Scotty Holt, and saxophonists Charles Tyler and Booker Ervin.

Not that there's any attempt to recreate anyone's style. As a matter of fact, Parker and Yamamoto throw a monkey wrench into hearing this as a tribute CD, most notably on "Bud in Alphaville". Not only are her hard octave downshifts and double timing key clips closer to Monk than Powell, but the title and accompanying poem reference director Jean Luc Goddard's film Alphaville. Goddard and Powell may have concurrently inhabited Paris, but there's no jazz music in his films.

There's plenty of jazz on this CD though. Often operating contrapuntally, Parker and Thompson could be a bop rhythm section - the bassist walking and the drummer playing a backbeat. But few boppers had the same command of woody spiccato runs that the bassist exhibits, plus the ability to ruffle and sluice patterns up and down his strings sul ponticello. Furthermore, in response to or accompanied by Parker's unvarying pulse and Yamamoto's metronomic note clusters, the drummer often easily lets loose with a post bop romp of dedicated rolls, flams and paradiddles with extra flashy hi hat accents.

Preeminently her own woman, Yamamoto has enough command of jazz's piano literature to streak from one series of near tributes to another - usually within the same piece. Tunes like "Song For Tyler" bring out Evans-like lush voicing and soft glissandi, although she explores the piano's upper quadrants with foreshortened note patterns as effectively as the New Thing saxophonist did with his horn. Meanwhile the title tune features pseudo Peterson-like runs and stabbing note cascades that migrate from Herbie Nichols'style. Channeling McCoy Tyner, she easily counters Parker's hard and heavy bass work with organic patterning into additional overtones.

It's the same with "Mourning Sunset", as her built up key clusters with chordal color start to resemble "All Blues". As Thompson breaks up the time with ratamacues and opposite sticking, and Parker fuses a repeated bass line, her high frequency dynamics turns to taciturn, softer variations.

No one could accuse the Parker Four of being soft and taciturn on "Harlem" and "Groove", - the almost onomatopoeic riffs that conclude SOUND UNITY. Bluesy rhythm tunes that belie the so-called avant garde's reputation for solemnity, the two centre on rock-solid, resonating bass work from Parker and cross sticking and soft-shoe-like rim shots from Thompson. As for the front line, Barnes' choked, dirty pecks could come from Rex Stewart or Roy Eldridge. Meanwhile Brown's pitch vibrations and slurs plus dangling, flutter-tongued altissimo tones go back past Coleman's cries to the country blues that inspired early jazz. Modernly moderato and impassioned polyphonic at the same time, Brown has rarely played better on record.

Earlier on, those Coleman echoes intensify with the head of "Wood Flute Song" sounding like "Focus on Sanity", as Barnes and Brown operate in double counterpoint, resolutely moving up the scale in unison. A short boppy smear inaugurates the shakes Barnes puts into his solo, while Brown squeals irregular vibrations that intensify rather than detract from the tune. Here and elsewhere the bassist directs the beat like a captain navigating a boat through choppy water, as Drake's splash cymbal, hi-hat coloring and snare and bass drum whacks agitate the waters and speed up the tempo.

Balladically Barnes contributes portamento grace note and Brown tongue stops and slurs to other numbers, yet the quartet's stance is so fixed and forceful that story-telling attributes aren't lost no matter the pitch or tempo,

Of course, all these are preludes or postludes to the 21-minute title track. With the main theme set up by Parker's unvarying pulsation plus paradidles, ruffs and cymbal cross sticking from Drake, the first of its variations ping-pong between Brown's stabbing Jackie McLean-like tone and Barnes' speedy hummingbird-like brass bites. Subsequently open horned with comfortable middle-range grace notes, Barnes halves the tempo for his own melody. Thick slurs from Brown interrupt, then lead to mirrored note patterns, first from the trumpeter, then the altoist. Riffing softly behind the bassist, they then yield centrestage to the bassist whose stentorian layering brings out both the designated note and its reverberating nodes. As the horn blowing increases in volume, Drake cross sticks on his toms and snares, reverberates his cymbals with industrial strength and pounds martially. Walking, Parker reprises the theme, aided by trilling alto and muted trumpet until the tune is suddenly cut off.

You won't have to do that as long as you keep playing these CDs. Most valuable for the Parker follower, individually and together they will impress everyone, whether the music's thought of as conventional or unconventional.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Sound: 1. Hawaii 2. Wood Flute Song 3. Poem for June Jordan 4. Sound Unity 5. Harlem 6. Groove

Personnel: Sound: Lewis Barnes (trumpet); Rob Brown (alto saxophone); William Parker (bass) and Hamid Drake (drums)

Track Listing: Luc's: 1. Adena 2. Song For Tyler 3. Mourning Sunset 4. Evening Star Song 5. Luc's Lantern 6. Jaki 7. Bud in Alphaville 8. Charcoal Flower 9. Phoenix 10. Candlesticks on the Lake

Personnel: Luc's: Eri Yamamoto (piano); William Parker (bass); Michael Thompson (drums)