William Parker in Buffalo

Cookie Gilchrist found in Buffalo multi-media display
for CODA

Mimes wearing grotesque papier mâché masks and body stockings lumbered and skittered across the polished floor, as dancers, with butterfly wings on their back twirled from one side of the vaulted-ceiling room to the other. On stage, in what was formerly a church sanctuary, a dreadlocked singer recited lyrics of hope and defiance, while around him more than two dozen instrumentalists produced cacophonous seesaw melodies.

That was in scene in Buffalo, N.Y. in mid-March, as Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center hosted two, nearly sold-out evening performances of a multi-media presentation by New York bassist William Parker and his Buffalo Orchestra. In the planning stages for about two years, upstate New York’s bastion of non-mainstream art was finally able to invite Parker for a one-week residency culminating in the performance, following its move earlier this year to a new permanent home in a renovated former church in downtown Buffalo. Hallwalls’ staff was so energized by securing Parker participation, that the performances actually took place in advance of the facility’s first official show. Proper theatre lighting still has to be installed, and that part of the audience which didn’t crowd upstairs balconies, was seated on chairs borrowed from the nearby Buffalo Convention Center.

Arriving in Buffalo the weekend before, Parker selected his 33 performers from among local musicians, dancers and actors. Intensively rehearsed every evening preceding the show, Parker confirms that most of the music was notated. Although the players benefited from an improvisatory technique he calls “self-conduction”, there was little free-form soloing except in sections and near the very end. “You can’t improvise too much when you’re working with dancers”, he explains. “They can’t miss their cues.”

Consisting of 14 original compositions, the program, entitled “Looking for Cookie Gilchrist”, is named for the legendary place kicker who played for both the Buffalo Bills and the Toronto Argonauts in the 1960s. Although Gilchrist was known for his outspoken views on management’s exploitation of players, there seems to be little sociological subtext in the extravaganza. Instead, the focus seemed to be on a variant of World Music. Parker played tuba, ngoni, (traditional West African lute), and heraldic horn rather than bass, and Afro-Caribbean and South Asian percussion plus didjeridoo was used extensively along with standard brass, reeds, drum kits and strings.

The performers, lead by choreographer Patricia Nicholson, presented a series of tableaux encompassing the anthropomorphic and fantastic. During the course of the evening, some actors clutching faux branches impersonated trees, while another group wiggled in a dragon’s head dance. Other characters included a black-costumed skeleton, a backwards-crawling sea creature and a top-hat wearing vulture. Near the end of the evening, following a procession that involved performers brandishing foil-draped poles, a few of the band’s brass and reed players marched through the crowd Sun Ra Arkestra-style. Earlier, Nicholson encouraged audience members to gyrate along with the mugging performers to a pseudo-reggae tune played by the orchestra.

“Looking for Cookie Gilchrist”, is more a community happening than an authentic theatrical performance. In fact, the major instance of transcendence was only achieved at the finale when singer Preach Freedom vocalized Parker’s near-operatic “Prayer”, which its composer dedicated to trumpeter Rafe Malik who died of cancer earlier that week.

— Ken Waxman