March 28, 2008
The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield – Live in Rome
Rai Trade RTPJ 0011
William Parker/ Raining On The Moon
Corn Meal Dance
AUM Fidelity AUM043
William Parker Double Quartet
Rogue Art: ROG 0010
Concerned with different varieties of the Black vernacular experience, each of these fine CDs by bassist William Parker is impressive on its own. More profoundly each illustrates in a different way that the musical divisions among jazz, R&B, improvised music and soul are, in many cases, merely arbitrary.
Encompassing themes that are respectively populist (The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield), particular (Alphaville Suite) and highly personal (Corn Meal Dance), the sessions are stimulated not only by the resourcefulness of Parker’s compositions and arrangements, but by emphatic contributions from other band members. Although the personnel vary from disc to disc, each group includes, besides Parker, drummer Hamid Drake, trumpeter Lewis Barnes, and most spectacularly, vocalist Leena Conquest.
A Dallas native who has also worked with jazz-funk vibesman Roy Ayers and neo-bop pianist Mulgrew Miller, Conquest’s impressive vocal range, elevated diction and theatrical presentation pushes the performances on each of her appearance with the combo(s) another notch higher. No strident scat singer or flighty diva, she’s heir both to the clearly enunciated soul tradition of Dinah Washington and Aretha Franklin and to the socio-political undertakings of Abby Lincoln and Jeanne Lee.
That’s one inadvertent disappointment on Alphaville, since as “special guest” Conquest sings only on two short tracks. On the other hand the instrumental work is Parker’s most precise, since his compositions and arrangements salute the themes and influence of Alphaville, French director Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 film classic. To amplify his compositional palate for the CD, Parker’s core trio is joined by his usual reed partner, alto saxophonist Rob Brown, plus a post-modern version of a string quartet: Mazz Swift on violin, Jessica Pavone on viola and cellists Julia Kent and Shiau-Shu Yu.
Rather than being used for conventional sweetening, the string performances are instead most often angular, spiccato and staccato, adding discordant arpeggios and shredded pulsations which at separate times cleave to Parker’s strummed centre tones or Brown’s skittering vibrato.
Although the CD is an exceptional showcase for the alto man’s tart, neo-bop tongue fluttering, it doesn’t mean that he’s the only soloist who excels here. Drake’s bass drum breaks and shadowed paradiddles add percussive heft to the 10 tracks. Meanwhile, to pick another highlight, Barnes’ trumpet flourishes and muted runs are involved in a contrapuntal duet with the thumping bass line on “Alpha 60”. Another theme is elaborated by Barnes’ darting, swift half-valve brass effects as well as Drake’s single cymbal reverberations, succeeded by sul ponticello circular bowing from the five strings. Its summation involves Barnes’ bugling tempo changes, bent notes and an extended mouthpiece tongue kiss.
With its loping Crime Jazz-like theme filled with sharp arco patterning and splintered tension-release “Doctor Badguy” is one of the two most programmatic tracks here; the other, “Interrogation”, depends on the aural images crated by descending double-pumping massed strings. Still, “Civilizations of the Light”, which was in Duke Ellington-fashion put together in the studio on the day of recording, proves that thematic fidelity doesn’t fully supersede improvisational smarts.
Composed with an almost Latinesque cast the tune has violinist Swift’s fierce, discursive solo introduce contrapuntal shrieks from other strings followed by their tremolo, squeezed triplets and Brown’s spilling arpeggios. Parker’s obbligato whorls finally order the extensions into a connective line. Andante, the contrapuntal horn and string patterns are constricted in the finale courtesy of a walking bass line and Drake’s rim shots.
The string section had been left at home three years previously when Parker and company played a jazz festival in Rome. In their place – and to provide more rhythmic impetus to this salute to Chicago Soul songwriter Curtis Mayfield (1942-1999) – is Daryl Foster on soprano and tenor saxophones, Sabir Mateen on tenor and alto saxophones and pianist Dave Burrell, plus Barnes, Parker and Conquest. In glorious voice, Conquest personifies the Mayfield’s material which encompasses his period with the Impressions (“People Get Ready”) as well as tunes from his influential Superfly soundtrack (“Freddie’s Dead”).
Adding to the purported street cred of the performance is the voice and poetry of professional Black firebrand Amiri Baraka. Although his sardonic, Afro-nationalism adds a few wryly poetic quips to the encore of “Freddie’s Dead” – he even gets off a line about Italy’s ex-right-wing premier Silvio Berlusconi – too often his nattering and mumbling interferes with Conquest’s soaring vocalizing.
Overall a rollicking affair, Parker’s chunky bass lines bring to mind Motown’s 1960s low-string vamp master James Jamerson, the riffing horn section channels 1960s Stax-Volt, while Drake’s stout backbeat could have gotten him R&B studio gigs during Mayfield’s Windy City heyday. Burrell, who has always been comfortable with piano history, adds pre-modern and conscious primitvist inflections to his two-handed accompaniment. Most spectacularly, on “Think” he pulls off the feat of creating a solo that’s simultaneously half-gospel and half-rococo.
However this is also the tune where Foster’s lightweight soprano sax obbligato appears to be paying homage to Grover Washington rather than more substantial players, while Baraka’s shouts and growls are merely annoying. Only Conquest’s verbal tonality and Mateen’s larger horn snorts keep things on an even keel.
Centrepiece of the performance is an almost 21-minute version of Mayfield’s “We Are The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, with full-bore shuffle rhythm from Drake and undercurrent of riffing horns. Maintaining her bel canto take on the lyrics and backed by Burrell’s gospelish chording and low-frequency coloration, Conquest’s melodious inhabiting of the lyrics provides a profound foundation for Baraka’s heavily rhythmic Afro-American chanting. Later she reveals a hitherto unexposed talent, using scatting glossolalia to blend with Mateen’s altissimo squeaks and slides, while the pianist’s comping accelerates to house-party-style riffs.
A pianist of a far different background joins Parker and company on Corn Meal Dance, which is the newest and perhaps most fully realized CD here. Eri Yamamoto usually plays in more mainstream, piano-trio settings, including on an earlier disc with Parker. Here though, her references are high-frequency near-honky-tonk cadences, which are appropriate for this slice of the modern Black experience reflected not only in the bassist’s compositions, but his gnarly, poetic lyrics as well,
Luckily Conquest is on hand again for verbal interpretation, along with Drake, Barnes and Brown providing the musical ballast. Parker’s imagery appears to equally reflect agit-prop, Black folk tales, the stridency of 1970s’ Gil Scott-Heron and Bob Dylan’s 1960s surrealistic song-poetry. When provided with the proper setting, notable performances result.
“Gilmore’s Hat”, for instance, a light-hearted salute to John Gilmore, the late Sun Ra tenor saxophonist, is a stop-time hand-clapper with snappy words personalized by Conquest, and the music illuminated by Brown’s choked slithery reed lines, wah-wah expansions from Barnes and backbeat rolls from Drake. It concludes with perfectly pitched scatting from the vocalist. On the other hand, proper gravitas is reflected in Conquest’s interpretation of “Tutsi Orphans”, as the band’s vamps underlies this tragic tale of inter-tribal genocide, echoing similar situations in many other Africa countries.
Even better are the overtly political Soledad” and “Land Song”, which unlike Baraka’s limp attempts at relevancy on the Italian disc, manage to score points while remaining sonically first-rate. The latter tune is built up from unison horn lines and metronomic piano key battering, and has lyrics which cleverly mix contemporary asides with references to traditional post-Reconstruction inequalities. Featuring bull fiddle rumbles and drum rolls, it’s also a solo high point on the session for Brown who illustrates the theme with crying, evocative tones.
Mixing a blues progression and progressive lyrics in the mold of Max Roach’s and Charles Mingus’ 1960s militancy, “Soledad” gains its unmistakable power from the sincerity in Conquest’s voice, which in turn humanizes Parker’s lyrics no matter how far-fetched or obscurely poetic. Barnes’ high-pitched obbligatos provide perfect counterpoint to the singer’s warbling, yodeling and soulful groans.
Each of these outstanding discs provides an opportunity to sample the work of two artists – Parker and Conquest – in full maturity. All are worthy of your time.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Inside: 1. The Makings Of You 2. People Get Ready 3. Inside Song #1 4. We Are The People Who Are Darker Than Blue 5. Spoken Introduction 6. Think 7. Freddie’s Dead
Personnel: Inside: Lewis Barnes (trumpet); Daryl Foster (soprano and tenor saxophones); Sabir Mateen (tenor and alto saxophones); Dave Burrell (piano); William Parker (bass); Hamid Drake (drums); Leena Conquest (voice) and Amiri Baraka (voice and poetry)
Track Listing: Alphaville: 1. Alphaville Main Theme 2. Journey to the End of the Night 4. Natasha’s Theme I 5. Interrogation 6. Alpha 60 7. Oceanville Evening 8. Civilization of Light 9. Outlands 10. Natasha’s Theme II
Personnel: Alphaville: Lewis Barnes (trumpet); Rob Brown (alto saxophone); Mazz Swift (violin); Jessica Pavone (viola); Julia Kent and Shiau-Shu Yu (cellos); William Parker (bass); Hamid Drake (drums) and Leena Conquest (voice)
Track Listing: Corn: 1. Doctor Yesterday 2. Tutsi Orphans 3. Poem for June Jordan 4. Soledad 5. Corn Meal Dance 6. Land Song 7. Prayer 8. Old Tears 9. Gilmore’s Hat
Personnel: Corn: Lewis Barnes (trumpet); Rob Brown (alto saxophone); Eri Yamamoto (piano); William Parker (bass); Hamid Drake (drums) and Leena Conquest (voice)