A vast body of musical works refutes a widespread notion distinguishing avant-garde from traditional music: that one is cerebral and abstruse and the other emotive and accessible. However true this may be in any number of instances, William Parker’s work over the past 45 years demonstrates that deep feeling can flourish in the realm of deep experimentation. Over the course of his long and unwaning career as a composer, bandleader, bassist, and event organizer, Parker has produced a catalog of compositions and a legacy of performances distinguished both by their free-thinking, often radical sense of adventure and by their elemental dedication to beauty and human feeling.
More extraordinary, perhaps, Parker appears to be in the midst of a late-career blossoming, having released this summer a new three-album collection of compositions with words and music, sung by an assemblage of singers working in a widely varied range of styles. Titled Voices Fall From the Sky, the set of vocal pieces follows the release last year of an ambitious double album of instrumental ruminations on the meaning of music, Meditation/Resurrection. At 67, Parker is making his heftiest music yet, work that reaffirms the imaginative prowess that has made him a stalwart force in the sphere of “downtown” jazz and art music since the 1970s, and that also makes clear that he deserves more recognition beyond the borders of that ostensibly borderless domain of experimental music.
The first time I heard Parker in person, he was part of the six-member Cecil Taylor Unit, performing at Sweet Basil’s, a now-closed jazz club in Greenwich Village, in 1983. I caught him by accident, mistakenly thinking the Gil Evans Orchestra was playing that night. Curious about but utterly perplexed by the sound of irregular, unfettered, intuitive music that was so different from Evans’s lushly harmonic orchestrations, I toggled my attention from one to another of the musicians in the Taylor ensemble, desperate for grounding. Landing on Parker, I found myself entranced by the raw openness and overall sense of rightness in his playing. I didn’t understand much of what he or anyone else in the band was doing, exactly, but it felt good and true.
Over the decades since, I’ve heard Parker more than a dozen times in nearly as many configurations: playing jazz in small groups led by musicians like trumpeter Bill Dixon, violinist Billy Bang, and saxophonist David S. Ware; in duos with pianist Matthew Shipp; as the leader of his own groups, large and small; and as a frequent performer at the annual Vision Festival of experimental music, dance, and performance in New York, which was founded by dancer-choreographer Patricia Nicholson Parker. (They’re married.) The bulk of his enormous output has been in the vein of free jazz, a discipline of in-the-moment group improvisation that calls for highly sensitive listening and responsiveness and deep resources of musical imagination. Because of the primacy it gives freedom, the form may seem to indulge dilettantes and poseurs, but it actually serves to screen them out. Free jazz is a music for virtuosos of the imagination, and Parker’s achievements in it have proved him to be a creator of boundless inventiveness. At the same time, his music—as both a composer and an ensemble player—never (or rarely) abuses the creative liberty in freely improvised music. At its core, his work, like much of Ornette Coleman’s, has an almost imperceptible but ever-present feeling of the blues.