Oct 17, 2023 3:36 PM
Carla Bley, Provocative Composer-Pianist, Dies at Age 87
With her iconic bangs, sharp features and free-flowing sense of the absurd, Carla Bley, who died Oct. 17 of brain…
A tangle of connections fosters the bounty of William Parker’s career. The bassist—who’s released a 10-album set called Migration Of Silence Into And Out Of The Tone World that features more than a dozen musicians—is New York’s free-jazz caretaker, a performer who frequently forges symbiosis on and off the bandstand. And he’s been doing it for almost 50 years.
“It’s the sound community of William Parker,” said vocalist Lisa Sokolov, who first met the bassist in the mid-1970s and appears on the Aum Fidelity box set. “If it wasn’t for William, a whole lot of us would be in really sad shape.
“He’s kind of a force of enormous beneficence for a group of musicians who he has supported over decades and decades. And as people get older, he’s there for people in such a huge way. He’s visiting people; he’s doing people’s memorials. He’s just a great beneficent force that helps create and sustain a group of musicians in a field that is not in other ways supported by the world.”
That assessment of Parker’s place in the community is demonstrated by his vast list of associations, stretching from past icons like pianist Cecil Taylor and saxophonist David S. Ware to contemporary avant-gardists like pianist Matthew Shipp, and his own groups, In Order To Survive and The Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra. The bassist’s creative life, though, began during his Bronx childhood, when a young Parker’s imagination scraped the sky in a sort of nascent mindfulness practice.
“I don’t meditate or anything—just the daily observance of anything that’s beautiful,” the bassist said over Zoom in November from his home on New York’s Lower East Side. “I’ve been doing it all my life, since I was a kid, which is looking at the sky—cloud gazing, because in New York, there weren’t any stars. ... Just looking at the sky and getting to see the birds. My first connection with poems was the idea that birds are poems in the sky. And that kind of imagery, I’ve used in a couple of songs. That imagery, it’s very strong.”
Almost anything can be folded into jazz, and the bassist has images, melodies, rhythms and stories tucked away in his mind, ready to emerge in flashes of inspiration.
“I guess I was 11, 12, 13—around then. I’d just sit back and look at birds. Now, there weren’t that many birds in the city—you had pigeons and you have flocks of low-flying birds. And some of the last concerts I did, I [played] some compositions that I had been singing since I was in the Bronx as a kid. They keep coming back,” Parker, 68, said. “One composition we did, I was in Germany, and I had a dream that my father came to me, and he showed me these hieroglyphic graphic scores. He said to me, ‘I’m a composer, also.’ I woke up in the middle of the night and I wrote down what I remembered of the images. And we played that music the next day.”
Not all of Parker’s music is so immediate. For Tone World, the composer meticulously planned for combinations of players, sounds and instruments. But Parker doesn’t perform on a significant portion of the box set—and when he does, he often is playing an instrument other than bass. The approach is equal parts artistic direction and selflessness, as he nurtures a cohort of complementary musicians who have formed a synergistic relationship with him.
“Well, the music was written for the players who played it,” he said. “It was almost like I was a director filming a movie, and they were the actors who were interpreting the script and shooting the scene; each song was a different scene that they were bringing life to. I played on some things, but it just happened to be that it was a lot of material, and they had to bring it to life. That was the vision, for them to bring it to life, not for me to bring it to life. Now, when it came to certain things where I had to bring it to life, then I would play. ... I’m there when it’s called for.”
Parker didn’t think he was a necessary part of Child Of Sound, the second disc of the Tone World set, where pianist Eri Yamamoto lithely approaches 14 solo compositions the bassist penned. It’s a patient respite following some of the tense moments on the set’s first disc—though both recordings present music that, upon first listen, some might not attribute to Parker’s free-world orchestrating.
Yamamoto glides through the pensive yet overwhelmingly melodic piece “Mexico,” a tune that benefits from a strong left hand, Parker’s personality as a bassist coming through. There’s another composition with the same title on the set’s sixth disc—also called Mexico, a recording that fits more into expectations of Parker’s outside sound, and features vocalist Jean Carla Rodea as its centering force.
With immigration a topic at the forefront of American politics, Parker weaves in references to people’s agency and free movement a handful of times across the massive set.
“It hasn’t ever really been dealt with, internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II,” Parker said, alluding to Manzanar, another disc in the box set, and the resurfacing theme of freedom. “I didn’t think about that, but there is a connection there. ... [T]here’s a connection between all the albums.”
Recordings and performers are laced together across Parker’s lengthy career. And the idea of an elemental creative spirit being at the core of humanity has flitted through the bassist’s mind for just about as long as he’s been gazing up at clouds. He’s even developed a phrase to conjure the idea, one only obliquely referenced in the box set’s title: Migration Of Silence Into And Out Of The Tone World.
“‘Universal tonality’ has to do with, if you took musicians from all around the world who play different music, and you said, ‘OK: 1, 2, 3, let’s play.’ You don’t have to say anything. You could just play, and it would come together. The same way as if you brought dancers, and you started playing music, and everybody started dancing—the way kids play, that’s universal tonality,’” Parker explained. “I mean, you don’t have to know everyone’s language. Everyone can speak their own language and still be able to communicate. ... It’s just about being able to respect each other and learn how to live here on the planet and acknowledge all the differences that we have, and yet also embrace who you are without sacrificing anything.”
Decades of exploration inform Parker’s work across Tone World, the set’s title intimating a wide-angle expansiveness, roomy enough for traditions and ideas from around the globe. One disc—The Majesty Of Jah—references the Rastafarian godhead. Harlem Speaks examines the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance. And Lights In The Rain (The Italian Directors Suite), where Parker plays cornet, threads classic reels of film through the bandleader’s understanding of the world.
As sprawling, both instrumentally and compositionally, as Tone World might seem, Parker hasn’t finished exploring the outer reaches of his practice.
“Part of me is still looking for an instrument that’s non-Western; I like non-Western instruments that are not based off of the piano, but based off the human voice, the human tuning and human feeling. It moves away from European classical music,” Parker said. “And there’s nothing wrong with European classical music, except it’s like wearing a suit: Not everybody in the world has to wear a suit. You have to wear the clothing that’s comfortable to you, that has color and it has meaning to you. So, I prefer to embrace things that are open to me, and that I feel an affinity for.
“The trumpet was the first instrument I played when I was 7 to 8. Then the trombone and cello. And I’ve revisited the trumpet since the 1970s, I’ve been revisiting the tuba, and added the bamboo flutes and shakuhachi. And then I picked up flutes along the way. The double reeds, I started in the ’80s and had a very good relationship with them. It’s great to have a primary instrument and then have other colors and other instruments that you can play for a certain result.”
The bandleader has stories about sifting through bags of flutes and Don Cherry introducing him to the donso ngoni, an instrument akin to an African harp that Parker plays on the box set. But mastery of an instrument isn’t always top of mind for him. He seems to prioritize the ability to shuttle one’s own personality through a set of chosen strings or reeds—and finding like-minded performers who can help along the way.
“You have to master your connection with music. They say Miles Davis would hire people if you could play one sound, and that sound was something that Miles could use, and was useful to him,” Parker said. “If you’re in an orchestra and just play the triangle, it’s whether you can create magic or magic can come through you.”
Pianist Cooper-Moore—a regular member of the In Order To Survive ensemble who’s worked with the bassist since the early ’70s—said he doesn’t recall going in to record The Majesty Of Jah disc for the box set. The pianist just readily answers Parker’s calls and works to contribute his own aesthetic to each project.
“He creates beautiful music. That’s all you can say. I mean, that’s why we’re put here, to create beauty,” Cooper-Moore said. “William says, ‘How can two people play so differently and come together?’ He says, ‘He plays beautifully and he plays beautifully. So, beauty plus beauty is beauty.’ This is William.”
The pair helped record one of Ware’s earliest dates, which was released in 1979 as Birth Of A Being. But by then, Parker had begun to establish himself in the avant-garde world, recording with saxophonist Frank Lowe and other luminaries. The institutionalization of jazz was well underway by that point—and to some degree, free-improv had been subsumed by noisy expectations. The music’s bifurcation didn’t go unnoticed.
“They kind of pan left and right on you, but they really don’t know what you do. At the same time, when we were in Europe, when I used to play with David S. Ware or even Cecil Taylor, and you go to the major festivals and some ‘straightahead guys’ would be sitting at the breakfast table,” Parker recalled. “We’d come down to breakfast and they’d say, [lowering his voice] ‘Hey man, these cats—you’re playing the real music. I wish we could do that.’ What does that mean? We’re playing the real music? So, what are they playing? That always got me: They felt that they wanted to do something, but they weren’t allowed to because they had a role to play. And they weren’t allowed to just fly.
“When you fly, you don’t get any publicity, you don’t make any money, you don’t get a recording contract with a major label. You don’t get to play the club. So, they have to do what they do in exchange for success. And we do what we do because we have to do it. We have a calling. It’s a mission. It’s a cry.”
Patricia Nicholson—the founder of Arts For Art, which presents the avant-focused Vision Festival—has played a significant part in the bandleader’s efforts to carve out his own tone world. The fest, which has run annually since 1996, has provided hundreds of musicians a platform that might have been unthinkable otherwise. It’s also connected the bassist, who has played every edition of the event, with a wending network of performers, all given to the same exploratory inclinations he’s exhibited throughout his career.
“The reason it was called the ‘Vision Festival’ is that everyone has a vision,” said Nicholson, who’s been married to Parker since 1975. “We’re wanting to shine a light on the fact that people have visions, and that they are individual lights and if we keep them separated, they get lonely—they’re easily blown out. But if you’re surrounded by all these different lights and visions, you inspire each other, and you’ll hold each other. And the music and the idea of having a vision, it stays strong.”
The festival, which was streamed online in early October, helped reaffirm a strain of the music, Nicholson said. And while she and Parker remain dedicated to the freedom of improvisation, the planning and organizational feats each has undertaken continue to sustain the art form.
“I think it’s helped launch careers,” Parker said of the festival. “We used to do a thing with the Sons d’Hiver festival in Paris, where there’d be a Vision stage, and Patricia would bring over a whole evening of [performances] to Paris, and it was great. ... I just wish there was a Vision Festival in every state. It would be so wonderful. I mean, you know this one standard [idea of music that] exists in America? If there’s more than one kind of person, you know there’s more than one kind of music.” DB
This story originally was published in the February 2021 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.
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