Bassist William Parker Probes the Secrets of the Tone World Life With His Five-Night Improvisational Residency at The Stone
By David Rubien, Contributing Writer, June 21, 2018
A pillar of the New York improvised music community since the 1970s, bassist-composer William Parker is leading a residency at the Stone June 26-30. He says he will be exploring life in its component terms: vibrations, light, love.
That has been his history as an artist, with his cosmic moment arriving in 1977 when he was playing in a downtown loft with a group called Ensemble Muntu. “During a solo, I lifted my bass up like a saxophone and began to play arco and pizzicato at the same time, and I lost myself and began to see colors,” he says. “Where I went was the tone world. The tone world is a place where you step out of your body and the music plays itself. The bass, each string, was a band of light, and the bow was a prism. When you see light through a prism, you have these colors, and you step into another world. Imagine a corridor of light. At the end of the corridor is a door. If you play the right combination of notes, the door opens up. Inside the room are the secrets of life. When you come out you get to keep one of the secrets with you, and you get to solve one of the mysteries of music.”
LSD or the plot of The Avengers: Infinity War? No. It’s just Parker living the transcendent life. Chances are if you’ve seen him perform, you’ve tasted it too. It can arrive during a bowing segment that achieves the classical beauty of the greatest cellist, or during a solo of such speed and complexity that the notes blur together and you feel something like a sonic boom of the heart. It is in moments like this that you realize why Parker was so beloved by the late maestro of modern music, pianist Cecil Taylor, with whom he played for 11 years.
The possibilities for transcendence seem high at the five shows Parker is leading at the Stone. If it happens opening night (June 26), things could really get trippy, as the music features an “Aquasonic Ensemble” consisting of four waterphones (played by Anne Humanfeld, Leonid Galaganov, Jeff Schlanger and Parker) and two bassists (Peter Dennis and Walter Stinson). A waterphone is a nontempered contraption that looks like a small bird cage consisting of a round base that can hold water and bronze rods sticking up that can be bowed or struck. It produces resonating tones that when combined with those of other waterphones should turn the Stone into a sonic cathedral like something out of The Outer Limits. “You might hear them in science fiction movies,” Parker says. “They’re very modern and uncharted territory for improvised music.”
In the June 30 show “A Word Is a Sound—A Remembrance of [late poet and playwright] David Budbill,” Parker is going for another type of sound carpeting, this time with four shakuhachis—Japanese bamboo flutes—occasionally used in jazz with players Berne Groden, Leonid Galangov, Kenya Kawaguchi and Parker, plus five of the 17 singers who shape Parker’s fascinating new 3-CD box set Voices Fall From the Sky: Lisa Sokolov, Kyoko Kitiamura, Andrea Wolper, Amirtha Kidambi and Morley Kamen.
June 27’s show, “The Blinking of an Ear,” is an enactment of a suite from Voices Fall From the Sky featuring the more conventional jazz lineup of piano (Eri Yamamoto), bass (Parker), drums (Leonid Galangov), trombone (Steve Swell) and reeds (Daniel Carter), plus the gorgeous mezzo-soprano of AnnMarie Sandy who sings lyrics of liberation written by Parker.
On June 28 it’s “White Wine Positions” dedicated to the late German free-jazz trombonist Johannes Bauer. Appropriately, the group is brass based, with Parker on the tuba-like ophicleide, Jim Staley, Steve Swell and Masahiko Kono on trombones, Joe McPhee on various brass, Jeff Schlanger on didgeridoo, and Walter Stinson and Peter Dennis on basses.
On June 29, “Music for Cosmic Octet” and “Eventual” (dedicated to the late great pioneering free-metered drummer Sunny Murray), will be the night for those seeking the molten-core energy playing with which Parker made his bones. Personnel are the leader on bass, William Hooker on drums, Jamie Branch on trumpet, Cooper-Moore on piano, Steve Swell on trombone, and Darius Jones, Rob Brown and James Brandon Lewis on saxophones.
The residency shows and the new CD set are evidence, if any was needed, that Parker’s reach goes far beyond that of merely playing bass brilliantly. In terms of his talent and stature in New York, he is like a giant oak tree planted in the heart of the city. The roots are his ties to the ’60s and ’70s avant-garde traditions of Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler and Sun Ra. The trunk is his mighty bass playing as well as the sustenance and inspiration he has provided to countless musicians. The branches and leaves are the dozens of projects on which he has embarked, ranging from interpretations of Duke Ellington, Percy Heath and Curtis Mayfield to violin and clarinet projects, from big band outings to commissions for films and dance troupes, from authoring a couple of books to running the Vision Festival with his wife, Patricia Nicholson, for 23 years, Then there’s his current fascination with singers and so much more.
“The human being is a drum,” Parker says. “The voice is a drum. Everything is vibrating. It’s all interconnected.”
For more information on William Parker’s residency schedule at the Stone click here.
Cover: William Parker; photo: Peter Gannushkin.