Bassist/composer William Parker has a new three-CD box, For Those Who Are, Still, out next week on AUM Fidelity. (Buy it straight from the label for $30, or $50 for a copy signed by Parker.) It contains three extended pieces for larger-than-usual ensembles, and a shorter piece built around vocalist Leena Conquest. Some of the music dates back 15 years, while the other pieces are more recent.
The first disc begins with “For Fannie Lou Hamer,” a composition performed at the Kitchen in 2000 that features the Kitchen House Blend Band, an ensemble consisting of violinist Todd Reynolds, cellist Shiau-Shu Yu, winds players JD Parran and Sam Furnace, trumpeter Ravi Best, trombonist Masahiko Kono, pianist Kathleen Supové, bassist Nicki Parrot, and drummer JT Lewis. Also included on that disc is “Vermeer,” a song series recorded in 2011 featuring Conquest, soprano and tenor saxophonist Darryl Foster, pianist Eri Yamamoto, and Parker on bass and hocchiku.
Stream an exclusive excerpt from “For Fannie Lou Hamer,” and “Essence,” from “Vermeer”:
The second disc contains “Red Giraffe with Dreadlocks,” a piece performed by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay on voice and electronic shruti box; Mola Sylla on voice, mbira and ngoni; Bill Cole on double-reed instruments; Rob Brown on alto saxophone; Klaas Hekman on bass saxophone and flute; Cooper-Moore on piano; Parker on bass; and Hamid Drake on drums. This piece was recorded in Paris in 2012.
The third disc features the title piece, “Ceremonies for Those Who are Still,” dedicated to Rustam “Roost” Abdullaev, a Russian musician Parker knew. Commissioned by the Polish National Forum of Music, it was premiered at the Jazztopad Festival in Wroclaw in November 2013, and was recorded by Polish radio. It’s performed by the NFM Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jan Jakub Bokun, with soloists from the NFM Choir. It’s preceded by “Escapade for Sonny,” an improvisation by Charles Gayle on tenor and soprano saxophones and piano; Parker on bass, doson ngoni and bamboo flutes; and Mike Reed on drums, that’s dedicated to Sonny Rollins.
William Parker answered a few questions about the box via email.
“For Fannie Lou Hamer” dates back 15 years. What made you pull it out of the archives?
Ever since we did the piece, I have always wanted to release it on CD. If you look back at all my work from Through Acceptance of the Mystery Peace to the Centering box set on NoBusiness Records, there is a huge variety of styles of music. I felt the Kitchen House Blend Band was different than any ensemble I had worked with before, because I did not pick the instrumentation or the players. I got the offer to write for this ensemble, and it was the first time I was writing for instruments rather than individual musicians. We had a couple of rehearsals and I added Leena Conquest on my own; she did not sing on the other pieces those evenings [Kitchen House Blend – Series 2 also featured compositions by Zeena Parkins and Roy Nathanson]. The approach to the music was very open as usual and the musicians gravitated towards that freedom.
“Red Giraffe With Dreadlocks” combines sounds from various cultures, but in a way that emphasizes their commonality rather than collaging them in a “world music” sort of way. As a composer, is that a challenge, to shed the preconceptions that certain sounds, or instruments, carry with them and use them in a purer way that allows them to be combined and blended in this way?
I use a concept called “Universal Tonality” which deals with the idea that there are no musical keys or sound restrictions in music. There were three events that led me to discover this idea.
In the 1970s, I was doing many free music rehearsals where you would walk into a room, say nothing (about the music to be played) and play for three hours straight. I learned that I could superimpose or create spontaneous chord changes to any kind of music or tune, and any note or sound would work. I began to understand the difference between notes and sounds and that I was a sound player. I did not think in terms of notes; I thought in terms of sound.
The second discovery came when I was playing in a Cuban folkloric band; this was in the ’80s. I was the youngest member of the band. When I arrived I thought I would have to play Latin bass lines. They told me to play what I play; they said the real Cuban music is universal and sounds more like free jazz then it does Cuban music. They also told me that the real music never gets exported; we only export the more easy listening music.
The third discovery was later on in the early ’90s, when I did a concert in Philadelphia with the drummer Harold Smith and Steve Turre, plus some Cherokee Indian singers and dancers. In addition there was a didgeridoo ensemble. Just like the music from the ’70s nothing was said, the Cherokee singers and dancers came in and out seamlessly. Steve played his conch shells in and out and I did what I do, everything coming together beautifully. Then I had a vision that if you took master musicians from Japan, Mali, Cuba, the Bronx, Alabama, India, Scotland, and Turkey and said to them, “When I count to three, the music will begin,” they could all play together without worrying about what they were going to play. What key or tempo, etc., and this could work and it would be called Universal Tonality. But the musicians would have to be those who did not play exported music. I have done about five concerts like this and I hope to release more of this material in the future. Some of it is a blend of rap and free jazz, poetry and world music instruments.
“Ceremonies For Those Who Are Still” is your first piece for symphony orchestra. What did you need to learn about composition in order to try a piece of this scope? How different is it from arranging a piece for Little Huey, or the Curtis Mayfield or Duke Ellington bands?
I actually wrote my first composition for symphony orchestra in 1978; it was called “Straits Segments” and was dedicated to the filmmaker Hollis Frampton. At that time I studied all the transpositions and ranges for all the instruments in the orchestra. In the early ’70s, the saxophone player Daniel Carter was heavily into writing chamber music, so it was in the air. The thing is to get the orchestra to sound like the music you are writing, and you can always tell or should be able to tell that an improvising musician has written a piece of music, because the training and sensibility is different. The more time you have to rehearse and work with the orchestra, the closer they will get to the method of developing an individual sound. If you listen to the Encore piece on this CD, the conductor brings the orchestra in, then I asked him to leave the stage so for five minutes they were alone without a conductor. If you were to extend that to 10, 20, 30, 40 minutes, then slowly take away the written music, you would begin to have an improvising orchestra with self conduction. But it takes time to teach this system; every composer has their own system, or least should have, regardless of who they studied with. The music I wrote for the Little Huey and Duke Ellington and Curtis Mayfield bands I was writing for the players. Until you know the orchestra players, you are writing for instruments.