Bassist William Parker had already been a key figure on the New York jazz scene for close to 30 years in 2001. His first record date was in March 1973, on saxophonist Frank Lowe‘s Black Beings. (An additional 40 minutes of music from the same concert would be released as The Loweski in 2012.) He was also a member of alto saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc‘s group Muntu. Soon, he seemed to be everywhere, working with Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon, David S. Ware, Matthew Shipp, Roscoe Mitchell, Charles Gayle, Peter Brötzmann… He’d been making his own music since the beginning of his career, too, of course; his first album, 1981’s Through Acceptance of the Mystery Peace, included a track dating back to 1974. In the 1990s, he released CDs with his quartet In Order to Survive and the much larger Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra. But as the new century began, he formed a new group which would change his music radically.
Parker and Chicago-based drummer Hamid Drake had first worked together as part of Peter Brötzmann‘s Die Like A Dog quartet in 1993. They played together in that group off and on in the ’90s, and also worked as a team behind two other saxophonists, Norway’s Frode Gjerstad and Chicago’s Fred Anderson. Eventually they decided to partner up and recorded as a duo both live and in the studio. The natural next step, from Parker’s point of view, was to assemble a band that they could anchor together. He brought in two players he’d known for years, trumpeter Lewis “Flip” Barnes and alto saxophonist Rob Brown, and the William Parker Quartet was born. In May 2000, they recorded their debut album, O’Neal’s Porch, which was released on his own Centering Music label in January 2001, and reissued a year later on AUM Fidelity. (I still have a copy of the first edition, which came in a simple card sleeve with a folded insert.)
The album departs from Parker’s previous work from the first notes of its opening track. “Purple” is a romping, joyous hard bop number set to a Latin beat. It features an instantly memorable melody almost like a fanfare, though some slight tinges of the Ornette-goes-to-Israel melodies of John Zorn‘s Masada can be heard, too, and while Drake seems to be soloing through the entire track, he never lets the groove falter. Brown and Barnes are a brilliantly complementary front line, taking rippling, lyrical solos and harmonizing with fierce energy. Parker himself is relatively low in the mix, but he’s the throbbing heartbeat of the band.
The next track, “Sun,” establishes the paradigm that would govern the William Parker Quartet‘s output for several more albums. The Parker-Drake groove, trancelike and swinging with incredible force, was the foundation; the horns floated atop the endless rhythm like paper boats heading downstream on a river. And it truly could feel endless; “Sun” is almost 14 minutes long. Parker takes a solo at the eight-minute mark, but it’s not one of the wild bowed eruptions he’d been known for before that. It’s a straight extrapolation of the groove, almost like he’s playing the blues. And behind him, Drake keeps the tempo going as perfectly and impassively as a metronome. At one point, the horns come back in, playing long single notes like his backup vocalists, but Parker’s not done, so they fade away again.
Nothing demonstrates the dominance of the rhythm section on O’Neal’s Porch like the fact that the album contains two versions of the same piece. The first time we hear “Song for Jesus,” roughly 45 minutes into the 73-minute disc, it’s a mournful ballad, not unlike Ornette Coleman‘s “Lonely Woman.” Brown spins out long, bluesy lines, Barnes provides a countermelody on muted horn, and Parker and Drake thrum and clatter around as though they’re deciding what the groove should be. By the two and a half minute mark, the bassist has begun to throb in place, but the drummer is still exploring the kit. It’s not until the final third, after the horns drop away, that the two men lock in. And it’s brief; after less than a minute, Brown and Barnes have come back, playing the melody even more sorrowfully than before.
Two tracks later, though, we get “Song for Jesus 3/4,” a much more locked-in, rhythmically emphatic version of the same piece. It might be in a somewhat swaying waltz time, but compared to the rubato feel of the first version, it’s practically convulsive. Brown’s soloing is still in Ornette territory, but more beboppish, almost bringing to mind Jimmy Lyons at times, and Barnes is playing open horn and giving the music a more New Orleans feel. Drake’s drumming builds on that, giving it an Ed Blackwell-ish bounce.
The William Parker Quartet made two more albums, 2005’s Sound Unity and 2008’s Petit Oiseau. Adding vocalist Leena Conquest and pianist Eri Yamamoto, they made three more under the name Raining on the Moon. The quartet also formed the foundation of several other Parker ensembles, which can be heard in live recordings on the monumental Wood Flute Songs box set from 2013. And in 2017, a new version of the group, with trumpeter Jalalu-Kalvert Nelson replacing Barnes, was heard on the first disc of the two-CD set Meditation/Resurrection. But O’Neal’s Porch was where it all began, and it remains one of the most powerful statements in William Parker‘s discography.
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