Discussed in this essay: William Parker Trio, Painter’s Spring (Thirsty Ear, 2000); William Parker Trio, Painters Winter (AUM Fidelity, 2021); Other Dimensions in Music, Live at the Sunset (Marge, 2007)
William Parker had been a close musical partner of pianist Matthew Shipp since at least the early 1990s. They first appeared on record together on saxophonist David S. Ware’s Flight of I, which was recorded in December 1991. Between 1991 and 2000, they made over 20 albums together, either under Shipp’s name or as a duo, or with Ware, or saxophonist Ivo Perelman, or guitarist Joe Morris. So when Shipp became the artistic director of the Thirsty Ear label’s Blue Series, a collection of modern avant-garde jazz recordings which would ultimately span more than 60 albums over nearly two decades, one of the first was William Parker’s Painter’s Spring, a trio disc featuring saxophonist Daniel Carter and drummer Hamid Drake.
The album was recorded on April 2, 2000 at Andrei Strobert’s Strobe Light studio in Greenwich Village. Parker made a half dozen albums there between 2000 and Strobert’s death in 2006. A drummer himself, Strobert engineered the music very cleanly, with minimal reverb and just enough room sound to give it life. In addition to six of his own compositions, Parker brought in Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” and the gospel song “There is a Balm in Gilead,” performing the latter as a bass solo.
The album begins almost in medias res; “Foundation #1” kicks off with no preamble, Parker and Drake bouncing through a rocking/swinging groove, the drummer dancing on the hi-hat and periodically rolling across the snare and floor tom. At the one-minute mark, Carter comes in on tenor sax, blowing like Joe Henderson in the ’70s, blustery and introspective at once. After about four minutes of simmering, conversational improvisation, he vanishes and the rhythm section rolls along for a minute or so on their own. When Carter comes back, he’s just a little bit more intense, but still maintaining both the groove and the mood. Intriguingly, the piece ends with a fade, rare in jazz, especially so in free jazz where one is expected to document a moment. This was one of the earliest signs that the Blue Series as a whole would present jazz in ways that pop and rock listeners could understand and connect with.
There are two more tracks named “Foundation” on Painter’s Spring — parts 2 and 4, respectively. There is no 3. “Foundation #2” is more piercing; Carter’s playing alto sax, and he’s got a weird sound on the instrument, like he’s aiming for the cavernousness of the tenor but somehow also managing to conjure the nasal reed sound of the soprano. Parker and Drake are aggressive, throbbing and tumbling around the studio like young bears wrestling. “Foundation #4,” the shortest of the three, is also the least structured; each man seems to be headed down his own path. Parker and Drake, in particular, often leave perceptible spaces between phrases, punctuating their thoughts with silence. Only in the final two minutes do they lock into a pattern, and Carter senses the way the wind is blowing and offers some of his bluesiest playing of the entire album.
The version of Ellington’s “Come Sunday” is fascinating. Parker’s relationship with Ellington is loving and fraught at once, like a father to a son, though it’s actually closer to grandfather-grandson (not chronologically, but artistically), with Charles Mingus in between. The melody is there, and the bass line is remarkably straightforward and thoroughly swinging, but Carter is more concerned with atmosphere than fidelity to a tune or an arrangement. He starts out on flute, before moving to bass clarinet, which he plays in a low and subdued manner, avoiding the anguished cries of Eric Dolphy. Drake’s playing is incredible here, emphatic and swinging with every accent perfectly timed but still somehow loose and alive.
In his book Universal Tonality: The Life and Music of William Parker, Cisco Bradley writes, “The band never played again. This seems not a result of the music itself as much as other Parker projects taking precedence at the time. With his quartet getting significant attention and plenty of work, this trio fell by the wayside. But it remains an interesting document of Parker’s early work with Drake in a pared-down setting, with Carter navigating the rhythms adeptly with his expert improviser’s ear.”
Six years later, the three men did reunite, under unexpected circumstances. Parker and Carter were both members of the quartet Other Dimensions in Music, alongside trumpeter Roy Campbell Jr. and drummer Charles Downs, aka Rashid Bakr. Their performances, always fully improvised, spanned a broad range of free jazz modes, from Ornette Coleman-esque joyousness to Albert Ayler-ish squall. In October 2006, they were booked for two nights at the Sunset, a club in Paris, France, but Downs couldn’t make the gig, so Drake subbed in, and a live album was recorded — the two-CD set Live at the Sunset, on the Marge label. With Downs behind the kit, ODIM were always an extremely loose and wandering group, his extremely free approach (before joining ODIM, he played in Jemeel Moondoc’s group Muntu and then with Cecil Taylor) allowing Campbell and Carter to have extended conversations as Parker rumbled beneath. Drake, on the other hand, turned the group into a locked-in, groove-based machine, and titles like “Hip Bop,” “Desert Dance,” “Blues for Baghdad” and “Blues Configuration” tell the tale. This is effectively the William Parker Trio all over again, plus Campbell.
And now, 15 years after that ODIM gig, they’re back one more time. The title Painters Winter suggests a direct sequel to the first album, but two decades have passed, and everyone involved is a different person now. The Blue Series is no more; this album is on AUM Fidelity, one of Parker’s other longtime homes. And were it not for that title, it would be a stretch to establish a connection between this music and the earlier work.
Where Painter’s Spring contained eight tracks, almost all of which were between five and eight minutes long, Painters Winter has just five, and four of them stretch past the ten-minute mark; the album’s finale, “A Curley Russell,” runs nearly 16 minutes. But length isn’t the only thing that gives these pieces a completely different feel. The way Parker and Drake communicate with Carter on the opening “Groove 77” is…they don’t. They lock in, creating the kind of endlessly shifting but locked-in and trancelike pulse they’ve spent the last two decades cultivating and mastering, and he goes completely against the grain. He’s emitting long tones and wandering phrases that are interesting in their own way, but seem at times like a deliberate counterpoint to their work, as though he’s more interested in disruption than joining whatever collective they’re proposing.
The title track is up next. On it, Parker puts down his bass and picks up a trombonium, an obscure instrument that has the timbral range of a trombone but uses valves rather than a slide and is held vertically like a tuba; it was intended for use in marching bands. Carter plays flute, and together the two men create a gentle, chamber music-like atmosphere with Drake rolling gently across the toms and cymbals behind them.
The closest thing on Painters Winter to its predecessor is the third track, “Happiness.” It’s a slow, patient blues exploration that picks up briefly, near the four-minute mark, before settling down again. At its midpoint, Parker erupts in a frenetic bowed solo, as though to divide the piece in two; in the second half, Drake truly steps out, delivering a complex polyrhythmic performance that seems to encompass every part of the kit at once without ever feeling scattered or undisciplined.
The album’s final piece, “A Curley Russell,” is another journey through the free blues. It’s nearly 16 minutes long, and somewhat trancelike in the way the groove just seems to roll on and on, not unlike the work of Parker’s quartet with Drake, alto saxophonist Rob Brown, and trumpeter Lewis “Flip” Barnes. Carter is in some ways too thoughtful a player to thrive in a context like this, though; he seems to be forever coming in and out, rather than maintaining a consistent presence, though he’s not actively working against the others as he did on “Groove 77.”
In some ways, Painters Winter feels less like a sequel to Painter’s Spring than like eavesdropping on the end of a years-long conversation one heard only the beginning of. The two albums might seem connected by more than just personnel if there were three or four others in between, allowing the listener to hear these three men’s collective language evolve from the twitchy energy of the early days to the cool, spacious meditations of 2021. Still, the trio are in tune enough that even if they do seem to set a foot wrong once or twice, it’s only for a moment.