The Irreducible William Parker
Nathan Bajar for The New York Times
The bassist, bandleader and composer’s 10-disc “Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World” invites you to listen, and let the music do its work.
By Alan Scherstuhl
Feb. 8, 2021
“Listen,” the singer Raina Sokolov-Gonzalez implores in the opening notes of the monumental new boxed set from William Parker, the champion of improvised music, community building and appreciation of beauty.
Parker composed the track as “a map or a mantra” to the outsize collection of music that follows, the 10 CDs of new material that make up the bassist and composer’s recently released “Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World.” For many, free jazz or creative music has a reputation, justified or not, for being off-putting or difficult. But “Listen,” a stirring sliver of a track, declares that we only need to know one thing to enter what Parker has long called “the tone world”: How to hear. The set’s second track, a storming ’70s R&B groove played by jazz trio and string quartet, finds Sokolov-Gonzalez celebrating what Parker believes can happen once our ears are tuned in: “Cosmic funk will save the world.”
Parker, a bandleader and composer who was once declared by The Village Voice “the most consistently brilliant free jazz bassist of all time,” explained his conception of a “tone world” over video interview in late January. “When you play music in this world, you’re actually stepping into another world,” he said from his apartment in Lower Manhattan. “No matter what’s happening with you, whether you owe 10 months’ rent, or you’re dealing with some kind of mental anxiety or hardship, the music takes over and you step into the tone world.”
He elaborated with an analogy in which sound is water. “When it vibrates, it turns into steam and changes properties and appearance,” he said. “When it changes, you step into another place, and in there there’s a vision of a corridor of light. You walk down the corridor, and at the end there’s a door. Behind that door are the secrets of life.”
Since 2011 Parker has published three volumes of his conversations with other musicians and thinkers about music, spiritualism, politics, race and culture. (A fourth is forthcoming.) He has written books, lyrics, poetry and liner notes urging us to find transcendence in beauty, as well as blistering manifestoes that attack how systems of racism and capitalism staunch imagination and keep children and musicians starving.
So, if some practical part of you balks at this talk of “corridors of light” in our age of unrest, remember his imperative: “Listen.”
“Every time you play music, you’re able to open that door and take one of the secrets of life out and keep that,” Parker continued, his eyes animated behind his signature black glasses. “When the music stops, it isn’t the music that actually stops — you stop. The music continues on. So, you play music again, and you play it again, and each time you get a glimpse of what’s beautiful.”
For Parker, 69, music is healing, solace and love. He suggests that listening is something like walking outside and looking up: “No matter where you are, no matter what’s happening, you look up and you’ll see a beautiful sky. I’ve never seen an ugly sky. It’s just ringing with hope and joy. That’s our teacher.”
In the world of improvised music, Parker is foundational. A key player in the ’70s loft scene, and a crucial collaborator in the ’80s and ’90s in bands led by Cecil Taylor and David S. Ware, he’s recorded over 50 albums as a leader, including classics like “O’Neal’s Porch,” “Piercing the Veil” and “Wood Flute Songs,” a bumper crop boxed set of live recordings from the first decade of this millennium.
He’s a tireless collaborator who, in non-pandemic times, plays dozens of shows a year, in concert halls and record-store basements, with established and ad hoc bands, sometimes with compositions to spring from and often without. Patricia Nicholson, the dancer and activist who has been his spouse since 1975, organizes the annual Vision Festival, which gives a vital platform to avant-garde and free jazz musicians and other artists, and is a culmination of the couple’s decades of nurturing creativity and community.
Credit…Nathan Bajar for The New York Times
“Musicians are philosophers,” Parker said. “They’re scientists, thinkers, multidimensional people. This community has a wealth of stories that could help people.”
He’s the kind of figure it might be tempting to label a giant if such shorthand weren’t sure to strike him as distastefully hierarchical. Talk to his colleagues, and you’ll hear stories of him personally driving the stage to a gig, or aiding a stalwart of the avant-garde in accessing Social Security benefits, or leading street protests, or simply going out of his way to make each contributor to a project feel as free as he does.
“He’s a wonderful person,” said the pianist and composer Eri Yamamoto, a Parker collaborator who plays an album’s worth of his solo piano compositions on the new set. “He trusts musicians, and challenges us, and reminds us to be strict with ourselves but also humble.” She recalled once asking, as she studied an ambiguous mark on the music he had written, whether she was to play in E or E flat. “He said, ‘If you feel E major, it’s E major. If you feel E minor, it’s E minor.”
The sound artist Fay Victor also takes inspiration from Parker: “He shows ways to keep expanding creatively, to pursue every creative avenue, all while being incredibly generous and not expecting much fanfare for it.” Citing the nonprofit that Nicholson and Parker founded, she added, “More than almost anybody outside of the Village Vanguard and Smalls, Arts for Art has really kept the music going in the pandemic.”
Victor sings Parker’s lyrics on “Harlem Speaks,” the downtown boxed set’s hard-swinging volume that serves as a tribute to uptown Black genius. On the disc, Victor performs in a trio with Parker (on bass, a double-reeded gralla and a pair of African instruments, the guembri and the balafon) and his longtime percussion collaborator, Hamid Drake. The music is fully collaborative and wildly unpredictable, as the singer and the instrumentalists each follow their own inspirations — and, of course, always listen. It’s also deeply personal: “Dancing at the Savoy” celebrates the storied ballroom where Parker’s parents met for the first time. In 1943 they danced into the tone world and discovered each other.
Parker’s art and family history get explored at length in Cisco Bradley’s illuminating new critical study “Universal Tonality,” the first William Parker book that William Parker didn’t have to write himself. Parker appreciates the attention — he called it the story of how he rose “from rags to enlightenment. Note that I didn’t say riches” — but still encourages musicians to tell their own stories, and not just because critics can be slow to catch up.
“Musicians are philosophers,” he said. “They’re scientists, thinkers, multidimensional people. This community has a wealth of stories that could help people.”
Outside of “Harlem Speaks,” Parker doesn’t play bass much on the new set. Instead, the 10 albums center on his work as a composer or as an improviser on a variety of reeds, flutes and other global instruments in an array of unique settings. The suite “Lights in the Rain” celebrates Fellini, Rossellini, Leone and other Italian film directors with a chamber jazz group boasting harmonica, oboe and two bassists; “Manzanar” finds Parker’s Universal Tonality String Quartet swelling and plucking through pieces dedicated to Indigenous peoples while Parker plays a Navajo flute or a Thai mouth organ. The unclassifiable “The Majesty of Jah” features the vocalist Ellen Christi and the trumpeter Jalalu-Kalvert Nelson manipulating and overdubbing a 10-year-old recording session into a layered and meditative soundscape, complete with urgent declarations sampled from James Baldwin.
Parker is irreducible, as such explorations demonstrate. A global-minded musician deeply committed to and inspired by the world outside his window. A working-class populist of the avant-garde who believes that when people actually hear this music they appreciate and understand it.
“He’s like Sun Ra,” said Daniel Carter, the multi-instrumentalist improviser and veteran of over five decades on the free and creative music scene. “He’s figured out his own way of how to get his message out to the world.” Carter, who still records challenging and engaging music well after his 70th birthday, first collaborated with Parker in the 1970s. He added, “I’ve always felt that William set a standard that I never wanted to disregard, either as a musician or spiritually as a person.”
Or, as Victor put it, “William is a beacon of light and wisdom.”
A version of this article appears in print on Feb. 9, 2021, Section C, Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: The Irreducible William Parker. To see the original New Times posting, click here.