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July/August 2005

William Parker Quartet
Sound Unity
AUM Fidelity
Bill Cole, William Parker
Two Masters: Live at the Prism
Boxholder Records

For many years now, bassist William Parker has devoted his enormous energies to creative improvised music. His emphasis has been two-pronged, consisting of both the jazz-based avant-gardism birthed in the '60s and a non-idiomatic strain with roots in folk cultures. This pair of albums documents Parker's two hemispheres respectively, with vastly different but equally serious results.

Sound Unity features a quartet with Parker, drummer Hamid Drake, trumpeter Lewis Barnes and alto saxophonist Rob Brown. In this regard, it's a sequel to O'Neal's Porch, the well-received album that introduced the group in 2000. The new disc, recorded live in Canada during a summer tour last year, advances Parker's claim to a post-bop experimentalism that swings. Barnes and Brown make an engaging frontline pair, proficient in impromptu tandem movements as well as witty call and response; Drake and Parker, as they've proven elsewhere, form a dynamic rhythmic axis. Altogether, the quartet often suggests Ornette Coleman, in terms of both rhythm and color. But notwithstanding "Wood Flute Song," a tribute to Coleman's old partner Don Cherry, it reaches beyond emulation for its own progressive means.

Two Masters reaches even further, past the orthodoxies of harmony and rhythm. Taking the lead of multi-reedist Bill Cole, in whose Untempered Ensemble he plays, Parker rifles through a handful of nonwestern instruments: Indonesian flute, Malian harplike doson ngoni and African talking drum among them. The results are incantatory and almost fully abstract-if Cole and Parker aren't free-improvising, then they're doing a good impression of it. Melodies do emerge organically, as on "Bird and Branch." But this isn't music about line or form so much as spirit. So while it lacks the cohesion of Sound Unity (which actually may be appropriately named), it's worth noting that Parker has a different kind of unity in mind here.

Originally published in July/August 2005
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