Of all the projects that bassist William Parker has going—and there are many—his quartet with drummer Hamid Drake, alto saxophonist Rob Brown, and trumpeter Lewis Barnes may be his finest. Their debut, O’Neal’s Porch, ranks among the best jazz albums of the ’00s, and their follow-up, Sound Unity, was no less satisfying. Now they return with their third disc, Petit Oiseau, and it maintains the high standard we have come to expect from them.
Partly it’s the one-two punch of Parker and Drake, who constitute the best battery in the avant-garde game. Partly it’s the level at which all four musicians interact. And partly it’s the writing Parker does for this group: basic melodic outlines that draw from folk forms, set to infectious rhythms. The 18-minute opener, “Groove Street,” perfectly demonstrates what these guys can pull off. Parker states the central idea with a repeating bass line, and Drake gets the rhythm going—and stopping and going. Brown enters with a way-outside-the-box solo, Barnes jumps in with a solo rooted in both free improv and New Orleans tradition, and then the tempo shifts. Before the 18 minutes are up, the band will have touched bebop, postbop and reggae. If it sounds like three songs in one, that’s because it is: The liner notes inform us that “Groove Sweet” is really three separate compositions spliced together.
Parker stretches himself on Petit Oiseau. He tries his hand at hard bop on the title track (whose name is French for “Little Bird”), speeds it up to blazing bebop on “Four for Tommy,” and leads the band through a 7/8 workout on “The Golden Bell.” The quartet changes things up on “Dust From a Mountain,” with Parker playing an Indian cedar flute, Brown blowing into a B-flat clarinet, and Drake tapping a frame drum and a keyed percussive instrument called a balafon. The closer, “Shorter for Alan,” begins with a 6/8 folk bass phrase and devolves into complete freedom, climaxing with a hypnotic and minimalist bass solo. No matter what they do, the William Parker Quartet shows us that avant-garde music doesn’t have to be weird and off-putting. It can even swing.