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William Parker: Song Cycle

William Parker, arguably the hardest working man in jazz, is drawing from a bottomless well of inspiration. The bassist, composer and bandleader juggles so many varied projects, ranging from circuslike big bands to electronica-enhanced free-improv collectives, that you’d think that he would hit a creative wall eventually. But these two CDs, both prominently featuring vocals, prove the contrary.

The intimate duets on Song Cycle, which pairs William Parker with vocalist Ellen Christi and singer Lisa Sokolov with pianist Yuko Fujiyama, were actually recorded in 1991 and 1993, and were set to be released in the mid-’90s. Now, almost a decade later, these recitals still resound with an air of freshness and untainted beauty. Each of the 15 songs is dedicated to artistic figures such as Don Byas, James Baldwin, Sarah Vaughan and Henry Grimes who have influenced Parker’s expansive artistic world; the entire CD, however, is dedicated to the late Jeanne Lee, who passed away in Oct. 2000.

Lee’s impassioned, ethereal blues ethos looms heavily on these duets, especially in Christi’s low-toned growls and guttural caterwauls. Christi’s vocal dynamism is matched with Parker’s emphatic bass on tunes like the secretive “Hunkpapa Song” and the wicked “A Thought for Silence,” which finds the vocalist panting, howling and wailing scarily over Parker’s lines.

While Christi and Parker are an inspired pairing, the duets between Sokolov and Fujiyama are the most compelling. On songs like the flickering “Footnote to a Dream” and the elegant “Morning Moon” Fujiyama’s pithy piano accompaniments buffer Sokolov’s more experimental screams of passion rather than try to match dissonance with dissonance.

Song Cycle is not the most easily digestible vocal album, but its transportive allure seduces with each listen.

Raining on the Moon, featuring Parker’s Quartet along with vocalist Leena Conquest, is altogether another bag, and one of the most accessible Parker dates yet. With ace free-groove drummer Hamid Drake, the slanted splendor of Rob Brown’s alto sax and the white-hot spit of Louis Barnes’ trumpet, the foursome traffics in jagged-edge swing that’s open enough for Parker’s roaming bass lines to bounce in and out of the groove and tight enough to keep a linear sense of momentum going.

While Conquest, who brilliantly evokes Nona Hendryx’s edgy R&B wails, isn’t as daring as Christi or Sokolov, she’s vital on the rumbling blues “Song of Hope” and the Afro-folk hymn “Music Song.” And even when Conquest has to sing some of Parker’s most earnest-but-awful lyrics, like the ones on the title track and “The Watermelon Song,” her inviting vocals help salvage the songs.

Raining on the Moon isn’t for your conventional jazz vocal fan, but it provides an ideal doorway into Parker’s expansive musical realm.

Originally Published