Bright Moments with William Parker

A prime mover of the avant-garde selects highlights from his vast discography

William Parker
William Parker (photo: Peter Gannushkin)

To work on an installment of Bright Moments featuring the bassist and composer William Parker can feel like an exercise in futility. But not because he’s uncooperative or vague. In his cozy East Village apartment in January, Parker, 67, proved an exceedingly kind and gentle presence and a strikingly thoughtful interview. Storytelling is yet another of his gifts, and his recall borders on the encyclopedic; circumstances and chronology come easy, as do the Manhattan cross streets for apartments and venues that haven’t existed in decades.

Rather, the Bright Moments concept bows under the weight of Parker’s tremendous oeuvre. This is an artist who seems to offer up multi-disc box sets more frequently than others put out albums, and whose Sessionography, helmed by Rick Lopez and released in 2014, runs nearly 500 pages. Within these leader recordings and collaborations is a staggering range of creative situations—from solo recitals to duos to small-group free improvisation, era-defining working bands and sprawling thematic projects for large ensemble and voices.

Space constraints dictated that this edited conversation would shortchange vital comrades like pianist Matthew Shipp, multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter, and Parker’s wife Patricia Nicholson, a dancer, poet, and founder of the New York-based Vision Festival, whose 2019 edition will celebrate drummer Andrew Cyrille in June. Certain sessions couldn’t be shoehorned in either. A volume two of this piece might, for instance, begin with 2008’s Beyond Quantum, a revelatory communion between Parker, saxophonist Anthony Braxton, and drummer Milford Graves; continue with an album from Farmers by Nature, with pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver; and move into 2015’s Ceremonies for Those Who Are Still, a document of the first full symphony orchestra performance of Parker’s original music.

What’s here, however, inarguably testifies to the passion and versatility that have defined this avant-garde titan over the past half-century. “The world of sound and music is so big,” he says. “Every day you discover something new about it. And you find you have all these beautiful colors and these wonderful friends called sound and music. And it’s great. It really is great.”


Frank Lowe

Black Beings (ESP-Disk’, 1973)
Lowe, tenor saxophone; Joseph Jarman, soprano and alto saxophones; the Wizard, violin; Parker, bass; Rashid Sinan, drums

Frank was a gentle person, and very open to all kinds of music. I met Frank on the scene, and he asked me to play with him at the Artist House, Ornette Coleman’s place. A lot of people thought it was Leroy Jenkins on violin, but it was Raymond Lee Cheng. He called himself the Wizard; he was into mythology, cartoons, and allegorical structures. I wasn’t aware it was being recorded. It was edited way down, because we played two nights.

[This] was in the period where Frank was really exploring the upper register of the saxophone. There was nobody speaking in that area like Frank. He had a sky-like, human-cry tone on his horn. Later on he began to play more [in a way where you] heard a connection between him and Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. But here the music was really high-energy. We could play one up piece and another up piece and keep going and going and going—because people were touched by Coltrane. It was still in the air; it was still in the spirit of the music.


Jemeel Moondoc

Muntu Recordings (NoBusiness, 2010)
Moondoc, alto saxophone; Roy Campbell Jr. or Arthur Williams, trumpet; Mark Hennen, piano; Parker, bass; Rashid Bakr, drums

Jemeel Moondoc and Arthur Williams had come from Ohio. They were playing out there with Cecil Taylor [in his Antioch College-based Black Music Ensemble]. Jemeel heard me somewhere [in New York] and invited me to a rehearsal. We worked a lot. Jemeel was writing some very beautiful, majestic compositions that we could improvise off of. It was a great training ground to play every day for three, four hours and not worry so much about gigs. I was still living in the projects in the Bronx, so I didn’t have to pay any rent, and I was coming down to Manhattan. We played all the time, everywhere you could play, all the lofts.

[These recordings had] never been converted to CD [prior to this set, which captures performances between 1975 and ’79 and includes one previously unissued date]. One [of the concerts], “The Evening of the Blue Men,” was great because it was recorded at St. Mark’s Church. It was at these churches like St. Mark’s and Judson [Memorial] that people did concerts—you could rent the church for 25 bucks. Everybody was up, young, and really playing at that time.


Cecil Taylor

Calling It the 8th (Hat Musics, 1983)
Taylor, piano; Jimmy Lyons, alto saxophone; Parker, bass; Rashid Bakr, drums

We did a concert in the afternoon in Zürich, and then they drove us to Freiburg, Germany, and we did an evening concert [recorded in 1981 for this release]. It was sort of a putting-it-together concert, because it was our first European tour with Jimmy Lyons and Rashid Bakr. I had joined Cecil in December of 1980. We did a lot of rehearsals, but this was the first time we had played every night. The recipes were changing, and the relationships were changing.

When we had our first rehearsal, Ornette and Cecil were rehearsing before us, doing these duets. And the first rehearsal, he’s giving me the notes, and it seemed like, “What does Cecil need me for? He’s playing all the parts.” That was the first few minutes. And then I said [to myself], “No, he’s not playing all the parts. So what do I play? Well, play it the way you play.” You have to push [Cecil]. You have to inspire him. You have to move the music and be moved by the music. And the way I did it was just by being myself.

We were playing sambas with Cecil. And you say, “I don’t hear a samba.” Listen again—you hear it. Sambas, polkas, waltzes, 6/8, 5/8, 9/8. You could play everything in the music, because you were free to play anything. That’s what I learned: No sound left behind.

Charles Gayle and William Parker, Damrosch Park, New York, June 1994
Charles Gayle (left) and William Parker, Damrosch Park, New York, June 1994 (photo: Alan Nahigian)


Charles Gayle/William Parker/Rashied Ali

Touchin’ on Trane (FMP, 1993)
Gayle, tenor saxophone; Parker, bass; Rashied Ali, drums

I met Charles Gayle in 1973, out in Brooklyn. He was playing trumpet and violin; I didn’t even know he played saxophone. Rashied knew Charles, so we said, “Okay, let’s hit it.” And bam, we hit it. And that’s all it was. [Parker explained earlier that the two sessions resulting in this album were part of the Total Music Meeting in Berlin in 1991.—Ed.] Then, later on, Rashied said, “We’re going to call the group By Any Means Necessary.” He had another group where he played tunes, and Charles had another trio, and I had other things I was doing. But when we got together, it was always like, “One, two, three—hit it.”

Not too many people knew about Charles. Then he resurfaced in the early ’80s. Charles was a legend, in a way. One, two, three, whomp. Musically he has this energy—an electric, acoustic, organic energy coming out of his horn. And everybody who heard it said you could hear all the history of the saxophone in there: Sonny Rollins, Albert Ayler, Coltrane. But it was Charles. Later, Charles started playing the piano, and I heard Charles playing a Monk tune; and then he starts playing some Mozart. He’s just a fantastic musician, and everybody who met him discovered that.


Die Like a Dog

Fragments of Music, Life and Death of Albert Ayler (FMP, 1994)
Peter Brötzmann, saxophone; Toshinori Kondo, trumpet, electronics; Parker, bass; Hamid Drake, drums          

This was the first time I played with Hamid. Peter Brötzmann, he didn’t tell you what to play. When you hear him, it might seem like, if you played a backbeat, he’d say, “Don’t play that.” Hamid played backbeats. He played rhythms. We played that time-dance thing, which I used to do with Billy Higgins. Hamid was the first drummer to play with Brötzmann who did that.

Everything that came through him as a drummer, he played, and it was a great counterpoint to what Brötzmann was doing. Hamid and I are crisscrossing in our world with this rhythmic dance that could start from Chicago; next stop, New York; next stop, the Bronx; next stop, Louisiana; next stop, North Africa; next stop, China; back up to where the Inuits live. That was the beginning of that idea of contrasts, of [creating] a whole landscape of rhythm that people played over. It was a great start to a great relationship [with Hamid]. I had played with Brötzmann starting in the early ’80s, with Han Bennink and Tony Oxley, and it was different. Peter was the same, but the background was different.

Let me clear this up, too. A lot of people say that Peter Brötzmann sounds like Albert Ayler. He doesn’t. Albert Ayler had a gospel thing, even a sweet thing. He had a totally different sound than Peter. Peter’s intensity might be tinged by [the Ayler aesthetic], but it also comes from being German and growing up after World War II. Peter’s also a poet. Peter’s a birdwatcher. He likes to garden. He’s a complex person who shouldn’t be labeled.

Parker, David S. Ware, and Muhammad Ali at the Abrons Art Center, New York, 2011
Left to right: William Parker, David S. Ware, and Muhammad Ali at the Abrons Art Center, New York, 2011 (photo: Alan Nahigian)


David S. Ware
Go See the World (Columbia, 1998)

Ware, tenor saxophone; Matthew Shipp, piano; Parker, bass; Susie Ibarra, drums

With David, we’d have this ritual of rehearsing—and rehearsing and rehearsing. This was a particularly moving [period], because every time David played it was like enlightenment. He really was studying, and his sound—he was going inside. Matthew was in his world, and Susie was a thread to pull things together [and to] also push the music. We were lucky to have Columbia, so we thought. Unfortunately, the air came out of that contract.

But I do think the music reached the people it had [to reach]. That band was popular with the people who needed to hear the music. That phrase—the people who needed to hear it—is very important. When you do a concert, you never know who’s coming in—if that person is off the tracks, and they hear that sound and they’re back on. Later on, you might be riding the subway and they tap you on the shoulder and say, “Aren’t you William Parker? You played at my high school 20 years ago and that music saved my life,” or, “My father was having cancer treatment and it really uplifted him.” And that’s what it’s really about.

If you look at David’s career, he always played standards [like this album’s inspired rendition of “The Way We Were”], particular tunes he liked to play. I think maybe that comes from the fact that Sonny Rollins played standards. David was a good friend of Sonny’s; they used to practice and study together. That [performance] was a natural extension of something David did, though David didn’t try to imitate. We never played the changes. It was always about playing the melody and then creating off of the tune, and it grew because David was David. There were no sacrifices, no punches pulled.


William Parker

I Plan to Stay a Believer: The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield (AUM Fidelity, 2010)
Parker, bass, donso n’goni, balafon; Lewis Barnes, trumpet; Sabir Mateen, alto and tenor saxophones, flute; Darryl Foster, tenor and soprano saxophones; Dave Burrell, piano; Hamid Drake, drums; Amiri Baraka, voice, poetry; Leena Conquest, vocals; with guests on select tracks: Lafayette Gilchrist, piano; Guillermo E. Brown, drums; New Life Tabernacle Generation of Praise Choir of Brooklyn; Paris-based children’s choir, percussionists, and orchestra

Curtis Mayfield, all his music was like a soundtrack in the projects. You heard it all the time on the radio. With [my band] In Order to Survive, I’d done a piece called “Sitting by the Window,” which is about a dream I had of Curtis Mayfield sitting in a wheelchair looking out a window. I was really touched by him and the fact that he was paralyzed, because he was a very serious musician.

[This project was recorded live between 2001 and 2008] in different places [including Paris, Massachusetts, Switzerland, New York, and Italy]. [For the Paris portion] I had a 90-[member] children’s choir and about 25 djembe players with a 15-piece amateur orchestra. I sent the kids the Curtis Mayfield music—these are mostly African kids who live in Paris—and they learned the songs in English. I went there two weeks before the concert, and I would go to one school one day, another school another day, and rehearse the music with them.

The band was picked because all the musicians were familiar with Curtis’ music and had played it in soul bands. Amiri Baraka would compose an extension of the words and the sentiment of the song. When we rehearsed in Paris, Baraka said, “What’s the first one?” He just takes out a piece of paper and spontaneously begins to write. He said, “Let’s try it.” And on to the next song. So it was really hot off the press.


William Parker Orchestra

Essence of Ellington: Live in Milano (Centering, 2012)
Parker, bass, arrangements, compositions; Roy Campbell, trumpet, flugelhorn; Matt Lavelle, trumpet; Willie Applewhite, Steve Swell, trombones; Rob Brown, Darius Jones, alto saxophones; Ras Moshe, soprano and tenor saxophones; Sabir Mateen, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Kidd Jordan, tenor saxophone; Dave Sewelson, baritone saxophone; Dave Burrell, piano; Hamid Drake, drums; Ernie Odoom, voice

In my house, the first music I heard, when I was seven or eight, was Duke Ellington. Every night, my father would come home and put on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” from Ellington at Newport. We’d have a dance contest, me and my brother, and we’d dance to Paul Gonsalves’ solo. It was my father’s dream to have me and my brother play in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Because everything was Duke. When Ella at Duke’s Place came out and Duke had on that blue sharkskin suit [on the cover], he would go try to find us a sharkskin suit. My father’s idols were musicians. So that’s how my relationship with Duke Ellington began.

I didn’t realize that my father wanted me to play in Duke Ellington’s orchestra until way after he died, because he never said that. But it makes sense, because he gave me a trumpet and my brother an alto saxophone. Later on he gave me a trombone. I could practice all day long and he never said, “Go get a job.” So Essence of Ellington was, “Okay, how can I pay tribute to my father and also play some of Ellington’s music?” Because I loved Ellington’s music. When Duke got that band jumping [claps and hollers in rhythm], and got to the center of the music and let it go … it seemed to me that that was the connection between Duke and Cecil [Taylor]: He wasn’t trying to control [his musicians]; he was hiring you to be yourself and let it go and follow it.

I picked some of Ellington’s music, and we’d do some original music. “Caravan” had no arrangement. We said, “Everybody know ‘Caravan’?” This is like 10 minutes before the concert. “Okay, Rob [Brown], you start it off.” And that was it. “In a Sentimental Mood,” the same thing. It’s intuitive trust in the musicians. Once that flow begins, it just goes. That was the idea—to get to the essence, the part that makes the music sing.

The William Parker Quartet, 2007: Rob Brown, Parker, Hamid Drake, and Lewis Barnes
The William Parker Quartet, 2007 (left to right): Rob Brown, Parker, Hamid Drake, and Lewis Barnes (photo: Nick Ruechel)


William Parker
Wood Flute Songs: Anthology/Live 2006-2012 (AUM Fidelity, 2013)

Parker, bass, compositions; Lewis Barnes, trumpet; Rob Brown, alto saxophone; Hamid Drake, drums. Plus [in a septet] Billy Bang, violin; Bobby Bradford, cornet; James Spaulding, alto saxophone; [in the AMR Ensemble] Ludovic Lagana, trumpet; Philippe Ehinger, bass clarinet; Maurice Magnoni, soprano saxophone; Manu Gesseney, alto saxophone; Stéphane Métraux, tenor saxophone; Aina Rakotobe, baritone saxophone; Massimo Pinca, bass; Ernie Odoom, voice; [with Raining on the Moon] Eri Yamamoto, piano; Leena Conquest, vocals; [with In Order to Survive] Cooper-Moore, piano

People come up to me and say, “Do you ever write music? Oh? I never heard you play a walking bassline.” And I say, well, then obviously they don’t listen to my music! Those kinds of people, they have this idea: “These guys only can do this [free improvisation], and that’s what they do and I don’t want to listen to that.” This year I did a beautiful big band in Tel Aviv; we did one in Switzerland; we did one just recently at Towson University in Baltimore. Throughout the year I’ll do 10 concerts around the world with big ensembles that no one ever hears. If it’s recorded and it comes out good, why not put it on an anthology? So Wood Flute Songs was put out as a retrospective, with the quartet and the [12-piece] AMR Ensemble and the different live performances [by other groups] that weren’t edited so much.

Billy Bang was one of the first musicians I played with in the ’70s. I was living in the projects, and he’d come up and we’d be practicing and my mom would be making dinner for us. Billy was a unique person who had escaped one sort of element, growing up black in America, and then going to Vietnam, which happened to cause his death; he died of lung cancer brought on by Agent Orange. That was his specter all his life: the ghost of Vietnam. On the other hand, Billy was a triple-A student. He was going to school in Harlem and he got sent to a private school, the same school Jackie Robinson’s son went to. He and Arlo Guthrie were classmates. He was just a brilliant guy. Who knows how far he could have gone?

I also met Cooper-Moore in the early ’70s. His name was Gene Ashton at the time, and he was playing with David S. Ware in a group called Apogee, and he was very intense. He had a connection to modern music, but he also had a connection to folk music, to living in rural Virginia and learning how to survive by inventing things. I think that’s what got him into instrument making—the fact that he knew how to sew, he knew how to cut wood, he knew how to put things together. A great musician, but also a brilliant person. And he’s been on the road to enlightenment since I met him.

Oliver Lake/William Parker
To Roy (Intakt, 2015)
Lake, saxophone; Parker, bass

I thought this recording had a flavor to it—an immediacy, a tinge of sadness, on some of the pieces. It was soulful. You have to do repeated listenings. I think the more you listen to it, the more you’ll discover in it. In some of [my past collaborations], I was trying to make things happen that were never going to happen. But if I had just laid back and gotten to the spot, then it would happen. And that’s what I did with Oliver.

[The idea is to not] be afraid to be yourself, no matter what [musical situation you find yourself in]. If you like to play loud and rock out, then play loud and rock out. If you like to play melodies like Johnny Hodges, then play melodies. If that’s what you hear and that’s what you feel, don’t be afraid to do it. And even if it doesn’t work with a particular musician, you’ll find musicians it will work for. The most important thing is to not subdue your voice when you play.

It was Oliver’s idea to dedicate that album to Roy Campbell, and I thought it was a great idea. I miss Roy. He was another kindred spirit in embracing the whole history and the mystery of sound.

William Parker, Billy Bang, and Zen Matsuura outside Neither/Nor, New York, June 1986
Left to right: William Parker, Billy Bang, and Zen Matsuura outside Neither/Nor, New York, June 1986 (photo: Alan Nahigian)


William Parker

Flower in a Stained-Glass Window & The Blinking of the Ear [two-disc set] (Centering, 2018)
Flower in a Stained-Glass WindowParker, bass, drum set (one track); Steve Swell, trombone; Nick Lyons, Dave Sewelson, alto saxophones (select tracks); Abraham Mennen, tenor saxophone; Isaiah Parker, piano; Kesivan Naidoo, drums; Leena Conquest, vocals
The Blinking of the Ear: Parker, bass; Daniel Carter: trumpet, tenor, alto and soprano saxophones; Steve Swell, trombone; Eri Yamamoto, piano; Leonid Galaganov, drums; AnnMarie Sandy, mezzo-soprano

The idea [behind Flower in a Stained-Glass Window] was to have it like you were entering into a small theater and this play is going on. Each instrument is like a character, and [Leena Conquest] is the narrator and the whole cast is inside her. And the idea was to have, rather than a color field, if it were a movie it’d be a black-and-white movie, with depth, but not a big, panoramic screen, a small one. The stained-glass window comes from the church in Philadelphia that Martin Luther King studied in and [heard] some lectures at when he was a seminary student. The idea is that he’s a flower outside looking into the stained-glass window of the church; he would become a minister later on in his life. So it was that idea, and the politic of history, and of racism and civil rights in America, and then these stories told: “Give Me Back My Drum.” You took away the drum. “Emmett Till,” where we say “Emmett Till”—that’s all. The idea that this happened. The cover is a reverse image of the store that Emmett Till went into [that led to the allegations against him]. So it was very dramatic.

The other piece is totally different. Zen Matsuura, a drummer I used to play with in a group called Commitment, had died, and AnnMarie Sandy sang the Lord’s Prayer a cappella [at the celebration of his life]. She’s a mezzo-soprano who does opera productions. I asked her to participate in this all-voice concert I was doing at [the Brooklyn arts space] Roulette. I wrote this piece, which first started off as a play on the blinking of the eye—that your ears also blink and dilate when something’s very soft. If you listen and listen, your ears open up so you can hear.

The text in there is all about black history. It’s about freedom. It’s about the perplexity of freedom: Are you really free? The idea of lynching. The idea of forgiveness, of thinking about how you’re going to [say,] “Give me my freedom” when the people who you’re asking don’t have it, because they’re not free themselves. Musically, there was no rehearsal. Myself, Steve Swell, Leonid, and Daniel, we improvised throughout the whole thing. Eri Yamamoto played the written score with AnnMarie Sandy who, when we first did this piece, would only read the score. Now she’s beginning to add things to it, little bits, and beginning to say, “Okay, we’re going to improvise from here to here.”

It just turned out that we all came together in a fantastic way. Eventually, we’ll be able to do this piece adding more voices and an entire orchestra improvising.

Evan Haga

Evan Haga worked as an editor and writer at JazzTimes from 2006 to 2018. He is currently the Jazz Curator at TIDAL, and his writing has appeared at RollingStone.com, NPR MusicBillboard and other outlets.