Leon Parker is over it. Born and raised in the U.S., where people are regularly reduced to a social-security number and a demographic check box, and where recycled cultural expression with the lowest common denominator receives more props than originality, Parker has had it with this country. The percussionist, composer and bandleader has now taken up residence somewhere in France (he didn’t want to disclose the exact location), to break free of social and cultural confinement and, as the title of his new Label M album suggests, live The Simple Life.
“It’s all about capitalism,” snaps Parker as he rips into a harsh analysis of “the land of the free.”
“America exists on credit and we’re in debt. People aren’t really creating new products and services; it’s how can we reuse and manipulate what we already have. It’s the history of America. ‘We’re going to take these slaves and make them build this, and we’re going to take the lands from the Native Americans.’ America is about assimilation, not about including of all the different types of people. It wants everyone to look the same, dress the same and talk the same,” Parker fumes.
“What America wants is really a bunch of people behind computers making the big corporations richer as oppose to solving the world’s hunger or global warming problems. With all this wealth, and the fact that jazz musicians are ambassadors to the world, why can’t we get these people to go around and show how to really build communities? Basically jazz and the United Nations should be brother and sister, but instead jazz is now a very marketable category.”
To hear Parker’s voice when he rants about American pop culture and how jazz fits in that equation is to hear the sound of naked frustration, anger and disgust. Sometimes his diatribes on America, jazz, and pop culture are convoluted, illogical and caustic but they nevertheless reveal a man who embraces the full spectrum of humanity and tries to capture it in his music.
When Parker mentions that jazz and the United Nations should be brother and sister, he puts that concept to practice in his ensembles. With vocalist Elizabeth Kontomanou, who’s of French, Greek and African descent; bassist Ugonna Okegwo, who’s Nigerian and German; pianist Jacky Terrasson, who’s French and African-American; percussionist Neil Ochoa, who’s Venezuelan; and a crew of Americans like saxophonists Sam Newsome and Steve Wilson and percussionist Stephen Chopek, Parker’s groups resemble America’s lofty dreams of a cultural melting pot.
Parker refers to musicians such as Newsome, Okegwo and Kontomanou as “pure artists” because “they put their spirit, mind, and body into their performances. They’re honest,” he says. “These people think and feel for themselves and their music represents that.
“Taking people of cultural, ethnic and racial diversity who have successfully blended diametrically opposed influences like two different countries, two different races, two different cultures, and successfully putting that together and coming out with a new perspective, to me, this is the hope, not just for music, but the hope in the world,” Parker says. “The musicians that I work with, and the people that I gravitate toward are the people who have successfully done this. They don’t say, “Oh I’m a white musician, so I can’t play funk, or I’m a black musician, so I can’t get into that weird klezmer stuff.’ To me, we’re at a place where you come from your tradition and then you incorporate what appeals to you. I think that takes a lot of honesty, courage, intregrity, and right now it’s like a new thing.”
Well, it’s not that new. Dizzy Gillespie did it; so did Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul with Weather Report; as did Carlos Santana with Santana. And if you peep the ensembles led by Steve Coleman, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Jon Jang, Pete Escovedo, Danilo Perez, Jean-Paul Bourelly, Avishai Cohen, Peter Apfelbaum, Henry Threadgill, Lawrence “Butch” Morris and dozens of others, you’ll see similar multicultural concepts.
But what sometimes separates Parker’s ensembles from others is his purposeful disregard for authenticity. For all of his banter about culture and respecting one’s heritage, you’ll seldom hear Parker boasting about playing traditional African, Caribbean, Asian or Middle Eastern music. Instead, he sees himself more as an interpreter of culture than an ethnomusicologist hell-bent on keeping it real. “I’m not borrowing people from the funk world or using traditional African drummers,” he explains. “I’m using my own interpretations of this music and trying to come up with my own blend. It comes out sounding kind of simple, and hopefully very clear.”
Parker’s fourth album, The Simple Life extends his reductive but multicultural approach to composition, instrumentation, interpretation and execution: It retools a couple of Parker’s originals like “Belief” and “Rays of Light,” dismantles old warhorses like Juan Tizol’s “Caravan” and Thelonious Monk’s “Green Chimneys,” stripping them down to their barest essentials, and introduces a handful of new minimalist song sketches like “Fast Lane” and “Divinity, Parts 1 & 2.” The album also reunites him with Joel Dorn, who signed the percussionist and produced Parker’s first two albums when they were with Columbia.
Since his sensational 1994 Epicure debut, Above & Below, Parker’s approach to music has gotten more minimal and abstract with each succeeding album. He was already demonstrating his ingenuity at maximizing the most rhythmic and textural possibilities out the sparsest of drum sets, but it seems that as his solo career advanced, the further he explored the outer limits of jazz. When he recorded 1998’s Awakening, he was featured playing trap-drums only on one tune, opting for shakers, congas, gongs, marimbas and other percussion. Parker turned the tables on Awakening and made the trap drums the auxiliary percussion. He also pared down the rest of the instrumentation to mostly bass, percussion and voice, with an occasional piano and saxophone, resulting in music that grooves more so than it swings.
“It seems very easy, but it’s actually very hard to create music that is that simple and that is that organic,” he explains. “I’ve been continually diluting my own music and trying to maintain the jazz sensibility, extract the jazz style out of my working ensembles. Jazz is such a strong medium of expression, but it’s no longer the communicative medium of my generation. R&B, pop and especially hip-hop are really the mediums of expressions for people of my generation.
“Coming from the perspective of a jazz musician, I’m trying to see life through contemporary eyes, and I don’t mean contemporary jazz,” Parker says. “Someone like myself who is going to turn on MTV and listen to the radio and hear music from all around the world-in my opinion, this is our time, and our time is not straight-ahead jazz. That’s the foundation, but that’s not our time. I’m trying to get further away from the style of straightahead jazz, but maintain the organic sensibility of it.
Before Parker was making waves as a creative, rhythmically intense jazz drummer, playing in New York clubs like Bradley’s and the Village Gate, he was already begun developing his singular approach. Growing up in White Plains, N.Y., during the ’70s, he listened to his parents’ record collection, which included many jazz greats, but he was also into pop, funk, hip-hop, salsa and almost everything else New York City had to offer. By the time he was 15, Parker was spinning at various hip-hop block parties and listening to New York’s WBLS and WABC radio stations.
“My parents have a beautiful record collection. I was forced into learning this music, because I needed an emotional outlet,” Parker reflects. “Since I was a teenager, I was recording myself, but I put it aside because it was so original. I didn’t get much support. Instead of developing myself as a composer and bandleader, I decided to continue on becoming a jazz drummer and mastering that art form. When I got a chance to record with Joel Dorn, he said bring everything that you have. So I wasn’t limited to my jazz chops. I brought all kinds of ideas. It was like taking a snapshot of myself.”
“I never think of him as a jazz artist,” says Joel Dorn. “I think of him as a rhythmist. I’m intrigued about what he does with rhythm and how he views time. Even though there are elements on [The Simple Life] that could easily be perceived as jazz, there are also qualities that he has that could almost crossover into world music or groove music. I think he intrinsically has a broad appeal. You can’t always necessarily define it all the time, but it ain’t just jazz.”
But as Parker commented earlier, we like to categorize our music, even if it’s “beyond category,” and oftentimes something that is mostly instrumental with saxophones and improvisational interplay, it gets tossed in the jazz-record bins. Then again, all of Parker’s albums have showed his love for Ellington and Monk.
How does Parker create an audience, then, for his music if it, simultaneously, is and isn’t jazz?
“You do the best that you can,” Dorn says. “The trick is to get as many people to hear a Leon Parker as possible so at least they can make a decision. If you say to some people that Leon Parker is a jazz musician, there are a certain amount of people that just doesn’t like jazz, and so there not going to be interested in listening to him. I watched Leon perform in a variety of situations, from conventional jazz to playing in the street or with a dance troupe; he’s able to provide rhythm to so many different situations.”
Trying to capture Parker’s paradoxical artistry of sonic minimalism and seemingly boundless rhythmic possibilities is perhaps one of the greatest challenges. As passionate and intriguing as his four albums are, none of them really does him justice because there are often theatrical components in his live performances that never translate on CDs. Parker’s understated arrangements, fragmented themes and sometimes self-indulging virtuosity of cymbals and gongs may thrill many fans at a live show, but it often sounds canned on record. Listening to the live version of “Belief” on Parker’s new CD is as frustrating as listening to a live recording of the Art Ensemble of Chicago or Sun Ra, because there’s simply too much information lost from the stage to disc. Maybe with DVDs, we’ll be able to witness the full arsenal of Parker’s inventiveness.
Throughout the ’90s, Parker’s original approach has garnered him significant work with some of the leading jazz artists such as Dewey Redman, Tom Harrell, Jacky Terrasson and his all-time hero, Kenny Barron, even as Parker’s own recordings have edged him to the left of the mainstream.
“I think all musicians have some type of originality,” says Parker when discussing the current jazz scene. “But in order to cultivate that, they have to be really honest and courageous, because they can’t be like ‘I’ll play this style and it’ll get me all the gigs in town.’ That’s really tired. That’s what killed jazz. Wynton Marsalis playing Duke Ellington has nothing to do with jazz. Duke Ellington wasn’t playing anyone else but Duke Ellington. Thelonious Monk wasn’t playing anyone else but Thelonious Monk. John Coltrane was playing John Coltrane. They all had evolved to that place in their musical styles where they were playing themselves.
“Jazz was created by musicians who had their fingers on the pulse of what was happening at the time,” he continues. “There is no more pulse. Even in pop music, there is no more pulse. You had Stevie Wonder, and then you had Prince; and now you got Babyface. Babyface is not really an artist; he’s a producer. So the producers are working with the record companies to make a lot of money for the mass public, and now we’re being spoon-fed with stuff that has nothing to do with what’s really happening. Jazz history and jazz have nothing to do with each other. When the torch got passed to Wynton the historian, and he took control, that’s when jazz actually died. He put down Kenny G, but the truth is Kenny G was playing himself. Kenny G is a fake white boy. Great! That’s who Kenny is. The question is ‘Wynton Marsalis, who are you?'”
It’s apparent that Parker has a chip on his shoulder from not only feeling disenfranchised in American mainstream society, but from the mainstream jazz community as well. True, his résumé is dotted with high-profile side work, but he nevertheless feels that the jazz community isn’t keeping pace with the shrinking global village.
“I have no hope in jazz,” claims Parker. “Most of my peers are the product of the jazz industry, and the jazz industry subsists on reissues, and Columbia and Blue Note subsist on their catalogs. The so-called jazz musicians of our day-people my age-the ones that are being heralded as leaders, I don’t see them truly blending musics. I see them continuing to play in a way that’s already been established. There are other musicians who are incorporating Klezmer music and world music, but they don’t necessary stand for jazz. People are just beginning to capitalize on other styles of music and America can’t even do that without a Ry Cooder or someone like that. All this world music is going to remain pure for a long time. Jazz is no longer pure, because it doesn’t honor its various influences.”
But has jazz ever been pure? Isn’t it now common knowledge that early jazz was a synthesis of African-American, Caribbean, and European influences? And despite so-called “purists,” hasn’t jazz incorporated Middle Eastern, Asian, African, Eastern European influences, not to mention rock, funk, R&B, country, hip-hop and electronica?
“It was what it was,” answers Parker. “When it was a hybrid, it was truly a hybrid. When Benny Goodman was playing with Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton and Gene Krupa, that was some original shit, man. That was pure 1938. In the year 2001, jazz people aren’t playing anything new. I’m not a fan of jazz, because jazz is no longer musician-made. Jazz is no longer the loft scene. Jazz, right now, is Verve, Blue Note and Warner Bros. Especially Verve, which is like 16 companies now all in one. Some fool is saying, ‘Wouldn’t it look good if we put this guy and that guy together, and half of them are on our label anyway and boy we’ll sell a lot of tickets?’ People say it’s about the money. Hey, I’m an artist and I’m saying it’s not, because 99% of jazz musicians aren’t making the money.
“People are not taking their original experiences and incorporating that into their music,” he continues. “If you’re not doing that, you’re not really an artist. You’re simply a craftsman. Any craftsman can take different techniques and put them together. When you make them yours and connect to them spiritually, and you express them in a way that make people feel something, then you’re being the artist that you were meant to be.”