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William Parker and Hamid Drake: Heart and Soul

Members of renowned rhythm section share common musical language and creative aesthetic

William Parker
Hamid Drake
Hamid Drake

The producer of the Magic Triangle Series at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Glenn Siegel asked the renowned rhythm section of William Parker and Hamid Drake to curate all three concerts of the annual series. Siegel suggested other American musicians to work with them, but the two decided, according to William Parker “to create a reciprocal feeling” where Europeans could be invited to America instead of Americans going to Europe, which they do all the time. The first concert featured the trombonist Conrad Bauer from Germany; the last concert, saxophonist Evan Parker from England. William Parker’s Raining on The Moon Ensemble filled the middle, with multi-ethnicity, multi-culturalism, poetry, implied political statement, singing, dancing and the joy inherent in Parker’s groups.

Bassist Parker is a native of the Bronx. He knows his extended neighborhood inside and out, both literally and metaphorically. It is the source from which he draws his colorful compendium of spoken and musical language. He speaks with a gravelly voice, every, often humorous, utterance having a meaning that is far from shallow. He dresses in garb reflective of his African heritage, both in performance or for a casual meeting. Drummer Drake was born in Louisiana and migrated in his youth to Chicago. In Chicago, tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson became his paternal mentor and presently remains so. A dedicated Yogic practitioner, Drake perceives the world spiritually in every way. On the day of the interview, he dressed simply in black; he donned prayer beads on his wrist and wore a silk embroidered hat atop dreadlocks which have grown the length of his back. His voice is soft; his words are leavened with happiness.

Ironically, Parker and Drake first met at a musical festival in 1989 in Wuppertal, Germany. Both of them met the reedman Peter Brötzmann through the agent, Uli Armbruster. With that meeting, Parker and Drake began to build a bridge between America and Europe as a duo. The reasons for choosing Bauer and Parker were clear. Having first met Bauer at bassist Peter Kowald’s memorial in Frankfurt, Germany, in 2003 and Evan Parker in Chicago with Brötzmann, Drake proposed these two players as “representing the European contingency of creative improvised music…Musically, they have travelled a lot on their instruments.” In agreement with Drake, Parker saw Bauer as capable of “dealing with all kinds of languages…He doesn’t try to play like you…He stays in his lane…in his own vocabulary. His energy is very high and …He just moves his slide.”

Both the concerts with Bauer and Parker exhibited similar structure. As Bauer had played with “anything that was thrown at him,” so did Evan Parker. Parker’s signature multiphonics on his tenor saxophone were subdued; he touched on them but, generally, broke his own mold with an extraordinary tunefulness. Just as Bauer played a notably continuous stream of notes for his solo, so Parker played layers upon layers of arpeggios on his soprano during his.

When asked about the technical parallels between Bauer and Parker, William Parker responded that he “thinks of them separately…not in terms of circular breathing or technique.” In either concert, no one knew how the music would sound. That the parallels between the trombonist and the saxophonist are drawn only come in the “afterthoughts,” Parker claims. “Afterthoughts are very important because they are the lighted shadows behind the music.” These lighted shadows support the external listening dynamic from “silence to sound to silence” without necessarily directly informing the music.

And as far as the interjection of the Raining on the Moon ensemble is concerned, Parker says, as Drake chuckles concurrently, “The idea is to keep your band employed.” But the message the band communicated became the fulcrum that sustained the balance between the two European white male musicians who bookended the series.

Parker and Drake are adamant about the difficulty European improvisers have in coming to this country. Both musicians know that in order for Europeans to play gigs even in the smallest venues, work Visas are required for entry into the country. Visas cost thousands of dollars. And few musicians can afford them. “They [the US officials] are worried about the ‘door’ gigs [where musicians are paid based on ticket sales]…Ridiculous…the laws are ridiculous …” Parker says. Musicians have to enter the country as tourists, without any instruments, in order to play. Drake discusses how inexpensive the Visas have been for Americans in the past to go to England or Canada; the cost amounted to $125, which was paid for by the promoters. He continues: “…but to come here [for Europeans], to play here…to play at the Stone…The place seats what? 40 people? 35 people? at the Stone? To do a gig at the Stone…imagine…If you do come with a Visa, imagine what you have to pay for a Visa to play at the Stone…It’s really unfair.” Parker also attributes the interaction between the continents to the lack of a US Cultural Commission to promote cultural exchange.

Both critical and historical writings imply a musical divisiveness between improvisers in the US and those in Europe. The argument ensues regarding the sources of the music; in other words, how can improvisers in Europe play with the same genuineness of African-American improvisers whose attachment to the music is genetic. Or how is that melody or rhythm can be played during spontaneous improvisation, if improvisation is ‘supposed’ to be abstract?

Parker’s introduction into the European scene happened in New York City: “In 1980, I was walking down Avenue B in front of Charlie Parker’s old house, 151 Avenue B and Peter Kowald was walking down as well. And I said: ‘You Peter Kowald?’ He didn’t know who I was, but I knew who he was. And the next day, he came over to my house and started playing bass duets…we went for coffee and chocolate cake …and we hit it off right away. Then he invited me to come to Germany for FMP [Free Music Productions] in Berlin. I was so happy to get to Europe and share experiences with European improvisers. Now, why are they called European improvisers? Simply because they were born in Europe. When it comes down to it…you’re only limited by the limitations of how you see yourself. If you take away the ‘African-American’, the ‘German’, etc., it [the music] just opens up…We are all improvisers.”

Parker stays with the example of the FMP concerts, where he remembers he was the only black player invited, with perhaps the exception of Cecil Taylor: “No one was holding on to what they were and being members of the ‘We Don’t School’…saying ‘We don’t play melody or rhythm’…We were excited to be there to see what was, not hold onto ‘I’m a this or I’m a that…” Drake chimes in: “Both Americans and Europeans are in the ‘We Don’t School’.” Parker continues: “But we [Parker and Drake] are in the ‘We Do School’. If you take away the limitations, these two schools can come together, play together and the music becomes open.” Declaring that Parker has addressed this subject “brilliantly,” Drake goes on to say that he has heard people talking about these differences and he has been asked questions about these differences, “but never asked these questions by a musician.”

As improvisers, Parker and Drake can spontaneously cull from the rich inventory of music that they both have studied and know thoroughly; music that originates in Africa and reaches to the Far East, or stems from Jamaican reggae rhythms and extends to jam sessions in Harlem apartments or in the jazz clubs in France. In the history of music, in Parker’s words-“The source for creative improvised music has always existed. Whenever the music worked on a high level, it allowed me to do what I am doing. Whether that’s Louis Armstrong on a night that wasn’t recorded, when the cats were blowing…or with Duke Ellington’s band, when they got loose and things began to happen.” Drake adds pianist and composer James P. Johnson to the list. Parker goes on: “Everybody in history has done this [spontaneous improvisation] whether it’s documented or not…by people we’ve never even heard of…coming from Chicago, Detroit or New York…You can’t really trace human development. Someone has to take the blame for it, like Ornette Coleman…but Sun Ra was doing stuff and Mingus was doing stuff and they called it ‘experiment.'” Parker then cites some labels that have been imposed on the music like third stream and avant-garde. Drake believes that the mere fact that different labels exist proves that the music “is not separate from everything else. Obviously, the music is so powerful, so strong…yes…other titles have to be created to kind of dim it a little bit, to turn it into something else. It was present with Louis Armstrong, Fat Waller, the whole history…it has always been there…” He emphasizes, “It is the very heart, bone and marrow of the tradition.”

William Parker and Hamid Drake are “not trying to be tight” in the way in which they respond to each other so easily when they play. Parker explains: “For me, to be alive on a human level, you need a heartbeat. You don’t need a heartbeat for something to be alive on a soul level…One thing people have in common is the heartbeat.” He pats his chest “…boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom….Rhythm. But when your heart stops beating, your soul’s not going boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom. What’s your soul doing? If one music [the heartbeat] is rhythm, is the soul melody? Is the soul harmony?” Drake then follows: “Even when your heart’s going boom-boom, what’s your soul doing?” Both musicians were discovering a new way of thinking about themselves together. They were talking about how impenetrable their musical bond really is. They were talking about the essence of Aretha Franklin and James Brown. They were saying that the “music’s gotta have soul, the music’s gotta relate to the people.” They were saying that they stem from the same place: “We breathe together, we vibrate together… [even though] we have different pulses, different ideas and [work on] different levels of [sound] frequency.” They have soul. Drake describes their connection in another way: “The spirit keeps us together, too. We have a common recognition…We do not have to contemplate it all the time. We accept it…It is something that takes care of itself. There’s this deep groove going on. I can’t say that we are necessarily responsible for it. We accept it, we acknowledge it, so it continues….Even when we come together in William’s groups, there’s an inside language that is happening… because there’s recognition of the frequency of a particular vibration that we all share.”

At this juncture, Parker declares: “To this day, we’ve never had a conversation about music. The conversation starts before you’re born and when you come here [to the music], you are entering into that conversation. You’re stepping into it to see how you fit in and trying to flow with it, move with it, to become one with it but, at the same time, be comfortable not knowing anything about it. Shut that mind off-the ‘I have to know all the answers’ mind and just become one with it.” Drake examines this issue further: “… It [the conversation of improvised music] can’t be taught, but it can be caught.”

If this interview revealed anything, it was that for creative improvisers, the music is a way of life, a daily practice either in their minds or on their instruments, a “meditation in action.” No matter their ethnicity or their citizenship, the music keeps them going, visas or no visas, laws or no laws. And the question remains how is it that an art form, which is so pure, alive and innovative, reach so narrow a population, still, when its past practitioners are now revered. There is no sense to the struggle, then or now.

Originally Published