Bassist/composer/renaissance man William Parker is having a landmark 2021. Earlier this year, a 10-disc box set, The Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World Volumes 1-10, was released almost in tandem with the book Universal Tonality, a critical history by Cisco Bradley. This brought a torrent of richly deserved attention to Parker, a stalwart figure on the NYC jazz scene since the ’70s. If there was one complaint that emerged from the lovefest, it was that Parker didn’t play much bass on the box set. Instead, he played an array of other instruments that he has mastered, and on some discs he simply presented ensembles performing music he composed, without playing anything at all.
Mayan Space Station and Painters Winter rectify that quibble voluminously. Parker’s magnificent bass playing is the rock-solid foundation for most of these recordings. Even when he turns his attention to the wistful sounds of the trombonium or the keening lilt of the shakuhachi, the musical cornerstone of his upright is present in spirit. Both recordings offer stellar trios: Space Station features the bassist with drummer Gerald Cleaver and guitarist Ava Mendoza while Painters showcases a group with multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter and drummer Hamid Drake. Both recordings sizzle but via different approaches.
Mayan Space Station is a classic jazz power-trio recording, with Mendoza raining fire over elastic and intensely propulsive rhythms by Parker and Cleaver. The music invites adjectives like “spicy,” especially since the opening track is called “Tabasco,” and Mendoza seems to be invoking Sonny Sharrock or Pete Cosey. But this is not a solo showcase; the trio moves in tandem like three action heroes hurtling through a treacherous space, with guitar, bass, and drumming announcing their determination and reinforcing their confidence.
Painters Winter is calmer but far from serene. The band moves fluidly and assuredly through elegantly austere music. The vibe is reminiscent of early Art Ensemble of Chicago, with more explicit rhythms. This is highlighted on “Happiness,” a track led by Parker’s big elastic basslines and Drake’s savvy accents. Carter cuts an introspective path through these rhythms until Parker switches to bow, and both of his bandmates pick up the tempo and mood.
The diverse sounds and approaches on these two releases further display that the tendency toward dichotomies in jazz—in/out, mainstream/avant-garde, uptown/downtown—mostly serves to limit great music rather than define it. And these recordings also remind us that Parker is far from finished making great music; he may not even be at his career midpoint.