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William Parker: Wood Flute Songs: Anthology/Live 2006-2012

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What a wry name. These aren’t wood flute songs. Instead, this eight-CD live box is a magnificent document that captures one of jazz’s greatest, most prolific and most versatile bandleaders at the height of his powers, demonstrating a stunning range of creativity with a superb cast of musicians.

Wood Flute Songs is a showcase for bassist William Parker’s quartet, which features drummer Hamid Drake, alto saxophonist Rob Brown and trumpeter Lewis Barnes. The first four discs capture that quartet in concert, with two sets from a 2006 date at Yoshi’s in Oakland and two from a 2007 date at DiverseWorks in Houston. The other four discs expand the quartet (more on that later).

Firmly establishing who’s in charge, Parker introduces the first track, “Tears for the Children of Rwanda,” with 10 minutes of madly bowed bass that eventually turn into a groove. Parker’s masterful bass work-sometimes melodic and rhythmic, sometimes traditional and walking, sometimes atonal and noisy-is featured prominently throughout the nine-and-a-half hours of music that constitute this box.

Parker may be the leader, but he is not the only standout. His longstanding partnership with Drake has always been crucial to the success of his outfits. Drake, arguably jazz’s greatest working drummer, shifts effortlessly from one style to the next-swing, rock, funk, hip-hop, reggae, free improv-and often serves up three or four genres within several measures. The Parker-Drake battery comes into full focus on the quartet’s “Hamid’s Groove,” with near-chaos evolving into a slow and steady reggae rhythm. On “Moon,” a bouncing rhythm begins to boil, super-fast, but relaxes naturally back to its theme (a mix of free jazz and ’70s soul), Parker all the while undeterred, keeping the intertwining horns even-keeled with his stubborn plucking.

The other four discs feature expanded lineups with Parker, Drake, Brown and Barnes at the core. The sextet Raining on the Moon thickens the music with the addition of Eri Yamamoto’s piano, and deepens its soulfulness with Leena Conquest’s lovely but forceful vocals, which recall Abbey Lincoln, most notably and appropriately on the tune “For Abbey Lincoln.”

Parker’s Creation Ensemble, a big band that includes a dozen members, half of them reedsmen, brings rigor to the music, with more attention to the written note. Philippe Ehinger’s bass clarinet adds a richness of tone, and the swirling horns and shrieking voices sound like animals in peril on “Earth in Pain.”

The septet on disc seven includes now-deceased violinist Billy Bang, cornetist Bobby Bradford and alto saxophonist James Spaulding, and its performance from the 2009 Vision Festival is spellbinding, especially the rendition of “O’Neal’s Porch,” which finds Drake in a particularly restless mood. The way he transitions smoothly from one idiom to another (check out the span between minutes 7 and 8) is nothing short of miraculous.

The final set is the freest. In Order to Survive, here a quintet with pianist Cooper-Moore, pays no heed to melody, rhythm or structure. Cooper-Moore’s crashing piano phrases bring out the most aggressive drumming yet from Drake on “Aquixo Waiting at Dark Corridor,” and “Falling Promise” pits wailing sax and trumpet against maniacally atonal piano runs, rumbling bass and pounding drums.

But wait, there’s more! Disc eight ends with two bonus tracks, previously unreleased tunes from Raining on the Moon’s Corn Meal Dance sessions. They are freer and more spiritual than anything on that 2007 album. “Prayer-Improv” juxtaposes Conquest’s serene, uplifting voice over raucous free jazz, creating an intentional rhythmic and melodic disconnect. “Great Spirit,” conversely, is a sweet slice of gospel-soul, a beautiful way to end a stunning, monumental work from the finest leader on today’s avant-jazz scene.

Originally Published