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William Parker - Raining on the Moon

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Artist: William Parker

Album: Raining on the Moon

Label: Thirsty Ear

Review date: Sep. 23, 2002

Parker's Message

For Raining on the Moon, bassist William Parker reassembles the quartet from his spirited 2000 recording, O’Neal’s Porch (Centering/AUM Fidelity), and adds to it the cool, soulful vocals of Leena Conquest. Like O’Neal’s Porch, Raining on the Moon is one of Parker’s more accessible albums and is deeply rooted in the traditions of mainstream jazz. However, whereas the earlier album highlights Parker’s versatility as a composer, his latest effort showcases his seldom-documented talent for writing poetry.

Parker’s verse, though able to hold it’s own apart from the music, benefits from Conquest’s outstanding treatment. Just as, when playing bass, Parker frequently establishes a number of independent themes, which he masterfully juggles into a rich web of sound, his poetic lines have meaning individually and gain power as they are repeated and rearranged throughout the course of a song. Conquest embraces Parker’s lyrics, nourishing them with passion. She is unafraid to let herself go with the words, yet never takes them over the top. Above all, she is mindful of the group dynamic that made O’Neal’s Porch such a success, and her voice is a wonderful complement to the free interplay of Lewis Barnes on trumpet and Rob Brown on alto sax and flute. Rarely have I enjoyed a vocalist so much in an avant-garde setting.

The tone of the record is dual, epitomized by the album’s two instrumental tracks, “Hunk Pappa Blues” and “Old Tears.” As the opening track, “Hunk Pappa Blues” picks up where the O’Neal’s Porch left off. With its driving bass line and straight-ahead melody, it is reminiscent of ’60s protest music. However, when Brown begins his solo, it becomes evident that we are still in the realm of avant-garde jazz. Whereas Hamid Drake’s fluid drumming adds a sense of liberation to the symmetry of the song’s bold opening, it becomes a steady source of cohesion when Parker, Brown and Barnes leave the melody to travel into a free jazz orbit. Yet, this unbridled foray into the abstract is a rarity on the album, and before long the group returns to the opening statement, riding it to the song’s conclusion.

By contrast, “Old Tears,” the album’s other instrumental track, is a slow lament reminiscent of a cool jazz ballad from the 50s. It can be viewed as a more open, unalloyed expression of the sorrow that underlies tracks like “Song of Hope” and “Raining on the Moon.” Barnes and Brown thrive in the song’s languorous tempo, proving themselves as adept at maneuvering within traditional frameworks as when given rein to solo freely.

The political undertones of “Hunk Papa Blues” set the stage for the album’s centerpiece, the 14-minute “Raining on the Moon.” With a pulsating bass-line similar to that of “O’Neal’s Porch” and a theme akin to Nas’ “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That),” the lyrics of “Raining on the Moon” envision a world in which centuries of social injustice in America are reversed and atoned for. Conquest’s delivery of Parker’s lyrics is excellent and the free exchanges between Barnes and Brown are exhilarating. Parker’s poetry, however, remains the main attraction. The poem begins by addressing the wrongs suffered by Native Americans, imagining Geronimo as President of the United States. The White House becomes the Red House, a pun that may also be paying tribute to the values of Jimi Hendrix. The poem continues its restructuring of the nation’s administration by naming Mahatma Gandhi as Minister of Defense and Duke Ellington as Minister of Culture. Next, the poem tackles social issues, such as income inequality and drug use, picturing the doors of the nation’s mansions opened to homeless children, and drug dealers pooling their initiative away from pushing dope and into the development of community centers. The poem even imagines an end to all war. In perhaps its most powerful moment, the poem describes the resurrection of all “black, white and yellow” victims of lynching in America. Parker does not so much blame the perpetrators of these crimes, as he does make manifest their ignorance and their consequent shame. As he writes: “No need to apologize, you know not what you do.” Indeed, the ideals of tolerance and forgiveness evident here are themes that permeate the entire album. The poem concludes with a vision of peace and hope rising out of the pain of the past. As Parker writes: “Teardrops become pieces of light, long, long soaked in the sweat of the peace workers.”

Optimism in the face of adversity is also the theme of the album’s second track, “Song of Hope.” The piece opens tensely, with a bass-line that seems to pace with worry. Strong, yet with a shade of struggle and uncertainty in her voice, Conquest enters, singing: “My name is hope.” In what may be the album’s most beautiful image, she continues: “I’ve got a rag doll filled with sunlight, and when I squeeze her the world grows brighter and brighter.” As the song progresses, Conquest’s voice becomes bolder. Hope has won her over, and her final proclamations are forceful and full of pride.

“Old Tears” reveals the tender side of Raining on the Moon, which finds its apex in the album’s fifth track, “Music Song.” Featuring Parker on the Donso Ngoni (a type of African Harp), “Music Song” is dedicated to the great singer and actress from the 1920s, Ethel Waters. Its tone is meditative and its lyrics are filled with lush, natural imagery. It opens with the happy words: “Dawn into brightness.” Whereas “Raining on the Moon” deals with timely social issues, “Music Song” explores the eternal power of music and nature to uplift and revive. Indeed, Parker’s use of a traditional instrument seems to highlight the song’s ageless themes.

The combination of the timely and the timeless, epitomized by the album’s dual nature, is what gives Raining on the Moon its character. On the one hand, Parker’s music and poetry call us to critically evaluate present-day society, focusing on issues such as inequality, oppression, racism and war. At the same time, the album reaffirms everlasting ideals of hope, love, forgiveness and non-violence. Perhaps the most striking feature of Raining on the Moon is its recording date of October 2, 2001, less than a month after 9/11. Living in New York City, the events of that period must have weighed heavily on Parker’s mind, as they must have on the minds of each of the musicians present at the recording. As the world flew into disarray, Parker’s reaction seems to have been to stand firmer in the beliefs he has always held. His message has never been more relevant. In a time when America stands on the edge of expanding its war, and when the media is filled with a growing whirlwind of talk and analysis, Parker’s album offers a detached, sober, and deeply compassionate perspective that is worth paying attention to.

By Nick Sheets

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