William Parker - "Move On Up" (I Plan to Stay a Believer: The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield)
To the average music listener, R&B and free jazz might seem incompatible, situated at disparate points along the musical continuum. The former, no matter how sophisticated, is essentially pop music. All sonic markers — from the buoyant bass grooves to the danceable rhythms to the intricate vocal harmonies — are employed to make hits. Free jazz, on the other hand, represents an avant-garde, experimental re-envisioning of an already cerebral musical form. Its purpose, at least in part, is to tear down formal structures to find a more pure and unrestricted emotional and intellectual experience.
Yet when one digs just a little deeper than these surface descriptions, the union of R&B and free jazz isn’t so odd. P-Funk’s George Clinton once said famously of Sun-Ra, “[He’s] out to lunch . . . same place I eat at!" And indeed artists such as Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler, to name at certain points just two, incorporated classic R&B elements into their sound.
With all that in mind, William Parker’s I Plan to Stay a Believer, a 16-track double-disc set of Curtis Mayfield songs makes perfect sense. Recorded between 2001 and 2008 at festivals in France, Italy and the United States, I Plan to Stay a Believer is a fairly seamless melding of the energy and musicality of both genres.
Parker and his ensemble — which features heavyweights Hamid Drake on drums, Dave Burrell and Lafayette Gilchrist on piano, Sabir Mateen on saxophones and flute, and the voice and words of Amiri Baraka — offer up spirited arrangements of Mayfield classics. There are no obscurities here; the band runs through bona fide pops hits such as "Freddie’s Dead," "It’s Alright," and the mellifluous “I’m So Proud,” among others.
While Parker’s work with the likes of Matthew Shipp, David S. Ware, and others can be challenging, I Plan to Stay a Believer is accessible and never really spins too far off into the outer realms the way one might expect. There are moments of fierce, unbridled improv — such as Parker’s own bowed solo that concludes the opening title-track and the ferocious saxophone/piano tempest that invades "We the People Who are Darker Than Blue" — but they don’t overwhelm.
Though Parker reworks and re-imagines Mayfield’s music and message for a new era, he doesn’t use it simply as a springboard to get gone. For one thing, the majority of the songs are guided by singer Leena Conquest, placing the emphasis more on vocal melodies and lyrics than in a typical free jazz performance. A powerful and effortless vocalist, Conquest warps herself in these songs. And while she may be too "jazzy" for some, that’s a minor quibble.
As laid out in the set’s liner notes, Parker is clearly a student of Mayfield, and he taps into not only the intelligence and beauty of Mayfield’s music, but perhaps most importantly, his social message of uplift through action. Indeed, Mayfield was as adept at writing ‘60s protest anthems as he was at silky love songs, and his message, as channeled through Parker’s own sort of musical liberation theology (much of it by way of Amiri Baraka’s prose and poetry), is as relevant and potent to our times. And not just Mayfield’s cries of hope: Directives like "People Get Ready" are inspirational, yet quickly tempered by harsh reminders that "If There’s a Hell Below." Under Parker’s direction, Mayfield’s words and music provide a score for the coming of a whole new America, its arrival via the election of Barrack Obama, and of the fires surely still to come.