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William Parker - Centering: Unreleased Early Recordings 1976-1987

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Artist: William Parker

Album: Centering: Unreleased Early Recordings 1976-1987

Label: NoBusiness

Review date: Sep. 5, 2012

When the Wildflowers sessions were released on CD by Knitting Factory about 12 years ago, it was a revelation and an education for those of us who hadn’t heard those seminal documents of the New York 1970s loft scene. I felt a similar sense of discovery, even of privileged awareness, listening to this new six-disc set of early William Parker. As with Wildflowers, the set contains contributions from ensembles small and large, and the musical diversity on offer bespeaks a magical time in which, though many financial roads were closed, every musical path was open and inviting.

While all of the material here is being issued for the first time, some of it was intended for release more than 30 years ago. Beyond giving this collection its title, Centering is the bassist’s label, which, for its first couple of decades, boasted only one release — the excellent Through Acceptance of the Mystery, Peace from 1980 (now available on Eremite). As Parker and Ed Hazell point out in this set’s documentation, this silent period belied Parker’s schedule as a leader and sideman, which was robust to say the least. He was integral to Jemeel Moondoc’s Muntu, an ensemble and label documented in another NoBusiness box and reviewed in these pages by Derek Taylor. A version of Muntu makes an appearance here as part of the Big Moon Ensemble, recorded in performance in 1979. Parker and unsung bass virtuoso Jay Oliver match incendiary wit with Moondoc, Daniel Carter, Roy Campbell, and a two-drummer configuration of Denis Charles and Rashid Bakr. The former skinsman had been in Cecil Taylor’s first recording group in the 1950s; the latter, along with Parker, was involved with Taylor in the late ’70s and early ’80s. By contrast, two duo sets fill in some important gaps, one from 1980 with Carter and a 1987 concert with Charles Gayle, very soon after the tenor saxophonist had achieved some wider recognition. There are also fascinating tidbits of projects whose uniqueness should have been better preserved, such as the three-voice version of William and Patricia Nicholson’s Centering Dance Music Ensemble.

This aggregate addresses another facet of Parker’s diverse art. He has always been involved in extramusical activities, not least as an engaging and insightful writer and poet, and while voice informs key moments of this set, dance drives much of the music to its energetic heights. Check out the Centering Dance Music Ensemble’s 1980 concert, featuring Parker, Nicholson, Denis Charles, and David S. Ware (who also appeared on the Wildflowers set). Charles’s opening solo plays with tempo as if it were a fractious child: taming it, letting it loose for an instant, reining it back in with a quick loving remonstration, letting it go again. It must have been the dance, the turns, arcs and undulations that Patricia unleashed on the music that helped it all to happen, that abetted the unfurling of Ware’s stratospheric exhortations as he and the others push forward, back and beyond, exceeding themselves from moment to moment.

It is this energy, a continual exploration in the face of often mystical retrospection, that unifies the music on these six discs. The feeling imbues the largest and smallest structures, even the one-and-a-half minute “In the Thicket,” a quick episode for three voices, from the ensemble mentioned above. Brenda Bakr, Ellen Christi and Lisa Sokolov paint an epiphonic portrait of a man in quest of enlightenment, laying in a thicket for one day without food. “Hopefully something good will sing through me,” proclaims a sole voice, “Making the mystery clearer.” The voice hovers just on the edge of meter, evoking a lined-out hymn and a minor blues in one fell swoop. The response, the staccato repetitions of “in the thicket he lay,” conjure shades of funk and soul, hip hop’s syncopations and rhythmic precision, until a brief return of the minor blues elucidates the mystery. It’s a microcosmic version of every composition and every improvisation. Each musician is an orchestra, coaxing myriad sounds from their instruments and often switching to another with intuitive certainty. John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon, Steve Coleman and countless others had laid the groundwork; Parker and these young artists, hungry for more than food, were carrying the torch, unwilling to compromise in the name of category and unashamed of the poverty such a journey would entail. After the release of Centering, the mystery is indeed clearer.

By Marc Medwin

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Long Hidden: The Olmec Series

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