Bulwark, anchor, heartbeat. Such descriptions commonly come up in reference to bassist William Parker.
And while he could be considered the bedrock of New York's "free jazz" community, he got there by being in perpetual motion: through prolific recording and widespread touring, teaching and organizing efforts.
Parker, in his 40s, has just released two recordings: Mayor of Punkville (AUM Fidelity), the second from his Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra; and Painter's Spring by the William Parker Trio, featuring drummer Hamid Drake and saxophonist Daniel Carter. Painter's Springwas released on pianist Matthew Shipp's Blue Series for the Thirsty Ear label. It contains the song "Foundation #1" (RealAudio excerpt). Later in the year Parker will release additional CDs on Thirsty Ear and the German label FMP.
This summer the Bronx, N.Y., native will be busy touring with saxophonist Peter Brotzmann's Tentet and saxophonist David S. Ware's quartet. It's easy to hear why his skills are in such high demand. Capable of everything from bluesy deluges on pizzicato to lyrical lines on arco, Parker is as powerful and versatile a bassist as exists. He was Cecil Taylor's primary bassist for much of the '80s, recording 11 albums with the piano master. He has also performed with such creative artists as saxophonists Jimmy Lyons, Charles Gayle and Glenn Spearman, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, guitarist Joe Morris, Shipp and many others. Basically, he's the first-call bassist for any artists who value unbridled improvisation above all else.
In addition to his trio and Little Huey, Parker co-leads the groups In Order To Survive and Other Dimensions in Music. But it's the 20-piece Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra that offers the best setting for his considerable composition and leadership skills. Mayor of Punkville was recorded live at Tonic during the group's residency at the Lower East Side club last summer and fall.
"I want an orchestra that feels like a trio or quartet with a focus on self-conduction," Parker said of Little Huey. "Every time we play, musicians solve the problem of how to say what they want to say without it taking away from the whole, and in fact must add to the whole."
You can chart the band's real-time compositional process on Mayor of Punkville as the players take on Parker's episodic pieces, interpreting his sparse arrangements with small fires of collective improv, long narrative solos and subtle interplay. One example is "I Can't Believe I Am Here" (RealAudio excerpt).
"Although I'm not sure of the reason for the coherence," Parker said, "as these things are always mysterious, there's been some sort of internalizing of the music and of the approach to the music among the band members."
Charles Waters, a reed player in the group, enthused: "Little Huey has never repeated a composition in performance. To play with William regularly, it's a challenge to digest such serious music with limited rehearsal time. But it's totally rewarding in a spiritual sense, and just a hell of a good time playing great tunes with a great band. No band comes on any stronger that's what I really love."
Little Huey certainly came on strong in late May when they held a New Orleans-style parade through New York's East Village to inaugurate the fifth annual Vision Festival, an 11-day fringe multimedia event Parker runs with his wife, dancer/choreographer Patricia Nicholson. While other festivals have turned to corporate sponsorship and make the kind of programming concessions that such funding can demand, the Vision Fest has remained resolutely commercial-free-and stylistically, on the freer edges of jazz lending it the intimate air of a vanguardists' family reunion.
Parker considers these community organization efforts an important extension of his work as a musician.
"Whenever I have time in New York, I dip into a think tank of various ideas of promotion, outreach, about getting music out to a new audience," he explained. "This is based on the simple theory that there are more people who don't listen than do. There are so many people who haven't heard of the creative music of the Vision Festival and would enjoy it."
Parker will enlarge his community of performers and listeners when he teaches young musicians at the Louis Armstrong Jazz Camp in New Orleans later this summer. Considering that the much more musically conservative Wynton Marsalis was once a teacher at the camp, it may seem like an odd gig for Parker. And, indeed, he has very different ideas about educating.
"A lot of musicians who come out of music school are trained in their system of organizing sound, music school aesthetic," Parker said. "They don't teach you about developing your own sound, of sound itself and its value to the world. An academic approach values music that's 'interesting.'
"But the most uninteresting thing can be so-called interesting music. If you go to the grassroots people, they don't want something 'interesting,' they want something spiritually uplifting. I work with these younger musicians because I'd like to see more musicians and people in general dealing with the idea of self-expression on a real deep level."