Victor sings Parker’s lyrics on “Harlem Speaks,” the downtown boxed set’s hard-swinging volume that serves as a tribute to uptown Black genius. On the disc, Victor performs in a trio with Parker (on bass, a double-reeded gralla and a pair of African instruments, the guembri and the balafon) and his longtime percussion collaborator, Hamid Drake. The music is fully collaborative and wildly unpredictable, as the singer and the instrumentalists each follow their own inspirations — and, of course, always listen. It’s also deeply personal: “Dancing at the Savoy” celebrates the storied ballroom where Parker’s parents met for the first time. In 1943 they danced into the tone world and discovered each other.
Parker’s art and family history get explored at length in Cisco Bradley’s illuminating new critical study “Universal Tonality,” the first William Parker book that William Parker didn’t have to write himself. Parker appreciates the attention — he called it the story of how he rose “from rags to enlightenment. Note that I didn’t say riches” — but still encourages musicians to tell their own stories, and not just because critics can be slow to catch up.
“Musicians are philosophers,” he said. “They’re scientists, thinkers, multidimensional people. This community has a wealth of stories that could help people.”
Outside of “Harlem Speaks,” Parker doesn’t play bass much on the new set. Instead, the 10 albums center on his work as a composer or as an improviser on a variety of reeds, flutes and other global instruments in an array of unique settings. The suite “Lights in the Rain” celebrates Fellini, Rossellini, Leone and other Italian film directors with a chamber jazz group boasting harmonica, oboe and two bassists; “Manzanar” finds Parker’s Universal Tonality String Quartet swelling and plucking through pieces dedicated to Indigenous peoples while Parker plays a Navajo flute or a Thai mouth organ. The unclassifiable “The Majesty of Jah” features the vocalist Ellen Christi and the trumpeter Jalalu-Kalvert Nelson manipulating and overdubbing a 10-year-old recording session into a layered and meditative soundscape, complete with urgent declarations sampled from James Baldwin.
Parker is irreducible, as such explorations demonstrate. A global-minded musician deeply committed to and inspired by the world outside his window. A working-class populist of the avant-garde who believes that when people actually hear this music they appreciate and understand it.
“He’s like Sun Ra,” said Daniel Carter, the multi-instrumentalist improviser and veteran of over five decades on the free and creative music scene. “He’s figured out his own way of how to get his message out to the world.” Carter, who still records challenging and engaging music well after his 70th birthday, first collaborated with Parker in the 1970s. He added, “I’ve always felt that William set a standard that I never wanted to disregard, either as a musician or spiritually as a person.”
Or, as Victor put it, “William is a beacon of light and wisdom.”
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