Compassion Seizes Bed-Stuy
Rob Brown Trio
By Peter Margasak
Playing bass is a largely thankless endeavor in almost any genre. Though he’s in some ways the glue that holds together rhythm and harmony, the bass player rarely gets the glory. This fundamental irony becomes more pronounced in free jazz, where traditional roles are expanded and traditional structures diminished–residing in the margins of an already marginalized form does not usually make for notoriety.
It is in this difficult context that William Parker has spent more than two decades making a name as one of the finest free-music bassists on the planet. Musical relationships with postbop oddball Jemeel Moondoc, blustery Teutonic saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, expansive percussionist Jerome Cooper, and New York free-jazz mainstays Charles Gayle and David S. Ware have suggested his protean range. But it was his long-term association with pioneering pianist Cecil Taylor that solidly established him as brilliant.
Though he’s technically dazzling, with remarkable power and finesse honed under masters like Milt Hinton, Richard Davis, and Jimmy Garrison, it is his extraordinary selflessness that has become Parker’s trademark. Developing incisive, expressive music and interacting with other musicians is what drives him. Glory does not. For this he’s been sought out to play on nearly 100 records. On two rather different recent recordings, one with Parker as leader and the other with him supporting alto saxophonist Rob Brown, he demonstrates both the versatility and the generosity of his playing.
On Compassion Seizes Bed-Stuy Parker’s original compositions employ a variety of melodic and structural gambits toward a single goal: highly sensitive and all-enveloping improvisation. As his somewhat ambiguous liner notes say, “The music uses an invocation system as a base.” Joined by pianist Cooper Moore, drummer Susie Ibarra, and Brown, Parker sets out ideas-cum-compositions that serve as the tunes’ melodic heads, but ultimately are presented as starting points for the performances. The quartet uses his musical moorings to launch into the unknown.
On “Holiday for Hypocrites,” for example, a simple up-and-down melodic fragment unfurls into a procession of distinct, albeit organically linked, events. Moore opens with a solo that progresses from fleet right-handed runs a la Art Tatum into furious tight-fisted clusters and dark rumbling lines. This bashing is eventually swallowed by Brown’s sax, which twists the boppish turns of Charlie Parker via Ornette Coleman into craggy, acidic sheets of sound. Ibarra, a terrific young drummer who’s studied with avant-gardist Milford Graves and has played in several gamelans, follows with a skittering, textural solo–but her greatest work, like Parker’s, tends to take place beneath the action of other soloists. Her lesson from the self-taught Graves is that of careful interaction. Like his, her flourishes succeed as another melodic voice.
Even the album’s most accessible tune, “Goggles,” which jumps with implied boogie-woogie patterns, finds Brown’s ebullient sax machinations cutting against the boogaloo. A dexterous exchange between Parker and Ibarra hangs abstractly on the rhythmic pattern, but it’s more concerned with interaction than timekeeping.
For his part, Parker dispenses with the traditional role of bass as harmonic anchor. He certainly contributes to fascinating harmonic scenarios, but he’s just as likely to offer rhythmic counterpoint. He opens “Dejenos en Paz” with a Latin bass line that’s more rhythmic than melodic, and Ibarra’s entrance, with a challenging polyrhythm, tips the cart. Moore and Brown charge into the tune as the prime melody and harmony providers, but as with all of the pieces on the album, the playing is free. Parker may sound like he’s in the background, but what he’s doing is crucial to the changes, expositions, and thrills happening in the foreground.
Even when Parker sits out, his ideas about creative dialogue guide the proceedings. “Unrestricted (for Julius Hemphill)” is a gorgeous hymnlike duet between Ibarra and Moore that Parker wrote but doesn’t play on. The piano introduces the aching melody while Ibarra presents a funereal procession of nonrhythmic percussion–bells, mute tom thuds, cymbal eruptions–but the instrumentalists soon trade places. Moore shifts from a fixed tempo to a free investigation as Ibarra’s creative drum play takes the lead spot, before they revert back to their original positions at the tune’s bittersweet conclusion.
High Wire, the superb new album by the Rob Brown Trio, is considered a fringe effort by the marketplace, but it’s significantly more linear and structured than Parker’s album. While Parker expresses many of the same ideas he does on Compassion, his playing is more geared toward harmonic effect–particularly without a piano in the mix. Likewise, drummer Jackson Krall, who lacks Ibarra’s affinity for coloristic percussion, is more inclined toward swing, although you won’t soon confuse him with Buddy Rich.
Brown is a magnificent hornman who’s worked with adventurous musicians like pianist Matthew Shipp and guitarist Joe Morris, but he remains largely unknown. His ties to the postbop tradition are more discernible through his own compositions than Parker’s. On a relatively straight blues like the delicate and lyrical “Turmoil,” Parker obligingly sticks to the changes, albeit with a striking array of economical embellishments. “Hex Key” is far more jagged and loose, but still linear. Brown’s piercing multiphonic journey, which fairly drips with the pained spirituality of Albert Ayler, flutters closely around Parker’s narrow but busy attack.
On the waltz called “Totter,” Parker’s playing provides a rhythmic function in addition to holding the harmonic center as Krall crafts a free, painterly display of texture beneath Brown’s nimble melody, which grows more abrasive and edgy as the song progresses. “Revealing” approaches the free terrain Parker enjoys most. A master of bowed playing, he opens the tune with distended arco figures, while Krall coaxes muffled tom patter and slow-sizzle cymbal accents from his kit and Brown bobs gently over more unearthly multiphonic contours.
Whether on his own turf or someone else’s–Compassion is really only his fourth record as a leader, discounting collaborative efforts with Gayle and trumpeter Roy Campbell–Parker’s distinctive yet flexible sound gets the job done with little fuss. While an increasing legion of Armani suits struggles toward stardom, Parker has become a star by dedicating himself to his art. Being a hotshot would only get in the way.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of both album covers, and of William Parker holding a bass by Michael Galinsky.