William Parker Trio - ... and William Danced

Ken Waxman, Jazz Weekly

True, exceptional, improvised music depends on particular circumstances to be actualised. Mood, time, location and acquaintance are capable of altering the equation to such an extent that two sessions recorded hours apart can be vastly different.

That's what happened with these two CDs, both of which feature bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake. Live was recorded one night at Stockholm's Glenn Miller Café by the two, plus their regular playing partners, alto saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc. The result is a representative hour of high class, New York-based free improv sound. Earlier that day Parker and Drake, met and played for the first time with veteran Swedish alto saxophonist Anders Gahnold, who isn't even that well known in his homeland. Touchingly, the ensuing studio-recorded 66 minutes, offers up a slice of free improv at its finest.

Obviously the novelty of the arrangement, time of the day, circumstances of the meeting, or to use a 1960s word, the vibes, were in alignment at that time. Gahnold, was for eight years until the 1986 death of bassist Johnny Dyani, part of a European avant trio with Dyani and the bass man's fellow South African, drummer Gilbert Matthews. Today he works as an electronic engineer for a large Swedish high tech firm. Perhaps understandably, given improv's low media profile, the saxophonist had literally never even heard of Drake and Parker before he met them at the session.

Thrown together, though, the three soon make a rapprochement, with each subsequent improvisation longer than the one that proceeded it, and with the boiling point reached on the title tune, at more than 30 minutes, LP-length itself.

More a finger-snapping freebop number than a true avant-garde vehicle, Gahnold's edgy, piercing tone is reminiscent of Jackie McLean or Sonny Rollins in their 1960s New Thing-flirting days. A foot on the floor, plowing ahead, the saxman eventually begins double timing with a pronounced burr in his delivery. Ultimately, after he stops spinning out longer phrases, Gahnold makes his sound even sharper and higher-pitched, using multiphonics to construct variations on the changes, and changes on the variations. He doesn't so much stop playing at the end, but grounds to a halt, as if he's ready to start again on a moment's notice.

Contrary to the title, the only dancing Parker does is with his fingers, but he shapes identical notes over and over again, creating melodies and counter melodies, playing one phrase on a string and then echoing it with another. One technique used is to produce a buzz as a string is loosened, finally returning to foursquare rhythm and speeding up the attack. Sizzles from Drake's cymbals worry an off-kilter beat as all this is going on until he too turns boppish, bending bass drum pedal work, cross sticking and press rolls to fit the role. Someone (Drake?) even yells out "yeah" -- the distinctive call of the hipster.

The other two tunes are no less exciting, with the second grotesquely named by the actions of the studio owner's next door neighbour. When the trio began playing the fellow complained that the music was disturbing his customers, though he runs an undertaker's parlour. Thus "The Undertaker's Dance."

On both, as Gahnold's jagged alto sax slips in and out of key, creating gritty, stair step arpeggios Drake and Parker lay down a groove. Manfully pulling on the strings, Parker comes up with a nearly endless bluesy vamp that speeds up and slows down as it herds the others from one tempo to another. Using his palms, sticks and brushes, Drake rollicks around the bassist's centre point with his snares and toms as the alto saxophonist trills staccato notes, which touches of an outside Charles Lloyd.

During the course of the session, it's reported, the musicians hardly talked to one another, they just played, without bothering about titles and time signatures. Would that had happened with Moondoc that same night. If the Swede and two Americans were like a trio of John Waynes, the American altoist, who has been a Parker associate for more than 20 years, comes on like Robin Williams.

Musing about the history of the saxophone on "Blues From (sic) My People," Moondoc mires himself in an extended rap about marching bands, saxophone inventor Adolphe Sax, legendary tenor man Coleman Hawkins who "reinvented the sax" and how he doesn't take requests, even from family members.

This may have been diverting in a club, but when he finally starts playing "Blues," which isn't really a blues, it's up to Parker and Drake to guide Moondoc's strident tone into melding with their never less-than-professional work. The drummer unveils many press rolls, rim shots and hi hat cymbal splatters, after the bassist sounds out one of his characteristic deep, dark bass explorations.

Unfortunately, with both numbers clocking in at either side of 30 minutes, there's too much round robin soloing. Often flashing by at supersonic speeds, you can note Parker snapping his strings as he illuminates both the high and low parts of his axe and, at times, he seems to be playing duets with himself. Hard and fast, Drake appears to be in a bop mode, with much emphasis on bass pedal and sizzle cymbal. Notwithstanding both men trading fours with the altoist at different times, on his own Moondoc appears to have no on/off switch, often worrying a riff over and over and over again.

Those who follow the careers of the American trio members will be most interested in the second disc. But be forewarned that it's a standard club set where flashes of brilliance vie with banality. The first disc with Gahnold is a find, though. More discs featuring him -- new or reissues -- will be anticipated.