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William Parker Trio - ... and William Danced

Charles Walker, Sudden Thoughts

William Parker and Hamid Drake have been playing like men possessed in recent years. Not sonically, so much - they are often the least over the top part of the ensembles by which they are surrounded - but in terms of their output: it seems to be impossible to find a musical situation in which they can't find their curious type of lockstep, latching on to the busy percolations of their easily-communicated groove. It is unshakeable, and impossible not to like. Their rhythmic methodology is defined by flexibility, dialogue, and gradual shifts (moving simple ideas through a driving half hour of permutations); but it is also surprisingly inflexible, as evidenced on this hour-long trio set with Swedish altoist Anders Gahnold. Inflexible, because Drake and Parker are diffident in the face of reedy disturbances, be they Peter Brotzmann's overblown assaults or the more linear, economical additions of Gahnold. Point being: no matter which way the saxophonist shuffles and shakes, no matter how fragmentary or circular the ways he attacks the rhythm, Parker and Drake will not be moved. Any musician entering the roomy ride of their conversation must be aware that it is organic and overpowering; as such, their groups only really work when the other members allow the bass and drums to follow their own evolving conversation naturally. They will react in due time, but only if it falls within the grinding groove they have worked so masterfully to establish. Free jazz, after all, has to be freeing itself from something.

This approach, naturally, has both a down and an up side, and both come through on the three lengthy improvisations included on …And William Danced. The appropriately titled "First Dance" - perhaps recorded before the three had really had a chance to become musically acquainted - displays both qualities in equal measure. Starting with a simple arco invocation from Parker, the bass and drums quickly slide into one of their patented, open-ended grooves. The rest of the seventeen minutes are driven by their steady three-beat tempo, built on two alternating sections: in the first, Parker sticks to a muscular waltz, landing on the one and the three, but then occasionally shifts into his usual, off-kilter quarter notes. This sectional back and forth builds up a fantastic stop-and-go momentum. Meanwhile, Drake unleashes his arsenal of accents and fills, sometimes falling in line with Parker, sometimes moving into alternate time signatures to give a feel of disjointed cohesion.
This is where their usual approach shines - in their dialogue they are at once distinct and unified; they are repetitive enough to build momentum (they could play this groove all day long), but they are interactive enough to imbue it with the subtle dynamic shifts that keep it interesting. The highlight, of course, is the lengthy bass-drums duet in the middle - they have already show their proficiency in this format (AUM Fidelity's Piercing the Veil), but it seems to never grow old. However, Gahnold's contributions also point up where this approach is lacking - he tries for ten minutes to accelerate, open up, or anger the rhythm section with short, lyrical bursts, long, overblown tones, and tumbling, rhythmically off-balance phrases: all to no avail. There is no interrupting Drake and Parker when they lock in this way; Gahnold can't seem to make up his mind whether to take them on head first, or simply ride out the gently-cresting wave.

Nevertheless, these characteristics come together after the trio has had some time to get adjusted, on the lengthy closing "…And William Danced." The half hour contains too many various sections to make a play by play particularly interesting (they move through everything from the drones of Indian music to the Miles Davis quintet), but the whole performance finds all three musicians reacting in much closer sympathy. Parker opens up his lines, adding a wider swath of off-the-beat notes and quickly-fingered flutters; Drake brings out his entire bag of tricks, from his rumbling, stick-less hand drumming to his wide-eared incorporation of reggae riddims and African polyrhythm; and Gahnold spends more time listening, following the other two's unique sense of volume and momentum. He is much more fluid here, and might even steal the show if faced with two lesser collaborators. As it stands, however, he is merely superb - he holds long tones in contrast to Drake's furious rolls or inserts short blasts between Parker's implied upbeats. He repeats short fragments for dramatic effect (as Drake and Parker pull back in unison), or he lets out an a-melodic, circular phrase as they irrevocably build towards climax.

Parker has repeatedly talked in print about his discovery of some mystical "fifth string" on his bass - the droning self-accompaniment of his solo here serves as some explanation of what he's referring to. He works unaccompanied for four minutes, without a single rest note in sight, driving pedal points into submission with harmonically tense, churning figures over the top. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the performance - which it shares with many of Parker and Drake's recent output - is that it never mistakes bluster for energy. "…And William Danced" engages roots while never kow-towing to them; it adds lyricism, the looping effects of modern music, and Third World folk music's danceability to the usual high-energy assault. Accessible, but hardly derivative.

There is little indication that this session will be more important in the long run than some of Parker and Drake's other recent masterpieces. Still, …And William Danced finds the two doing what they do best, with the added bonus of hearing the little-known (stateside) Gahnold stretch out with worthy musicians. And it certainly stands up to the Brotzmann Die Like a Dog discs, for one point of reference. For one, this Ayler disc is cleanly recorded and shows more variety and spaciousness than they sometimes achieve in a to-the-hilt DLAD performance. Who knows the next time these two will be traveling through Sweden, but hopefully they will make a point of returning to Stockholm's Flash Music Studio when they do. Less the "Fire Music" of yesterday, it is instead a smoldering, evocative groove that elicits quick responses, organic interplay, and a hard-spiked melodic sensibility.