Parker’s greatest legacy may be his willingness to find the human voice in creative music.
Our boldest modern innovators in jazz are mainly associated with instrumental music: Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor. In modern jazz, singers are typically associated with standards by Gershwin or Porter, which makes for appealing stylists perhaps but don’t focus on anyone pushing the music forward. Bassist and composer William Parker has just released a three-disc box set that refutes this silly notion. Voices Fall from the Sky collects vocal performances by many different artists—and from older and recent sessions with Parker—and organizes them into thematic groups that show how vocal artistry is part of the music’s future and connects the music back to its past.
The earliest jazz innovators, of course, understood the power of the voice. Louis Armstrong’s singing was an essential part of his relationship with time, tone and emotion. Duke Ellington worked with singers often and placed their work in the context of a big band that essentially consisted of 15 “vocalists” who happened to sing on trumpets, saxophones and trombones. William Parker works within that tradition despite his determined lineage in the jazz avant-garde. There is work on Voices Fall from the Sky that plainly descends from jazz tradition, but much of it is bracingly new and even outside what we might call “jazz.” Not every cut will be to every taste, but the range and ambition is close to unprecedented. It’s Parker’s way of demonstrating that the voice—and the vocal “song” tradition—remains critical to this music, however you define it.
The box is named for the first disc, which presents new recordings by a dizzying array of contemporary singers who sing in a huge swath of styles. The relaxed folk-gospel sound of Morley Shanti Kamen on “A Tree Called Poem,” for example, is arresting minimalism: Just Parker’s bass violin resonating in strummed chords and rung notes and her cool, natural alto, evoking Nina Simone at times in its plainsong beauty. “Bouquet for Borah,” by contrast, places singer Andrea Wolper in front of a more traditional jazz quintet with trumpet, alto sax and rhythm section that is swinging in a mid-tempo stroll that seems almost, well, traditional. Wolper is bell-toned and relaxed as the band lopes along, yet the very next tune, “City of Flowers,” finds her in free improvisation with bassoon and electronics, her tone cracking, expressive, ripped full of nonsense syllables, whispers, echoes and more. The point is that the music is all over, but always expressive and fascinating.
The tunes on this first disc feature ensembles of various sizes. “So Important” is an impressionistic song for vocalist Kyoto Kitamura and pianist Eri Yamamoto, often featured with Parker’s small groups. Amirtha Kidambi puts across the title track the help of Parker’s bass, Steve Swell’s trombone and the violin of Jason Hwang, creating an angular but logical melodic contour. “Despues de la Guerra” features two singers, two guitars and a chanting element. But then “We Often Danced” incorporates a more complete small band (bass with piano as well as two horns and two strings, all accompanying Fay Victor’s initially spoken and eventually sung story-song. This is Victor’s only feature on the three discs, but she very nearly steals the whole week of music.
The second disc, titled “Songs,” draws material from Parker recording sessions of the last 25 years or so, particularly a set of some quieter duos and trios with Parker’s favorite pianists combined with singers. Leena Conquest and Yamamoto are beautifully represented by “Prayer,” a soulful spiritual that speaks directly to our best aspirations, and “Sweet Breeze,” a spare ballad built on a melancholy descending chord sequence. Pianist Cooper-Moore plays a hypnotic pattern that guides Lisa Sokolov in a lyric that begs a lover not to leave on “Autumn Song”. He is more abstract and chiming on “Tour of the Flying Poem,” with Senegalese Mola Sylla singing across cultures brilliantly. Ellen Christi is particularly effective accompanied only by Parker on “A Thought for Silence”—after a long arco bass intro, she enters almost like a flute, delicate and quavering, then building clarity as she outlines a haunting melody that takes over with the question, “Where would you fly if you were a bird?” There isn’t music like this being made anywhere else but in Parker’s specific universe.
Finally, disc three focuses on vocalists working in front of various Parker-related large ensembles. The richness here is in the way that Parker’s music places a singer as an equal voice in a complex arrangement. Leena Conquest is threaded through a large string group at the start of “For Fannie Lou Hamer,” but in the second part of the composition she works as a spoken-word artist amidst a percussion orchestra that births expressive writing for (and improvising by) a horn section. Conquest holds her own. The four-part “Blinking of the Ear” suite puts AnnMarie Sandy’s classically influenced vocal approach amidst fragmented free-bop, a curious combination that keeps your ears reevaluating what this kind of music is or should be. All of this work seems to cry out to be called Ellingtonian in its breadth of colors and textures—and surely enough the disc begins with Ernie Odoom in a live performance of Parker’s “Essence of Ellington,” a raucous and joyous tribute to the master that punches through the composer’s key influences: Not just Duke but also Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, David Murray and Ornette Coleman.
What’s particularly wonderful about this entire collection, however, is the way it blows past all those influences. None of Parker’s modern heroes investigated the role of the voice (and the American “song” tradition) in jazz with the depth and diversity of this work. Though Parker is a fine bassist, a compelling free improvisor and a strong composer in the instrumental tradition, Voices Fall from the Sky suggests that his greatest legacy may be his willingness to find the human voice in creative music.