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William Parker Centering: Unreleased Early Recordings 1976-1987 Review

Compilation. Released 2012.  

BBC Review

An almost overwhelmingly rich archival collection.

Daniel Spicer 2012

William Parker is a towering figure in 21st century avant-garde music, widely recognised as a crucial link to the heart of free jazz, and a true heavyweight of the double bass. But it wasn’t always so.

Starting out in 70s New York, Parker was present at the heyday of the loft era, when rents were cheap and artist-run performance spaces provided ample opportunity for those in the leftfield to practise their art. Even after gentrification put these spaces out of action, it was still possible to stage concerts in churches, galleries and other spaces.

But, with free jazz being pushed further underground, finding a label – or the money – to release the music was a different matter. Throughout the 70s and 80s, largely ignored by the mainstream, Parker honed his craft, snatching opportunities to run live shows and recording sessions, almost all of which remained unheard. Until now.

Across six discs, this box set gathers together key documents from those early years – and shows Parker’s aesthetic almost fully formed from the beginning. Extended duo sessions with saxophonists Daniel Carter and Charles Gayle reveal an attentive ear and an early penchant for the swirling, arco passages that have become a central pillar of his work.

Three separate sets performed with the Centering Dance Music Ensemble highlight the multidisciplinary nature of a lot of the early projects, conceived to run alongside dance (choreographed by his wife Patricia Nicholson) and with one session, subtitled Voices, featuring just bass, drums and mournful, dramatic vocals.

Elsewhere, in a session from 1980, the Dance Music Ensemble musters a classic free jazz sound – with Denis Charles on drums and David S. Ware on stratospheric tenor sax, straining into heavenward altissimo bliss. The larger groups really burn, too. Big Moon Ensemble – a double quartet – brews up glowering, rangy free-bop, while Centering Big Band – a 13-piece – creates crashing, large-scale free jazz that feels like George Russell directing Sun Ra’s Arkestra.

By the time Parker broke through into wider public consciousness with In Order to Survive in 1993, he was already in his early 40s. This almost overwhelmingly rich archival resource shows that, for nearly two decades, he’d already been striking out very far from shore, and refining an ability to present cerebral concepts with a warm and inclusive sense of soul.

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