William Parker ‘Great Spirit’ CD/DIG (Aum Fidelity) 4/5

william-parkerGiven that William Parker has been releasing albums since the 1980’s I thought I would look in to the UK Vibe archive to see what others had written about him before starting this review. A quick search revealed nothing so I checked with the Editor, who confirmed that this is indeed the first William Parker album to be reviewed on the website!
I was mildly surprised by this as Parker has released almost 80 albums as Leader or Co-Leader in 30-odd years, most of which have come out since the turn of the century. I can hardly think of a more prolific artist, one whose drive and energy shows no signs of diminishing with age. But then again Parker plays avant-garde/free jazz; music that gets little or no promotion and limited airtime.
Across these albums, Parker has led a number of different groupings, through which he often builds lasting relationships. The Raining on the Moon group that performs on this album is probably a good place to start if you are new to the music of William Parker. It is an extension of Parker’s long-standing quartet of Hamid Drake (drums), Rob Brown (alto saxophone), and Lewis Barnes (trumpet), with the addition of Eri Yamamoto (Piano) and Leena Conquest (vocals), who have also collaborated with Parker previously.

The inclusion of piano and vocals in particular make this album a lot more accessible, if not exactly mainstream. That said the whole sound is a lot more structured and melodic than you might imagine from one of the doyens of improvised music. Frankly this just adds to Parker’s versatility for me.

“Great Spirit” is made up of 6 compositions recorded in January 2007 during the same session that gave birth to the album “Corn Meal Dance”, with the exception of “Song for (Whitney)” which was recorded live in Montreal in 2012. Don’t write this off as an album of lesser recordings and outtakes though.

What elevates this album and Corn Meal Dance before it is the strength of the playing and Leena Conquest’s wonderful vocals, which exude soulful spirituality, expressing sorrow and exultation in equal measure.

Highlights are the title track with its strong piano lines and defiant chorus and “Feet Music”. The latter is the most overtly political track on the album with lyrics describing the inhumanity of slavery and ending on an empowering and emotionally charged message of personal and spiritual freedom.

There are improvised moments, such as the middle of “Great Spirit” and the aptly titled “Prayer-Improv”, but these are full of rhythm and melody. The ballad “Song (For Whitney)” does not do as much for me, but both Yamamoto and Conquest give assured performances.

If this album interests you, then I would definitely recommend its companion-piece and from there who knows, William Parker’s music has so much to offer.

Andy Hazell