The Vision Fest began yesterday, and is in full swing. So it seems apropos to give a nod to William Parker, a monster bassist, tireless worker, and generous spirit. Without him—and without his wife, the dancer and organizer Patricia Nicholson Parker—this great event would be a very different entity…if it existed at all.
About ten years ago, William agreed to sit with me for the DownBeat Blindfold Test. For reasons that would take too long to explain, he had to listen to everything with cheap headphones through a Sony Diskman — and got through it like a champ! This, of course, is the raw copy.
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William Parker (Blindfold Test):
1. Cachao, “Descarga A,” Master Sessions: Vol. 2 (Columbia, 1995) [4 stars]
I think, from the bowing in the beginning, that that was Israel Lopez — Cachao. People have been telling me about him for years and years, and I’ve just heard specks here and there. Unfortunately, right now, I don’t own one of his CD’s. But I enjoyed that very much. It was just a happy folk feeling that I really like in a lot of music I prefer to listen to, because it’s bright and had a song going through it — and his bass playing is right on. It’s very-very-very nice. And the singing, the trombones, the saxophones, everything was very-very-very tasty. So I would give that four stars.
2. Andrew Hill, “Wailing Wall,” Smokestack, (Blue Note, 1963/1995) [4 stars] (Richard Davis & Eddie Khan, basses; Hill, piano; Roy Haynes, drums)
[ONE MINUTE IN] This is two basses. [2 MINUTES IN} This is Richard Davis. [2½ MINUTES] I’m trying to figure out who this piano player is. Is that Andrew Hill? Andrew Hill, Eddie Khan, Richard Davis. [Who's the drummer? You know.] This is a piece called “Wailing Wall.” What was getting me was, it wasn’t… The piano wasn’t as eccentric as I’m used to with Andrew Hill — or say as personal — at first. But then he found that space that sort of gets into his area of…that brings out his personality. The bowed bass was with Richard Davis, and that was excellent, excellent, excellent. And Eddie Khan… They both had deep bass sounds, really thick sounds, and I particularly like that on the bass. That was a perfect vehicle for two basses, with that piano sort of backdrop. I’m not sure who the drummer was. The drummer was double-timing. I’m not sure who that was. Because it was mostly cymbal. Joe Chambers, Tony Williams… I’m just guessing who was on the record. [That was Roy Haynes.] Roy Haynes, okay. He’s not a usual sort of person on these records. Because he didn’t do that many with Andrew. [Well, he did Black Fire, too.] Well, I enjoyed that very much also. I would give that 4 stars.
3. Fred Hopkins & Deidre Murray, “Dedicated To Ronnie Boykins,” Firestorm (Victo, 1992). [4-1/2 stars]
Barre Phillips. No? I’ve heard this bassist before. I’ve heard this sound before. Was this recorded in a church? It’s got that open sound. [THEN] It’s got that cello and bass. [LATER] It’s not Deidre Murray… [LATER] I’m going to take a guess. I’m not really sure. This isn’t Deidre Murray and Fred Hopkins. Oh, it is? Usually I can spot Deidre Murray like that. [It's Fred's piece.] It’s Fred’s piece, okay. For lack of better terms, it sounded a bit more Classical, or even European-sounding than what they usually do. But everything they do has always been top-notch. I think Fred’s passing was so unfortunate, because he was great. I would give that 4½ stars. That was very-very-very nice. I guess sometimes when the sound is right in front of you, it’s like looking for something and then because it’s right there you don’t see it. [They did it at East Side Sound.) That was a very nice sound.
4. Ron Carter, “Laverne Walk”, Piccolo (Milestone, 1977/1999). [3-1/2 stars] (Carter, piccolo bass; Buster Williams, bass; Kenny Barron, piano; Ben Riley, drums; Oscar Pettiford, composer)
Right off I can tell that they’re having fun. What often happens when two bassists get together, there’s like a thing where bass players can play together without being in competition, and they sort of really know how to complement each other. But I’ve got to figure out who this is. [LATER] That slide is like a Ray Brown thing, but the tone doesn’t really sound like Ray Brown the way it’s recorded. But those slides… [LATER] This bass player, John Clayton. [ANOTHER MINUTE] They were really interwoven in there, playing in the same register sometimes, and except for a few slides I could not distinguish who was who. [Were they playing the same instrument?] Well, it’s hard to tell. Because nowadays, a lot of bassists play in the upper register, miked through a pickup. So I really couldn’t hear the acoustic sound of the bass too well on that one. [Did you know the tune?] I don’t know the tune. But I thought the performance of it and the spirit with which they were playing was good. They weren’t trying to be political or revolutionary on that one! They were just trying to get a groove and make something happen. [LATER] When I heard the left-hand skip I thought of Ron Carter, and I also thought of Buster Williams, but I couldn’t clearly distinguish them. What I’d say about Ron Carter in general is that he’s been one of the foundations for sort of post Paul Chambers bass playing, walking bass lines — he’s influenced a lot of people there. Also, his choice of notes and his placement of notes in certain spots, not playing a lot of notes. And also keeping a bass sound on his bass, so to speak. That one I would give 3-1/2 stars. I think that they weren’t necessarily getting to any musical essences there, but it was a good performance of jazz, and interplay between two basses. I’m sure if I was in the room and watching this live, it would really be a lot more present and happening than listening to it on a CD. I think you lose a lot when you’re listening to two basses on CD.
5. Ray Brown, “Tricotism,” Much In Common (Verve, 1962/1996) [5 stars] (with orchestra, arr. Ernie Wilkins; Oscar pettiford, composer)
Oh, they said who it was at the end of the tune, but to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t have said Ray Brown. I didn’t hear any particular Ray Brown licks there, or I guess I never heard Ray Brown in that particular context. That was very-very-very modern type of playing, and I always thought of him as a slower type thinker. I think in bassists you have people who sort of play fast, and then you have other bassists who really dig into the note and play slower. I always thought of him as someone who had a deeper, more soulful type of feeling when he plays. Also sometimes you get bass amnesia; everything blends into one. But that was an excellent performance. I’d give that 5 stars. [Did you know the tune?] I didn’t know the tune. When I was listening to it, I started to say, “Is that Oscar Pettiford?” That’s the connection there. I thought maybe he was trying to reflect on Oscar Pettiford, because it wasn’t in the area that I associate with Ray Brown necessarily.
6. Oscar Pettiford, “Stardust,” Vienna Blues: The Complete Session (Black Lion, 1959/1990) [3½ stars] (Oscar Pettiford, bass; Attila Zoller, guitar; Jimmy Pratt, drums; Hoagy Carmichael, composer)
Those stops. I don’t know who this is. It’s hard to tell when they don’t play any wrong notes! [LATER, AT 5:30] I’m not sure who this is. But they’re playing all the right notes! It’s a nice ballad. But I think sometimes you need some off-notes or off-sounds to give the music a little edge. I think he’s putting some in now with those strums, but… [LATER] This is Oscar Pettiford. [As a young player, would you study Oscar Pettiford or Ray Brown?] Not really. That was a little bit before my time. I was studying stuff that had happened the last ten years rather than the last twenty years. But let me just say that that performance… I do have an affection for Oscar Pettiford, but I only could give that 3-1/2 stars. To me it was just functional. It was nice, but it didn’t really go over the top too much.
7. Bill Dixon-Alan Silva, “Summer Song/Two/Evening,” Bill Dixon In Italy: Vol. 2 (Black Saint, 1980) (dixon, trumpet, composer; Silva, bass)
Alan Silva and Bill Dixon. In this performance, Alan is not playing any… His phrases are symmetrical but within their own space. Then he’s putting an edge on the sound where you would least expect it, while simultaneously underpinning the trumpet but also creating his own sort of road that the trumpet is reacting off of. Bill is one of the masters at playing trumpet lines in this slower tempo, just creating layers and layers of sound built on top of each other in this continuous ballad that has… It’s like trees. It’s very in synch with Nature. If you could put a trumpet in a tree and blow the wind through it, that’s what Bill sounds like. Then Alan underneath him sounds like… If Mother Nature could play the bass, that’s what it would sound like. I would give this 5 stars. It’s excellent.
8. Evan Parker (soprano saxophone) & Barry Guy (bass) “Slope,” Obliquities (Maya, 1994).
Oh my God. [LATER] Sometimes you can’t tell if it’s a violin, cello or bass just yet. Because the bass players nowadays play in the violin range, they play in the cello range, and when you have more than one player it’s hard to tell, but I do hear a cello in there. [NO] A violin. [NO] Bass! That’s what I’m saying. You can’t… I’m trying to figure out who the saxophone player is. Very nice. Very nice colors and textures. But I don’t hear any personal codes yet from the string section that I can recognize. [LATER] To be able to hear any musician and know who it is, you have to hear them numerous times. [You've played next to this guy.] [LISTENS] I’m reluctant to say who the saxophone player is, because if I say the wrong person I’ll get in big trouble. [Who do you think it is? You're probably already in trouble.] [SILENT] Oh, man, never mind! [LAUGHS] Is this Evan Parker? [4½ minutes] And Barry Guy. [BREAK] Is there a cello in here, or is it just duo? It’s a duo? Barry sounds like two basses there, because he plays so fast that he looks like two basses. It’s like watching a sped-up movie, because he can go up to the top and down to the bottom. But this is a very nice performance. I would give this 4-1/2 stars.
9. Paul Chambers. “The P.C. Blues” Red’s Blues (Prestige, 1998). (Paul Chambers, bass, composer; Red Garland, piano; Arthur Taylor, drums)
It’s a blues. And they’re playing in 4/4 time, the drummer is keeping the time. Let’s see what happens now. Nice! These are authentic players. Deep bass work. I like the idea of simplicity in the bass work and the tone. Very nice tone, very nice time. In a piece like this you don’t really have to go crazy or anything, just keep it basic and let your tone and time be the spokesmen. At this point I don’t hear who the bassist is. I have to listen a little bit more. [BREAK] Very solid. It’s somebody that sounds like they’re in the school… [DURING SOLO] This is Paul Chambers. Because he’s bowing on nylon strings and it’s a little raspy. But the time and the tone were very sweet. I’d give this 4-1/2 stars. [Do you know who the pianist was?] That was Wynton Kelly? I’m not… Those guys were the creators of their genre in music. So it’s not just authentic; it is the real thing.
10. George Mraz, “Mr. Pastorius,” Bottom Lines (Milestone, 1997) (Mraz, bass; Cyrus Chestnut, piano, synthesizer; Al Foster, drums)
From just initially hearing this… Now, this is an electric bass or acoustic bass? [Acoustic bass with a synth.] Well, the sound is a little dry, and no one seems to be vibrating their instruments acoustically. I don’t really hear it. That sort of takes down the usefulness of the music for me to a point. It’s nice for what it is, but for me it doesn’t have enough bite. They seem to be proficient at what they’re doing, but it’s just a matter of if you have a particular taste and like what they’re doing. So I don’t know who this is. But the way it’s recorded, the lead instrument sounds a little electronic. I’m not even sure what instrument it is. I mean, I would say that the music isn’t… It sounds a bit like a soundtrack, and I’d say it basically isn’t vibrating enough for me to do the nervous system any good. So it may be harsh, but I have to give this 2-1/2 stars. [LATER] Now that you’re telling me who this is: I’m familiar with George Mraz, from Czechoslovakia, and he is an excellent bassist, and he can produce excellent music. I just think it was hidden in the arrangement of that particular song. To me, if it’s acoustic bass, the wood has got to vibrate to get the sound. That’s what it’s set up to do.
11. Charlie Haden (w/ Paul Bley & Paul Motian), “Blues For Josh,” Memoirs (Black Saint, 1990).
It sounds like Charlie Haden, who is a bassist who I guess gets recognized immediately by a lot of people. It’s like people who have a more individual voice. Like when we hear Ted Panken on the radio, we recognize that it’s him immediately! He’s from the Ozarks, and he’s got this country-folk thing happening in his bass playing that always really speaks, and he’s got a feel for what he’s doing that’s in his own time zone. He’s not trying to play like the classic bass players, so to speak. That’s what you really have to do in music. You have to try to find your own way of playing time, or not playing time, or playing music. That’s sort of the goal. Because everyone’s got their own feeling inside. I think your personality can come out when you discover what’s you. That’s one of the things that Charlie Haden has. So that’s him on bass. That’s Paul Motian on drums. And Geri Allen? Paul Bley. Well, Paul Bley has his own language on the piano. So this again is a classic trio that… They’ve been making music together for years. That gives you some stars right there, for being able to stay alive in the Jazz Business for all those years — you can give some credit just for that. That doesn’t mean that every performance you give is wonderful, but I think this is a very nice piece of music. So I would give that 4 stars.
12. Glen Moore, “Jade Visions,” Dragonetti’s Dream (Intuition, 1995).
That’s a Scott LaFaro composition. [AFTER LISTENING TO THE WHOLE PIECE] That’s a bass player from the West Coast. [Yes.] David Friesen. [No. Why do you say it's from the West Coast?] Because it’s big tree sound music, and it sounds folksy. It reminded me a little bit of the bass player David Friesen, but if it’s not him, then I don’t know who that was. [LATER] Oh, that’s Glen Moore. He’s the other guy whose name would come up, because he’s got an open, tree-like sound. I used to listen to him when he played with this group called Oregon. They did all these concerts at WBAI, the Free Music Store. He played the composition straight, and it was just the sound…the bass was ringing. That was a very good recorded sound. It really reminded me of playing out in the forest in the morning. Because there’s certain music that’s just for particular times of the day, and if you listen to it the wrong time of the day you’d have a totally wrong impression of it. Like, if we were walking through a forest and we heard the sound of his bass, it would be magnificent. But if you’re in a smoky nightclub that particular music would be almost too majestic for a place like that. That was very meditative. 4 stars. That was very nice.
13. Dave Holland, “Bedouin,” Points of View (ECM, 1998). (Dave Holland, bass, composer; Robin Eubanks, trombone; Steve Wilson, soprano saxophone; Steve Nelson, vibraphone; Billy Kilson, drums).
He’s a slider. He slides like guitar players and sitar players. …younger players, and this was recorded in the ’80s or ’90s. The way the composition is laid out and the rhythms that the horns are playing and the way the beat… It almost has a Hip-Hop feel. Nice trombone player. [BREAK] I don’t know who this is. I’d just be guessing. Because they’re musicians I usually wouldn’t…don’t listen to. Not because I would refuse to listen to them. Just that as you become older in this field of music… A lot of people keep up with what’s going on, and then a lot of people just listen to the same records they have in their cabinet! So I don’t know if I ever have actually purchased a CD in the ’90s! [Do you have any sense who the bass player is? He had a solo at the top.] Well, he seems to be very flexible. He’s someone that might also play electric bass. [Once upon a time.] Once upon a time. [LATER] Oh, this is Dave Holland. So that’s Robin Eubanks. He’s a nice trombone player. Dave Holland has a singing sound on his instrument, and you usually can tell who it is by his phrasing and his sound. But I didn’t really hear that. This was more condensed or in the ensemble. That was very tricky. I would give that 3-1/2 stars. Because again, it was nice, but it didn’t have any particular special message to me. But it was a nice tune, and nicely executed. Because I’ve heard another cut on this record which I actually liked a lot more than this. I guess that one was a bit more dynamic and exciting. This was a groove piece.
14. Malachi Favors/Roscoe Mitchell, “Keep on Keeping On,” Hey, Donald (Delmark, 1997) (Malachi Favors, bass, composer; Roscoe Mitchell, alto saxophone)
That’s Malachi Favors and Roscoe Mitchell playing a duet. Roscoe goes from one end of the sound spectrum to the other. He has his very open forms; he has his folk feeling, his simple song feelings. That was a hymn almost. [It was Malachi Favors' tune.] Okay. Malachi is one of the all-time masters of the bass. If he had played pizzicato…I could really-really-really recognize him pizzicato. But he’s also got this nice, deep, dry sound playing arco. For being Malachi’s tune, I’d give that 5 stars.
15. Mark Helias, “Semaphore,” Open Loose (Koch, 1998) (Helias, bass, composer; Ellery Eskelin, tenor saxophone; Tom Rainey, drums)
Is it three or four people? [AT 2 MINUTES] In this short period of time, the bassist has gone into three or four different areas. He has a very strong sound and a very good sense of timing. [PONDERS] David Murray on saxophone? No. Is this an American band? [It's a New York band.] I like it a lot. Everyone’s got a strong sound. I hear a breathiness in the saxophone player. That’s why I mentioned David, or even… It’s not hard like Archie Shepp; it’s a lighter sound. [Any idea who the bass player is?] I’m not sure. Is this Mark… Which Mark? [LATER] Mark Dresser? No. It’s Mark Helias! See, I’ve never heard his band. So this is Ellery Eskelin and Tom Rainey. I played a duo a couple of weeks ago with Ellery Eskelin and he does have that sound. But I’ve never heard Mark Helias’ own bands. I thought he had more than a trio. This is very nice. They got their own space happening. I’m going to give this the full 5 stars. Mark Dresser also has an excellent band which I just heard which has an excellent saxophone player and drummer, but it was a little different than this. This is nice. They’re getting some nice colors and textures. When you don’t have a piano in the way, the bass can really guide the group and underpin everything and move things around. And this is Open-Loose! Very nice.
All bass players write their own music. I wonder why that is.