For bassist and avant-garde jazz icon William Parker, exploring the music of Duke Ellington isn't merely paying tribute to a towering figure in American music. It's fulfilling a dream of his father's, a vision that animated his childhood.
Growing up in New York City during the Eisenhower era, Parker was weaned on Ellington, particularly the classic Columbia album that revived his career in the mid-1950s, "Ellington at Newport." At the album's famous climax, the rip-roaring part for tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" -- the Parker family cut a rug.
"Every night he'd play that, and we'd have a dance concert with my brother," says Parker, 61, whose extraordinary ensemble, Special
Becoming a jazz icon
That dream never came to pass, but Parker has become a jazz giant in his own right, a hugely influential improviser, composer and poet who has created music for a kaleidoscopic array of settings, from solo bass recitals to large ensembles he has conducted. Parker launched New York's annual Vision Festival, the scene's most important gathering of free jazz influenced players and the fulcrum for a wild and woolly community of improvisers.
Given Parker's role in expanding jazz's sonic frontiers, it might seem surprising that he turned his attention to Ellington. The concept came up in 2010 when an Italian jazz festival producer asked him about putting together a program investigating the music of bassist/composer Charles Mingus. Parker declined; when the producer tacked to Ellington, the bassist said, "OK. I'll do it for my father."
Parker premiered the program of reimagined Ellington compositions and originals inspired by the maestro in Milan in February 2011, a concert documented on the double CD "Essence of Ellington" (Centering Music). He performed the material twice more and says Saturday's U.S. premiere will probably be the project's final run.
His nine-piece ensemble couldn't be more impressive, stocked with master improvisers who rarely perform in the Bay Area, such as pianist Dave Burrell, tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan, trumpeter Roy Campbell and powerhouse Chicago drummer Hamid Drake, a long-standing Parker collaborator who has helped shape his music's epic surges.
"We can breathe together," Parker says. "We can turn the rhythm inside out, or outside in. We can change rhythms every bar, and keep the music moving and flowing."
Music and movement
The band also features guest vocalist Aleta Hayes, the Stanford Dance Division faculty member and choreographer who directs the Chocolate Heads, a kinetic band featuring Stanford students as dancers, musicians and visual and spoken-word artists. Parker spent a week with the ensemble in December, and he joins the ensemble for a free performance Friday at Bing Concert Hall.
More than any other jazz musician on the scene, Parker has found inspiration collaborating with modern dancers. As a member of pianist Cecil Taylor's band in the 1980s, he worked widely with dancers Dianne McIntyre and Cheryl Banks. He performs extensively with his wife, dancer Patricia Nicholson, with whom he codirects the Vision Festival, and he sees himself as part of a rich multidisciplinary tradition.
'A natural component'
"Ellington's granddaughter Mercedes is a dancer, and my bass teacher Jimmy Garrison was married to a dancer," Parker says. "I'm married to a dancer, and we've been working together since 1975, dealing with pieces in a new area in dance, improvisation. Dance is really a natural component to add to this music, like sound moving through space."
Parker is also performing a solo bass recital Sunday at San Francisco's new Center For New Music. He performs as part of a double bill with bassist Lisa Mezzacappa's rambunctious quartet, Bait & Switch. A musician who collaborates with a wide spectrum of artists, including composing for film, theater and dance, Mezzacappa cites Parker as a powerful role model.
"He happens to be a bass player who's amazing, but he's an artist in a visionary way," she says. "He's this relentlessly creative figure, working with dancers, older repertoire, solo bass and all his different ensembles.
"You have to be pretty fearless to pursue what he's done."