~ Release group by William Parker
Since emerging from the New York loft scene in the 1970s, bassist William Parker has come to embody American free jazz. From early work in the volcanic Cecil Taylor Unit, through to leading projects such as In Order to Survive, Parker has accrued an authority that's enabled him to become both figurehead and curator: keeper of the flame of Fire Music.
That avant-garde scene has always had an implicit sense of protest and radical social conscience so it seems only right that, with this project, Parker should be drawn to the music of Curtis Mayfield, the soul singer who infused compositions such as Move On Up with equal parts streetwise realism and transcendent aspiration. The group is based around Parker's longstanding quartet featuring drummer Hamid Drake and trumpeter Lewis Barnes, but with saxophonist Rob Brown replaced by vocalist Leena Conquest, bringing a honeyed soulfulness to the songs that Mayfield originally sang in his smoky falsetto.
Yet, this is more than a simple cover-versions band. Parker explains the concept of the Inside Song as a phantom lurking within every tune, "waiting to be reborn as a new song". So, while many of the numbers performed here begin as faithful versions of Mayfield's funky soul and R&B, most of them tip over into energetic out-jazz. The 21-minute version of If There's a Hell Below glides from a deep groove into heavily swinging jazz with saxophonist Sabir Mateen ripping out caustic Marshall Allen-ish skronk that leads the band into Arkestral explorations.
There's a sense that, by joining the dots between different forms of African-American music, Parker is using Mayfield's compositions to preach a timeless sermon of Afro-centric consciousness. That's heightened by the addition of the uplifting raised voices of the New Life Tabernacle Generation of Praise Gospel Choir, and by the hellfire-hipster declamations of poet Amiri Baraka reading his own works, and providing another link back to the radicalisms of the 60s avant-garde.
At over two hours, spread over two discs, and recorded live at six gigs, this is an expansive and ambitious release. There's probably no one but William Parker that could carry it off.
- - -