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Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
»Screaming Females
Castle Talk
Don Giovanni
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
»Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
The Null Corporation
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
Halcyon Digest
No Age - Everything in Between
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Everything in Between
Sub Pop
Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
The Walkmen - Lisbon
»The Walkmen
Fat Possum
William Parker Quartet
Sound Unity
AUM Fidelity

Rating: 8.5/10 ?

August 5, 2005
Sound Unity communicates through, dances in and explodes with compassion. Bassist and quartet leader William Parker readily admits a driving theme in his liner notes: "All information that is acquired in life must transform into wisdom and then into compassion." Even without a statement from the artist about the album's intended emotional product, the compassion of Sound Unity is ineffable and undeniable.

Parker and his entire quartet - alto saxophonist Rob Brown, drummer Hamid Drake and trumpeter Lewis Barnes - have been blowing and pounding the stuff out through their instruments for three years as a combined entity and for many, many more on their own. The quartet are the standard bearers of the less shiny, less often-seen side of New York's avant-garde jazz underground; they're the ones channeling the congeniality that Ornette Coleman named a tune after and allowed to bleed through his saxophone. They're the prayer for the downtrodden, the voice of the voiceless. On the flipside, there's the Knitting Factory scene, where John Zorn, Bill Laswell, Wayne Horovitz and others revel in their own lampshade-over-the-head "zaniness" - where music antagonizes and destroys just as much as it celebrates - and where congeniality doesn't factor into the shape of jazz to come.

Having the musical personalities that they do, Parker and his brethren attract much less attention to themselves; they have even been branded as stagnant or reactionary. They don't collaborate with Mike Patton and Buckethead or do speed metal covers of jazz standards; instead, they readily embrace jazz tropes and work within traditional jazz instrumentation and compositional approaches. Parker, in particular, has expressed a greater appreciation for his more adventurous post-bop predecessors and the subtle free jazz pioneers in recent years, especially on the months old trio outing, Luc's Lantern. Sound Unity is another relatively conventional outing for these men, albeit one that works within an unconventional convention.

As contradictory as it may seem for a jazz quartet to pay homage to innovators by working within a loose but ultimately confined framework, the group's tribute to Don Cherry, "Wood Flute Song," makes a compelling case for their approach. Parker anchors the song with one of his trademark ostinatos: round, buttery, and agile but also punishing and precise. Drake plays off of him expertly, locking in with Parker and exploding into rambunctious fills and solos like a grind metal trapsman. Brown and Barnes combat the rhythm section's firepower with folksy ghost story melodies, floating and circling around one another rather than blowing down the gates of hell. The quartet merges into one for a riveting climax, where Brown and Barnes belt out a glorious melody in unison and Parker and Drake drive it home. The audience (all six songs are from live dates) responds with joyous applause and the listener is left with the impression that somehow all of Cherry's mystery and melody has been communicated through a louder, more consistently assertive mode.

"Poem for June Jordan" proves equally affecting, remaining slow and meditative, simultaneously mourning, remembering and rejoicing. Parker once again sinks into a deadly rhythm, becoming both the song's most grounded and dangerous participant through his use of ambiguous color. "Harlem" also merits careful attention - it's a lightly sketched rendition of a New York street corner viewed through a young person's eyes, brimming with life where others would see darkness. Its prevailing sense of cool and slinky post-bop rhythms also make it the album's most conventional piece.

The quartet's only questionable call is "Groove," the album's closer. Parker notes that the song visits "the shores of Jamaica" - which actually seems to be a roundabout way of saying that it's a reggae song. The brain massaging bass and spaced out drumming are pure dub, and the minimal brass and reed contributions are much more lyrical and functional than those on the rest of the album. It's a complete stylistic departure, and while it's by no means a heavily flawed piece, it's substantially different to the point that it seems better suited to another body of work.

Even "Groove," though, whispers compassion. Parker's spiritual language may deter listeners who only engage music for its fucked-upedness, but he's never overbearing or sentimental. For every weeping trumpet line, there's a baffling bass note that communicates nothing outside of itself and its place in the song; as Parker himself notes, "the aesthetic and concept has always been about music itself rather than self-expression." Detractors may criticize Parker and his cohorts for abandoning an essential jazz tenet in not pushing to constantly originate, but their sincere studiousness and love for the listener suggest that they are a host of legendary jazz musicians' spiritual heirs.

Reviewed by Phillip Buchan
A one-time music director at WUOG in Athens, Phillip is into college radio, literature, writing, buying records, going to shows, talking to friends, learning -- pretty much the same stuff that all of us priveledged, (pseudo?)intellectual Americans are into.

See other reviews by Phillip Buchan



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