The Imaginary City


William Parker’s upright bass walks the way Forest Whitaker does in Ghost Dog—a watchful, coiled amble that appears to be moving in two or three directions at once. You can find that touch-of-Zen implacability running through his cunningly adroit recent trio album, Painter’s Spring (Thirsty Ear), like a cool breeze—Parker’s closely miked instrument both leads and shadows every downscale second of the action. But to take the measure of his bristling sound—the human face of the bass that has tethered the outward-bound expeditions of Cecil Taylor and David S. Ware for years—you have to hear the title epic from his Little Huey Creative Orchestra’s wonderfully named double CD, Mayor of Punkville.

The 30-minute piece opens with Parker’s low, anatomy-of-a-murmur basslines, then drums and off-kilter horns enter the black-and-white picture: Ghost Dog goes into a bar and orders a bourbon, a jaunty Sun Ra taking requests on the bandstand, the air thick with smoke and the sweet smell of corruption. He starts getting dizzy; something’s been slipped into his drink. He stumbles out the door, but the music follows him onto the street. People approach him with urgent, confidential information, but when they open their mouths only the sounds of squalling horns come out. The next thing he remembers is waking up on the floor of a strange apartment, reaching in his pocket for the picture of the woman he’s been sent to find and realizing he’s wearing someone else’s clothes. Suddenly, that woman is staring down at him, a tattoo of a snake covering half her expensive face. “Where am I?” he croaks. “Baby,” she smiles cryptically, “you’re in Punkville now.”

That’s one take, but there are 8 million other stories in this imaginary city—Mayor of Punkville is full of back alleys and trapdoors, New Orleans-style funeral resurrections (“Anthem,” appropriately dedicated to the late Lester Bowie: “Very simple like a frosted window melting in the sun”), Ellingtonic Orientalia (the swaying chinoiserie of “3 Steps to Nøh Mountain”), hard-nosed wails (“I Can’t Believe I Am Here”: Fight Club as jam session), even a Ra-powered mysterioso vamp called “James Baldwin to the Rescue.” Parker keeps these long, drifting flights of fancy grounded by the rough-hewn physicality of a dozen or more equally unpredictable soloists, whose riffs rain down like cloudbursts of sweat out of a clear blue sky. Trancelike concentration and random tenderness turn abstractions into loose-knit, gutbucket raves, where a weirdly ebullient current of idealism and hope hums beneath the streets of noir. In Mayor of Punkville‘s alternate universe, cosmic jazz rises from the underground to wash away the “CEOs, gangsters, politicians, television talk show hosts. . . . ” From the utopian ashes of Coltrane’s Ascension-era war on spiritual poverty and Mister Ra’s beatific, cacophonous Neighborhood, Parker posits his own oddball version of the Great Society. One where outcasts, misfits, the indigent, the indignant, and the emotionally homeless all band together to make a place they can call their own.

As a state of mind, Punkville is an open city: With Parker as mayor, he might just go and appoint Captain Beefheart (erstwhile “Sheriff of Hong Kong”) police commissioner. And maybe he could make the elusive Marvin Pontiac—a/k/a John Lurie, actor, Lounge Lizard, and host of the best avant-garde fishing show since SCTV’s The Fishin’ Musician—his reverse dogcatcher, setting the captive mutts free. “I’m a doggy,” the man growls mournfully (and literally) at the beginning of the putative Greatest Hits of apocryphal bluesman the Legendary Marvin Pontiac. Like Parker’s, this is a fantasy of eccentric mind over historical matter, perpetrated in Lurie’s case by assuming the convivial persona of a deceased, super-obscure singer; he’s channeling the spirit of a man who never existed but should have. Marvin’s funny, slippery, polyglot Afro-talking-blues owes as much to the rumpled NYC hipster-bum Lurie played in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise as it does to Nigeria or Chicago. This beat-up Pontiac runs on laughing gas and can only make left turns, but cruises the passing scene like a Greenwich Village Popemobile with a pair of fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror. Lurie/Pontiac speaks slowly and softly, bemused by the voices DJ’ing in his head. “Roger Maris says not to watch TV/There’s too many molecules to see.” He lags a little behind the juju groove, speaks in parables and come-ons (“I’ve got a bone for you,” though the way he says it, the birds may have already picked it clean), blows a little Beefhearty harp or smuggles in a trombone, a banjo, whatever the listener isn’t quite expecting.

The Legendary Marvin Pontiac and Mayor of Punkville come from different directions to arrive at the same destination. Behind the premise of Lurie’s record, there’s a notion of smoking out the real Marvin Pontiacs and their forgotten 45s, bringing forth the genie-like lost souls whose unheard music might still hold a key or two to the universe. Parker’s Punkville plays out an equally engaging fantasy of seduction as revolution, urban legends made into agents of urban renewal. A free society builds itself from the musical underground up: a beloved community that’s stranger than fiction and paradise alike.

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