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William Parker settles in at a round table in his East Village apartment. It’s a Sunday afternoon, and he’s just arrived home from a string of European dates with his organ quartet, two of them in Italy, a country where Parker performs so often that he’s recognized in the street. In a couple of days he’ll head north to Tufts University for a performance and symposium on art, race, and politics. Not long after, he’ll be off to Peru to play with folk musicians. But today is for family and practicing.
Behind Parker is a large shelf full of vinyl records — he pulls out a beloved McCoy Tyner album, Reaching Fourth from 1963, when talking about how he’d pore over cover art and liner notes while he was growing up — and along the walls various instruments hang like objets d’art: waterphones, a kalimba from Mali, a Chilean trutruca, a bolon from Togo, two ngonis from West Africa, and some double-reed flutes.
Parker is one of the most acclaimed jazz bassists in the world, known for a sound that can alternate between the ferociously ecstatic and searchingly tender, but he can also play all of the above, as he’ll demonstrate later. In the meantime, though, he plops down a massive book, titled simply The William Parker Sessionography: A Work in Progress. Lovingly and doggedly compiled by the researcher Rick Lopez, it runs nearly five hundred pages and indexes Parker’s recordings — his own and those he’s done alongside Cecil Taylor, David S. Ware, John Zorn, and many other crucial figures in the worlds of free jazz and improvised music — as well as his concert dates going back to the downtown loft scene of the 1970s, where he broke in and was a fixture.
“There’s quite a lot in there,” says Parker, 65, whose range is, frankly, astonishing. The past decade has seen him interpret Duke Ellington and Curtis Mayfield; collaborate with vocalists such as Leena Conquest and Lisa Sokolov; devise an orchestral work, with the National Forum of Music Symphony in Poland, that included a children’s opera; and form a duo with classical bassist Stefano Scodanibbio. He recently recorded a bass-poetry duo with his wife, dancer-choreographer Patricia Nicholson Parker, and will soon release Meditation/Resurrection, a double album that finds him leading two quartets through some of the very best, and most accessible, music he’s made. And beginning Monday, May 29, he’ll perform five of the six nights of the annual Vision Festival, this year to be held at Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square South.
“I’ve always been that way: music, words, sound, organizing, plays, poetry,” says the quiet, cerebral Parker, who was raised in the Melrose and Claremont housing projects in the South Bronx. “It’s always been one thing. And I’m still trying every day to learn more.”
Parker has long been associated with the Vision Festival, now in its twenty-second year, but it is Patricia who founded it and remains its artistic director, running it with her daughter Miriam and her cousin Todd Nicholson. Patricia describes the festival as “built on the intersection of social justice [and] great art.” To wit, on Friday, June 2, a roving band of musicians that she organized under the name Artists for a Free World will be part of a rally at Washington Square Park, near the festival site — one of the more than a dozen such marches Artists for a Free World have participated in since Inauguration Day. “We now have a common enemy,” she says. “Maybe that’s one of the things that unites people better, which is kind of sad, but it’s also a good outcome. Whatever helps us to be where we should be — and who and how we should be.”
This year’s Vision Festival will honor Cooper-Moore — the maverick pianist, educator, and inventor of handmade instruments — with a Lifetime Achievement award. The festival actually opens on Sunday, May 28, not with music, but with a night of short films at Anthology Film Archives, including Ashimba: A Portrait of Cooper-Moore. The following night Cooper-Moore will lead his group Digital Primitives as well as play in Parker’s quartet with drummer Hamid Drake and alto saxophonist Rob Brown.
That’s one of two quartets featured on Parker’s Meditation/Resurrection. The other features Drake and Brown along with modern classical trumpeter Jalalu-Kalvert Nelson. The album opens with a composition titled “Criminals in the White House,” though it’s not exactly what you might think: It was written in 2001, Parker says, “for Baby Bush.” “Give Me Back My Drum” — part of a larger piece on Martin Luther King Jr. that Parker has been working on since 2014 — gathers momentum over its eleven-plus minutes to take on the rollicking feel of a Charles Mingus composition. “Sunrise in East Harlem” is dedicated to Cooper-Moore (who lives in that neighborhood) and finds the pianist and Parker’s arco bass in perfect symbiosis.
Meditation/Resurrection also includes a piece dedicated to Oliver Lake, the saxophone lion, who will appear at the Vision Festival on Tuesday, May 30, with two other giants, Andrew Cyrille and Reggie Workman, in Trio 3. The album ends with “Orange Winter Flower,” for the poet David Budbill, with whom Parker recorded in 2015, as the writer was confronting his own death. The delicately abstract cover art for Meditation/Resurrection was done by Budbill’s widow, Lois Eby; one of her paintings hangs in William and Patricia’s apartment.
After I leave, Parker tells me, he’ll practice his bass — as he does every day — but as I walk out he’s alone in the living room playing a South American flute. He’s got the windows open, so I can hear it out in the street, which brings to mind something else he’d said earlier: “You come to the point of, ‘Well, the music is beautiful, but nobody knows about it.’ But you’re playing for nature. If I play a note on my bass, or any of these instruments, maybe there’s nobody listening. But the earth is listening, the environment. It’s going somewhere. It’s not useless. Once you understand that, everything you do is important.”