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  • Glenn Siegel

The Griots Speak in Holyoke

William Parker is the most important jazz musician to emerge in the last 40 years. That view is entirely disputable, of course, and subject to all kinds of varied responses. But that’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it.

So when someone suggests I produce a concert that includes Parker, I almost always say “yes”. The Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares event on October 29 at the Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke, featuring The Griots Speak, was the 14th time I’ve produced the great bass player live. If you add his Valley appearances under Michael Ehler’s aegis starting in the mid-1990s, the number of times Parker has performed for Valley audiences exceeds two dozen.

Parker was the lynchpin that held the Griots together, just as he’s been the coalescing force within New York’s creative music scene since the 1980s. On Saturday, Parker’s mates were underground legend Juma Sultan (percussion), NY stalwart Daniel Carter (saxophone, flute, trumpet, piano) and the Valley’s own Charlie Apicella (guitar, percussion). The pairing was the brainchild of Apicella, who put together the idea after meeting Sultan’s daughter through the music education organization, The Blues and Beyond.

Parker turns 71 years old in January, so now is the right time to step back, assess and give praise. It’s hard to underestimate Parker’s influence as a player, organizer and friend. He’s a phenomenal bassist, whose work with Cecil Taylor, David S Ware, Charles Gayle, Matthew Shipp and Peter Brötzmann is well documented. He has 75 recordings as a leader or co-leader, where he plays donson’goni, shakuhachi and other non-western string and wind instruments, in addition to composing and playing bass. Taken together his music paints a portrait of an expansive soul, who despite his free-jazz cred, is blues rooted and grounded in deep, deep swing.

Parker’s biography, “Universal Tonality: The Life and Music of William Parker”, by Cisco Bradley, was just published, and Parker’s own writing, including “Who Owns Music?” and “Conversations”, is both profound and straightforward, the way enlightened beings do it. He and his wife, Patricia Nicholson, have built Arts for Art (which includes the Vision Festival) into a national model for musician-centered presenting, all while quietly helping hundreds of musicians and others in need. William Parker is a spirit driven pied piper, who put a whole music on his back and carried it across a period of steep financial decline.

At Wistariahurst, Parker’s bass lines, insistent, forceful, constantly shifting and always swinging, served as the evening’s anchor. He gave the audience something we could hang our hats on, and provided the band a direction, a tonal center, and a set of rhythms to work with. If not for him, the music would have meandered off the proverbial cliff.

There was no written material, and except for Parker’s sturdy backbone, no real signposts guiding the music. Sultan’s playing, on hand percussion and a large, African two-headed drum, was elemental and straightforward. Carter’s work on flute, tenor sax and trumpet added a tasty top that provided a modicum of melody, while Apicella switched between a madal drum, an instrument integral to Nepalese folk music, various bells and shakers, and electric guitar.

With no one particular in charge, the music often sounded unmoored, wandering without forward momentum, listing from side to side.

The presence of 80 year old Juma Sultan was a cause for celebration. Sultan was a close associate of Jimi Hendrix, performing with him at Woodstock and appearing on a dozen recordings with the great guitarist. His work on bass and percussion in the 1970s with his Aboriginal Music Society and others, is collected on a beautiful Eremite Records box set, Father of Origin.

Carter, 76, has a long history with Parker. He was on Parker’s first record as a leader, In Search of the Mystery Peace (1980), and they have played together since the late-1970s in the co-operative quartet, Other Dimensions in Music. Carter shows up on Thurston Moore, Yoko Ono and Yo La Tango records, and has a fondness for western Mass that was cultivated when he had a college girlfriend at Smith.

At the end, the 80 people crowded into the elegant Music Room at Wistariahurst stood to applaud, as much to acknowledge more than 150 years of collective experience, as to show appreciation for this one night only musical experiment.


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