DEAR FRIENDS, 4/1/2012

This was another of those Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men Weeks.

I saw my friend William Parker, the bass player and multi-instrumentalist, last week and he asked me if I’d write the liner notes for a double CD of his big band music which had been recorded in Milan, Italy, in February. I couldn’t say no and I didn’t want to anyway. I spent the whole first three days of the week on those liner notes. I like doing this job. It’s incredibly difficult to say something intelligent and useful in a short amount of space and I don’t get to write liner notes very often. If you want to read what I said I’ll add it at the end of this note.

Thursday I spent catching up on the email and snailmail I’d neglected the first three days of the week so that day was shot, which means I never got back to SAMOVAR AND ZAEMAHOOLAH until Friday. Friday was an excellent day. I made a lot of progress, and these two birds–I mean this one bird and one bear–continue to surprise me with the twists and turns in the plot that they come up with so that I have to follow along behind them taking notes. This is exactly the way it ought to be.

I finished Friday working on an outline for the rest of the book. This is just a way to organize the notes I’ve been taking. I know very well the outline will go out the window every day I work on the story. But that’s what the outline is there for. It’s a place to begin again the next day. That’s why I love writing a story, you always get up the next day knowing where you’ll begin. You most certainly do not know where you’ll go after you begin–the characters and the situation will tell you that–but at least you know where to begin. That’s why I say writing a novel is like working in a bank; you know where to go every morning. Every day when I sit down to work on the story the outline tells me where to begin and once I get going the characters and the circumstances dictate where I have to go and the outline gets abandoned. Poet Theodore Roethke said it best, “I learn by going where I have to go, which is exactly right.

Friday night I started coming down with a cold–the first one in three years–and by Saturday morning I was useless. It’s Sunday now and I’m still useless. I don’t get colds but every few years but when I get’em they’re whoppers. More next week. Sincerely, David Budbill 2 April 2012 p.s.–Here’s my liner notes in case you’d like to read them.

This big band album of William Parker’s is devoted to new versions of compositions of the master, Duke Ellington. Parker says, “You can’t out do Duke Ellington. We are not trying to duplicate Duke Ellington. How could anybody ever do that? We’re trying to tap into the spirit of the music in order to find our own way to play.”
This double CD is a live recording made in Milan, Italy, at Theatre Manzano on Feb 6, 2012.
William also says, ““When I was 7 years old my father would come home from work and play the Ellington recording “Live at Newport” almost every night I would dance to this glorious music until I was exhausted, hearing tenor saxophonist Paul Gonslaves blow chorus after chorus of jubilant sound on the song “Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue.”
“It was at that time I heard the Essence of Ellington, the jump, the freedom, all layered in the blues. The essence is also the scream, the high note, the vamps, the singing voices and personalities of the instruments that make up the orchestra which are at all times individual. The melody will be there but it will grow wings and give birth to new themes and gestures sometimes going into trance as all sacred music eventually does. The essence of Ellington is to be your self. It’s the hippest song around.“
* * *
The first CD begins with “Portrait of Louisiana” (Dedicated to Clyde Kerr) William says, “Clyde Kerr Jr. was a great trumpet player, composer, educator and good brother all around. He died August 11, 2010. Clyde like many of the musicians was the personification of New Orleans and Louisiana. Clyde’s ears were open and he embraced all the music without putting one ahead of another. He was in the now, in the moment, all the time.”
“Portrait of Louisiana” features tenor saxophone great, also from New Orleans, Edward Kidd Jordan. Kidd begins with an arrhythmic intro followed by a groove over which he plays jumps, screams, high notes, vamps. The groove created by Hamid Drake’s drums and William Parker’s bass swings like crazy. Then the ensemble–trumpets, trombones, saxes–from time to time pop up and solo. They and Kidd give birth to new themes and gestures. They grow wings and fly. They play chorus after chorus of jubilant sound.
* * *
A definite tempo change and the chords of Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” signal the beginning of “Essence of Sophisticated Lady.” Ernie Odoom, the vocalist, makes the first of many appearances here doing the title of the tune plus Ellington’s lyrics. William Parker, by the way, wrote all the other lyrics for all the tunes on this album. Then “Essence of Sophisticated Lady” segues into the tune itself.
These players can play with absolute simplicity, and they do here on this album. Steve Swell’s trombone, Dave Sewelson’s baritone sax, Dave Burrell’s piano, Ernie Odoom’s lyrics and the whole ensemble generate a heartbreakingly beautiful and simple rendition of this tune, while, as William says, the players “find their own way of presenting and playing this music.”
* * *
The next tune is “Take the Coltrane” which is obviously somewhere between “Take the A Train” and the work of John Coltrane. What kind of avatar is Hamid Drake? His drum work throughout this album is practically inhuman. Flying out of the gate with Drake and Parker leading the way at a wickedly fast tempo the ensemble goes at it for more than 20 minutes.
I’ve always thought that one of the most interesting things to listen for in William Parker’s big band music is what is going on with the ensemble behind the soloists, the soli, which are constructed the way they used to be, i.e. on the spot, impromptu, pre-improvised. As William says, “‘Take the Coltrane’ is a blues in F. The ensemble is following the concept of self-conduction. Nothing is written down. I do not tell anybody when to come in. Self-conduction is where each section of the orchestra has the freedom to bring themselves in and out of the ensemble at will. I give no cues and there is no event sequence written down.”
After a wild ride “Take the Coltrane” ends with a bass and drum duet so full of dynamism, passion and verve, it’ll make you go into a trance, which is where William and Hamid already are.
* * *
Dave Burrell begins “In a Sentimental Mood” with a one note at a time, straight-ahead solo that is as sweet, lovely, simple and luscious as anything you will ever hear. An even more luscious, agonized and passionate alto solo by Darius Jones follows. His alto much of the time sounds like a soprano to me. At first he plays slowly, savoring every Ellington note then goes off on his own flight of fancy and sweetness.
* * *
A five note figure–which is written down, by the way–led by baritone saxist Dave Sewelson begins “Essence of Take the A Train” and “Take the A Train” and knits this entire piece together. Ras Moshe’s tenor closes things out and the ensemble segues out of “Take the A Train” and into “Ebony Interlude.”
* * *
Sabir Mateen’s achingly beautiful clarinet solo begins “Ebony Interlude” (Dedicated to Jimmy Hamilton). Again the sweetness of Mateen’s playing is almost beyond comprehension.
* * *
Next up is Juan Tizol’s “Caravan”–another tune made famous by Duke Ellington–which features the alto sax of Rob Brown. After a long solo introduction, Rob swings hard into the melody, and after one time through the head, the band enters. This is the most exciting, dynamic, refreshing, full of pulse and impulse version of this tune I’ve ever heard. Off they go. And some caravan it is too. What a ride!
* * *
At this point the concert is supposed to be over, but the audience isn’t having any of that, so the band does an encore, another Parker tune, called “Essence of Ellington.” Listen here for William’s poetry. By the time this concert was over, everybody surely knew the essence of Ellington is to be yourself, and that’s the hippest song around.