April wound up being a busy month for fans of improvised music. Instead of getting passed over by national artists, Pittsburgh's dance card was filled virtually every week, with venues of different sizes and formats hosting adventurous performers. While May looks a little lighter by comparison, two shows at the end of this month present long-standing names in modern jazz-inspired music.
It's no show-biz line to call bassist William Parker the hardest-working man in music. His name is synonymous with New York's adventurous jazz scene, having played with pianist Cecil Taylor and saxophonist David S. Ware, in addition to leading his own quartets and the large Little Huey Orchestra. Prior to his appearance this month with a co-operative quartet, he embarked on a tour of Canada with tenor saxophonist Peter Brötzmann. This follows two other trips up north and a couple to New Orleans earlier this year, with international trips planned each month through August.
One of Parker's crowning achievements will be the 20th anniversary of the Vision Festival in July. Each year, the bassist and his wife, Patricia Nicholson Parker, organize the festival in New York City, which presents avant-garde jazz, dance and film. Parker is slated to perform with three different groups during the five-day event.
The festival has maintained a grassroots level of organization throughout its run, with money being a little tight. But as he talks on the phone, the bassist clearly has other things keeping him motivated. "I think the main thing about playing music is you reach people, and there's a possibility that you change lives through what you do," he says. Parker recalls being stopped on the subway by someone who, at age 19, saw the bassist perform at his college and still felt the impact — 25 years later. That kind of rare connection is "the only solid and continuous thing that you really rely on."
The quartet coming to Pittsburgh includes saxophonist Daniel Carter, whom Parker has known since the early 1970s, when the bassist first immersed himself in New York's jazz scene. Their music is completely improvised, which Parker describes as a liberating approach to music. "The definition of free music is you're free to choose the language you want to speak, and you're free to make up the images and the shapes of the words of that language, the sounds of that language. There are no restrictions. If you hear blues, you play blues. If you hear a bossa nova beat, you play that. If you hear a beat [you might think], ‘I don't even know what that was, but we played it and it sounded good.'"
People new to music might find it intense or dark, but Parker — who, at 63 has the enthusiasm of someone half his age — puts it in an accessible context: "The school of music that I'm associated with is still underground and still considered out. We've been doing it for 30 to 40 years, and I guess you could say, yeah, we're still trying new formulas and new combinations of sounds, but then that's what you're supposed to do with music coming out of jazz. You're supposed to create and explore."
"I take every opportunity whether there's two people in the audience or thousands," he says. "It's a great opportunity to play, to meet people, to talk to people, to get a chance to learn to communicate."
Guitarist David Torn's career has taken a much different trajectory. He has worked as a band leader, playing with people like drummer Bill Bruford and saxophonist Jan Garbarek. He's also garnered a reputation for his work in the studio, appearing on albums by David Bowie and David Sylvian, and producing both jazz musicians and singer-songwriters. Additionally Torn has scored numerous films, including Lars and the Real Girl, Everything Must Go and Friday Night Lights.
His studio skills have played a big role on recent albums under his name. His 2007 release prezens featured improvisations by a full band that included saxophonist Tim Berne. Torn took the performances and edited them into shorter pieces that came across more like compact compositions.
The new solo album, only sky, features Torn left to his own devices, improvising freely. The idea was to present a portrait of the guitarist, never really landing in a progressive-rock or jazz camp. "One of the reasons I got into films in the first place was that, back in the '80s, people would say, ‘I don't know what to call your sound,'" Torn explains. "Eventually somebody would say, ‘cinematic.' I still get that. This was the record in which I wanted to just do it and expose it. Just say, ‘Here's one version of what I've been doing with the guitar for the last 40-odd years.'" The results sound visually evocative, with spaghetti Western-style themes creeping up in some tracks, while looped melodies organically create structures in others.
The current tour is Torn's first in nearly two decades, and the New York native is looking forward to reconnecting with our city. "I spent two summers in Pittsburgh when I was a kid with my grandparents, because my mom was a native," he says. "I've always enjoyed playing there. It's one of those cities where you go and feel like the people who come out really love to hear music."