William Parker – I Plan To Stay A Believer: The Inside Songs Of Curtis Mayfield (2010)

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by Pico

When we last visited the music of the brilliant bassist and composer William Parker three years ago, he was putting his poetry to his music on Corn Meal Dance. Yesterday, he introduced a new album that again revolves around poetry but this time it’s based on the poetic music of Curtis Mayfield. I Plan To Stay A Believer: The Inside Songs Of Curtis Mayfield is a live compilation of Mayfield songs Parker and his band had performed in various venues Italy, France and the U.S., a collection of selected tracks taped between 2001 and 2008.

As we noted back in 2007, Parker has long mined his deep admiration for the music of the soul and R&B legend by performing concerts leading an eight piece band that celebrates the sounds and social messages of this key figure among African-American musicians who participated in the civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s through song. Parker himself, who was accurately proclaimed “one of the most inventive bassist/leaders since Mingus” by The Penguin Guide To Jazz Recordings, has never been one to shy away from sharing his beliefs through his music. Like Mingus, Parker uses this unlikely position to raise social concerns within the context of advanced jazz. However, the similarities between Mingus and Parker’s Mayfield project end there, because Parker is interpreting someone else’s music, and that “someone else” happens to be someone whose music, on the surface at least, you wouldn’t think jives with the avant garde jazz Parker is closely associated with.

For these performances, Mayfield brought along from his Raining On The Moon band his favorite drummer, the master percussionist Hamid Drake, trumpet player Lewis Barnes and the beautifully talented vocalist Leena Conquest. In addition to these three, Parker put Dave Burrell on piano, Sabir Mateen on saxes and flutes, Darryl Foster on saxes and has Amiri Baraka provide poetic exhortations (my term, the CD notes credit him for “voice and poetry”).

With these Mayfield compositions, Parker is putting in action his belief that “every song written or improvised has an inside song that lives in the shadows, in-between the sounds and silences and behind the words, pulsating, waiting to be reborn as a new song.” His band’s interpretations of these songs leaves the basic melodies intact, but recasts them in sometimes an even harsher reality than Mayfield put them in; the frustrations with festering racial inequalities and the Nixon originally sung about in “If There’s A Hell Below” has been replaced by George W. Bush and a pointed anger at the war he conducted in Iraq at the time of these performances. To bring the point home further, Conquest’s sung and occasionally updated lyrics are supplemented by Baraka shouts of indignation over the world around us, perhaps in the way Mayfield would see it if he were alive today.

Stretched out over 2 discs, there’s only eleven tracks, but several of the tunes reach the fifteen to twenty minute range thanks to some improvised, instrumental sections grafted into the songs. Parker, for instance, pulls out the bow and saws away with a purpose in concert with Foster’s soprano sax solo to end “I Plan To Stay A Believer.” The last four-fifths of the 21 minute “If There’s a Hell Below” is all instrumental, and eventually breaks down into full-on improvisation, showcasing Parker’s spunky and creative band. Parker himself puts in a fine solo unaccompanied in the middle of “I’m So Proud,” and the song itself segues into a wandering Parker original, “Ya Yey Ya.”

For the two Paris tracks (“This Is My Country” and “New World Order”), a children’s choir of 90 kids from the Paris suburbs was brought in provide choral vocals, and in the process, some cheerfulness that is often missing from songs that deal with more serious matters. Sometimes the collision among Conquest, Baraka, and wailing horn players muddles the message, as it unfortunately did on “Freddie’s Dead.” However, the program wraps up on a hopeful note, with a bouncy, reggae rendition of “New World Order.”

Parker never intended to do “covers” of Mayfield songs, and firmly states so in his liner notes. Instead, he wanted to “present a full spectrum story that would be in tune with the original political and social message laid out by Curtis,” but the danceable rhythms and hard grooves managed to get carried over as well, and there’s still some treats left for the avant garde crowd. Maybe trying attempt so much makes I Plan To Stay A Believer too much to chew on for some folks, but that very thing highlights all the inspiring, expansive work that Curtis Mayfield himself left us to ponder.

I Plan To Stay A Believer: The Inside Songs Of Curtis Mayfield is distributed by AUM Fidelity.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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