Not long after Joe Morris and William Parker signed up with the then-fledging AUM Fidelity record label specializing in improvised music, AUM founder Steven Joerg and Morris talked about making a trio record involving both Morris and Parker, along with drummer Gerald Cleaver. Like many good ideas, this one fell by the wayside to make room for other projects. However, last year’s two week space set aside by John Zorn for AUM Fidelity to organize an event at The Stone celebrating its 15th anniversary gave Joerg the opening he was looking for. He booked Morris, Parker and Cleaver for one of those evenings and the music just happened. It was also documented, and that document is coming forth on CD next week. It’s called Altitude.
When I first learned of this upcoming release I was ready to swear up and down that this get-together was just the latest by these three. Nope. These exceptional musicians, all at the top of the heap for their respective instruments within the downtown New York scene have never worked together as three. Perhaps I was thinking of Farmers By Nature, which has Parker and Cleaver collaborating with Craig Taborn, or perhaps Ivo Perelman’s album from early this year, Family Ties where the saxophonist is backed up by Morris and Cleaver.
I thought wrong. That this is their first time performing together makes it that much more memorable. Did they live up to the billing? Pffft, are you kidding me?
Two sets were performed that evening of June 17 last year. Parker was manning his usual upright bass for the first set, and the trio plowed through two half hour long group improvisations. “Exosphere,” which begins the first set, tore the motherfucking roof off. The word ‘exosphere’ means “the highest region of the atmosphere” and likewise, these gentlemen are playing at the highest level. Everyone “solos” but they do so with so much empathy, that the proceedings never come close to veering off the tracks. They establish a rhythmic pattern together, search for an elusive melody together, resolve all open-ended ideas together and move onto the next idea together, all while maintaining an overall vibe that stays with them from start to finish. Moreover, each is playing with the level of confidence only the best can display while playing the long form, never running out of things to express.
“Thermosphere” is a more contemplative piece, full of delicious subtleties. Parker gets the action going by spinning a spidery, cyclical bass line. Morris picks his spot and jumps in, creating a similar but counteracting pattern. Cleaver hangs in the back, shifting rhythmic shapes ever so gradually, before nearly disappearing to make room for the experimentations in uncanny, ghostly timbres produced by Morris and Parker.
The two improvisations from the second set are excerpted, presumably to keep this a one-disc album. For these performances, Parker plays a sintir, a three-stringed Moroccan bass lute. What this instrument might lack in resonance and range compared to the bass, it compensates by being more percussive. For “Troposphere,” Parker again acts as the catalyst, this time by creating a loping groove, and Morris and Cleaver react to it first tentatively and then begin to overtake Parker. Parker engages in vocalese that bolsters exotic sound coming from his sintir, even as the three lock together on a heated figure. Cleaver employs a more African type rhythm on “Mesosphere,” lining up just right with Parker’s North African instrument, at the same time he is keyed in on Morris’ ruminations.
An inspiration from fifteen years ago that seemed like a good idea then looks like a stroke of genius now that thought was finally acted upon. Improvised music is far from being a spent force within jazz, and it never will be as long as the virtuosos are playing it. Altitude is a strong case in point.
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