September 2007


William Parker Ensemble The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield
at the Guelph Jazz Festival
September 7, 2007 River Run Centre Guelph
Beating Heads Against a Brick Wall
by Tom Sekowski with photo by Roger Humbert
Some concerts sound better on paper than they turn out in reality. William Parker’s performance at River Run Centre during this year’s Guelph Jazz Festival was one such case. On paper, this concert resonated so damn grand and inviting to say the least. The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield is how the show was billed. How many jazz bands do you know who’ve covered Barry White, Al Green, let alone attempted to do ground-breaking versions of Curtis Mayfield? The promise was held up at the beginning, when poet Amiri Baraka walked on stage and pronounced in defiance that the show is dedicated to Max Roach, who passed away last month. Fine, I thought to myself, the band would not stray too far from Mayfield’s soul mastery, but damn it, I was so wrong.

Let’s look at the positive aspects of the performance first. Featuring trumpeter Lewis Barnes and tenor saxophonists Darryl Foster and Sabir Mateen, the horn section was second to none. Their blasts were controlled and fairly straight to the point. Only Sabir Mateen gave it his all in terms of sheer energy and determination to drive the screaming, screeching work forward. Another positive card was pianist Dave Burrell, who featured a ton of congenial, cross-pollinated key-strokes that rocked the place, though even he was more or less relegated to the background. Hamid Drake’s mastery needn’t really be elevated at this point. Most already recognize his percussive prowess on the jazz scene and that alone made him a star of the show. His amazingly cognizant playing melded well with Parker’s phat bass motifs.

Leena Conquest & Amiri Baraka
Now, we come to the disappointing part of the show. Though Amiri Baraka’s in-your-face politicking is fine in itself, together in a large group setting, it became nothing but distracting. One couldn’t get away from it. It was difficult to concentrate on other players while Baraka was screaming political slogans at the top of his voice. I mean, politics is fine, but preaching is preaching. There was no room for subtlety anywhere.

To counter Baraka’s rants, I was fascinated by Leena Conquest’s vocal prowess. Soft and tender one minute, able to soar the skies the next. I only wish she had been featured more in a solo setting, as her haunting vocals are still etched in my brain. When she danced, she was June Tyson and Min Tanaka in one body. Her movements were fiercely sovereign, while incorporating musical elements of the group as a whole. The tunes stretched out forever it seemed (there were only five or six played in total that night). Neither “People Get Ready” nor “Freddie’s Dead” retained too many elements from Mayfield’s originals and that’s just the way great cover versions should be.

Mixed feeling emerged at the end of the night. It’s not that I think that Mayfield is turning in his grave for Parker had all the right intentions when planning this show and everything was done with due respect. It’s just the over-the-head preaching that smacked this listener in the face and took him for a political and social fool. Rule number one — never assume your audience is asinine — was sadly forgotten.

William Parker Ensemble
William Parker — bass
Amiri Baraka — poetry
Leena Conquest — voice and dance
Dave Burrell — piano
Lewis Barnes — trumpet
Darryl Foster — tenor saxophone
Sabir Mateen — tenor saxophone
Hamid Drake — drums
We welcome your comments and feedback
Tom Sekowski
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Roger Humbert
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The Live Music Report

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