"Horace who?" That's what one is likely to encounter when excitedly talking of this set to jazz pedestrians. And it's not their fault, either. People who are reasonably familiar with the music can be excused for not hearing of the great American hard bop pianist who has made his living from Denmark since 1972. At age 70, Parlan is still a pianist of enormous talent, but is rarely heard on this side of the Atlantic. The Mosaic set compiles all seven of Parlan's sessions as a leader from 1960 through 1963 -- Movin' and Groovin', Us Three, Speakin' My Piece, Headin' South, On the Spur of the Moment, Up and Down, and Happy Frame of Mind -- and his work on the label as part of Booker Ervin's band on Back From the Gig. Before becoming a leader, he enjoyed the honor of being Charles Mingus' pianist (1957-1959), during an era that saw the release of two of Mingus' finest records: the groundbreaking Blues and Roots and Mingus Ah Um. One of the reasons for the richness of those recordings was Parlan's style. A pianist who suffered from polio since the age of five, the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand were useless. He compensated by using the thumb and first two fingers to complete extended chords normally handled by the left hand. But, to become a soloist, he developed a style that Mingus would find irresistible: He would use short melodic runs with the right hand and build them into chunky percussive chords that had the density of Red Garland's and the gutbucket funk of Horace Silver's, all while rooted in the blues. The Movin' and Groovin' sides tell the whole story in a way. The set begins with a formalist interpretation of "C Jam Blues, a tune on which many of Parlan's rhythmic and melodic principles are showcased. Much of Parlan's inventiveness is built upon repetition, which is used as a structural device to dull the harmonic movement of a particular tune. Here, he uses thick, block-like chords in non-varying eighths against a minimal set of right-hand lines that grow more elaborate with each pass through the chorus. Elsewhere on the album, on "Up in Cynthia's Room," a badassed blues gives way to an ostinato of shimmering color and grace. It was used again with a quintet on "Speakin' My Piece," with more of the dark blues funk percussively added to Parlan's solo to make it stick out among the horns. Another of Parlan's hot moves is his rooting in the gospel traditions for which repetition was made, varying phrases just enough to move the tune along without edging it too far from its harmonic root -- give a listen to the preacher's shout in "Wadin'" for an example of this. Slide-and-jump and call-and-response methods are employed over and over again, with chords built by the minute to juxtapose his short rhythmic melodic eight hand inventions against. Al Harewood on drums and bassist George Tucker were one of the steadiest, most rock-solid rhythm sections in the music at the time, capable of backing any soloist. They are present on all but two Parlan sessions, the first of which has Sam Jones on bass and the last which features Butch Warren and Billy Higgins on bass and drums, respectively. Parlan's choice of material, from the mainly standards bag of the first couple of recordings to the mix of original compositions and bandmates' material on the other four, is an evolution of the music as much as it is of Parlan himself. After 1961, the hard bop trend was to keep it all inside the unit wherever possible. Even on Booker Ervin's date (with Grant Green on guitar) that ends the set, the tunes tend to be homemade and written for the band. With horn players, Parlan really shined as a soloist. His sessions with Stanley and Tommy Turrentine for Speakin' My Piece showcase his structural style in a manner that gives the soloists more freedom and elongates the blues line to an extent that it almost disappears. With his varying placement of meter and his shifting of harmonics always toward the blues end, ostinato becomes a natural extension of meter and rolls off the end onto another chorus, giving the appearance that the 12-bar blues has been subverted. His short, tight, intense bursts of sound are small, span-wise, but resonant for the horn player or bassist who is playing off of them. Of all the recordings here, perhaps Up and Down, his second from last as a leader, is Parlan's signature album from the period. "The Other Part of Town" is an outlandish bit of harmonic strangling on Parlan's part, with Booker Ervin's trademark tone spitting through the mix and Grant Green funking it up just enough that Parlan has to take control with huge chords played in blocks all around the his phrase-like melody, which builds and releases tension before turning around on about the tenth chorus and restating the blues theme for the other soloists. Parlan may not be the best-known of Blue Note's piano giants, but that doesn't make him any less an architect of the hard bop sound of the early '60s, as this wonderful box -- with Mosaic's usual exhaustive annotation -- so profoundly attests.
© Thom Jurek /TiVo