In the early '90s, the direct musical heirs of vanguard jazzmen such as Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, and Ornette Coleman were largely ignored by New York critics, who found more to like about the hard bop revivalists who dominated major-label recording. Hence, the public visibility of musicians devoted to an "energy music" aesthetic was minimal. Despite its low profile, however, that strain of free jazz was kept alive by a fairly large group of Lower East Side musicians, many of whom gathered around (and still do) the music's preeminent bassist, William Parker. He is one of the scene's major catalysts for musical activity as evidenced by his more than 50 albums as a leader and more than 100 as a sideman with everyone from Taylor, David S. Ware, Matthew Shipp, Jemeel Moondoc, Charles Gayle, Bill Dixon, and many more. With his wife, dancer Patricia Nicholson, and other downtown free players such as drummer Jackson Krall and pianist Mark Hennen, Parker founded the Improvisers Collective, an organization that presented free jazz in combination with other types of spontaneous performance. Beginning in 1994 (and continuing in one form or another ever since), the collective produced a well-received series of concerts and festivals that featured some of the city's finest free improvisers -- saxophonists Marco Eneidi, Sabir Mateen, and Daniel Carter, trumpeter Lewis Barnes, and pianist Cooper-Moore, to name a few. Parker was the fulcrum of the collective; he played in nearly all of its various ad hoc groups, and led the Collective's enormous big band, which later recorded under Parker's name as the Little Huey Creative Music Ensemble. An important document of their finest early moments was the Black Saint offering In Order to Survive, recorded in 1993 and issued in 1995.
As a bassist, Parker is possessed of a formidable technique, albeit an unconventional one; it can be heard as a lead instrument in trios with Carter and Hamid Drake (Painter's Spring), duos with the drummer (Piercing the Veil), and dozens of recordings with David S. Ware (including Flight of I and Shakti) and Matthew Shipp, including The Flow of X, Strata, Our Lady of the Flowers. While leading various ensembles, Parker has explored and paid tribute to major artists from the Great Black Music tradition including Curtis Mayfield (I Plan to Stay a Believer: The Inside Music of Curtis Mayfield) and Duke Ellington (Essence of Ellington), with Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra. He has explored many jazz subgenres such as soul-jazz (Uncle Joe's Spirit House, via his organ quartet), the union of spoken word and jazz (Zen Mountains/Zen Streets: A Duet for Poet & Improvised Bass), vocal music via the box set Voices Fall from the Sky, and large-scale conceptual jazz works such as Alphaville Suite.
Unlike a great many jazz bassists, Parker was not formally trained as a classical player, though he did study with three of the finest jazz players of the '60s: Jimmy Garrison, Richard Davis, and Wilbur Ware. Consequently, Parker's style is based on a tradition of self-expression and experimentation. His arco work is possibly the most fascinating aspect of his idiom; Parker excels at the creation of dense, hyperactive streaks of color, gleaned from the inherent harmonic properties of the instrument. At bottom, he is a textural player. Lyricism plays a secondary role in his work, with or without the bow. Parker's pizzicato style is overwhelmingly percussive, in intent and effect. Though he does, to an extent, serve as a harmonic anchor in his groups, his more important role is as a source of energy. Parker drives a band like few other bassists; in combination with a powerful drummer, a Parker-led rhythm section is an inexorable force. In addition to his musical skills, Parker is an accomplished poet, painter, and cultural critic.
Parker grew up in New York City. Very early in his career he formed an association with Cecil Taylor; he played Carnegie Hall with the pianist in the early '70s. Parker released his first album as a leader in 1979. Through the Acceptance of the Mystery Peace (on Parker's own Centering Records) featured saxophonists Charles Brackeen and Jemeel Moondoc, and violinist Billy Bang. Parker became Taylor's regular bassist in the '80s. He played on several of the pianist's European records, and on Taylor's 1989 domestic major-label release, In Florescence, on A&M. Parker left Taylor in the early '90s and began working more often as a leader. He recorded a big-band record for his own label, then began releasing a series of CDs for other companies, significantly Black Saint. Beside his activities as a leader and community organizer, Parker would continue to work as a sideman through the mid-'90s; he remained the bassist of choice for downtown free players like David S. Ware, Matthew Shipp, and Rob Brown. The year 2000 was particularly busy for Parker as he recorded three of his own dates, including Painter's Spring and O'Neal's Porch, and appeared on numerous recordings as a sideman. The following year, in the wake of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks, Parker's Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra performed Distillation of Souls, dedicated to its victims, and released the live Raincoat in the River, Vol. 1: ICA Concert. He and drummer Hamid Drake issued the duet offering Piercing the Veil through AUM Fidelity, and his Song Cycle (with vocalists Lisa Sokolov, Ellen Christi, and pianist Yuko Fujiyama) was offered by Boxholder. In 2002, Parker appeared on no less than 15 albums, among them were Shipp's Nu Bop, Ware's Freedom Suite, and Rob Brown's Round the Bend, as well as four of his own trio and quintet dates. The latter, Raining on the Moon, featured vocalist Leena Conquest; he also released Corn Meal Dance.
In 2003, he toured England with Spring Heel Jack, Evan Parker, Han Bennink, Shipp, and J. Spaceman. The album Live appeared from Thirsty Ear. Parker toured for much of the year, and released several concert recordings, some cut some years earlier. They included Spontaneous with Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra at CBGB from the year before, and Never Too Late But Always Too Early with Drake and Peter Brötzmann, captured in 2001. The William Parker Violin Trio issued Scrapbook, and he appeared on Shipp's Equilibrium and numerous other recordings.
Parker's prolific pace continued unabated. The breadth and depth of his various projects as a leader, collaborator, and sideman proved inexhaustible. In 2005, Thirsty Ear released a duet with Shipp entitled Luc's Lantern (named for the French film director Jean Luc Godard), while Eremite issued Fred Anderson's Blue Winter with Parker and Drake in the rhythm section. The following year saw Parker play on Kidd Jordan's Palm of Soul. He also released a duet recording with Drake entitled Beans, Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra's For Percy Heath, and Requiem by the William Parker Bass Quartet featuring Charles Gayle.
In 2007, Rai Trade released The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield while Parker (who'd begun the project in 2001 and evolved it over subsequent years) was performing the music of Fats Waller and Duke Ellington in a dance piece called "On Their Shoulders We're Still Dancing," choreographed by Patricia Nicholson. His own quartet saw the Petit Oiseux album released while Tamarindo, a trio group with Tony Malaby and Nasheet Waits, appeared in a self-titled offering from Clean Feed, and Rogue Art released Alphaville Suite: Music Inspired by the Jean Luc Godard Film by the William Parker Double Quartet. The bassist was named one of the "50 Greatest New York Musicians of All Time" by Time Out New York, received a New York State Music Fund commission for the long-form work Double Sunrise Over Neptune, and performed at Vision Festival XII in August. It was released by AUM Fidelity in 2008. The same year, Beyond Quantum with Anthony Braxton and Milford Graves was released by Tzadik, and the archival CT: The Dance Project with Cecil Taylor and Masashi Harada was issued by FMP. Among the Parker-related recordings to appear in 2009 were Farmers by Nature with Gerald Cleaver and Craig Taborn, Washed Away, Live at the Sunside with Drake and Sophia Domancich, Moondoc's complete Muntu Recordings box set, and the David S. Ware Quartet Live in Vilnius.
As the second decade of the new century began, Parker released I Plan to Stay a Believer: The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield, an expanded double-disc compilation of recordings from 2001-2010, via AUM Fidelity. The album made many jazz critics' year-end best-of lists. Centering Records released his Organ Quartet's Uncle Joe's Spirit House, and Parker appeared on over a dozen albums. The year 2011 held many highlights, not least among them Centering's three-disc solo bass box Crumbling in the Shadows Is Fraulein Miller's Stale Cake and Conversations from Rogue Art, which featured the bassist's solos and interviews with other musicians. Farmers by Nature also issued their sophomore effort, Out of This World's Distortions. No Business released the archival box set Centering: Unreleased Early Recordings 1976-1987 in 2012, while Altitude, a new recording, appeared from the bassist, Cleaver, and Joe Morris. The double-disc Essence of Ellington (billed to the William Parker Orchestra) was issued by Centering. The critical acclaim for the latter was universal.
In 2013, Parker was the recipient of a Doris Duke Artist Award. His quartet recorded Live in Wroclove, and he led the trio session Tender Exploration. AUM Fidelity released the eight-disc box set Wood Flute Songs: Anthology Live 2006-2012, which showcased his various ensembles. Parker appeared on many archival recordings in 2014 as well as in new trio settings led by James Brandon Lewis (Divine Travels) and Ivo Perelman (Book of Sound). The Farmers by Nature band also issued its third album, Love and Ghosts.
Parker revived Raining on the Moon for 2015's The Great Spirit. AUM Fidelity released the three-disc archival box For Those Who Are, Still. Conversations II: Dialogues & Monologues was issued by Rogue Art, and collected duet performances with Jordan interspersed with more artist interview snippets. Live at NHKM, in collaboration with Konstruct, was another of the more than 15 recordings the bassist's name was attached to that year. In spring 2016, Centering brought out Stan's Hat Flapping in the Wind, a series of songs with pianist Cooper-Moore and Sokolov on vocals. In July, Song Sentimentale appeared from Otoroku. It was compiled from three nights of concerts at Cafe Oto by Brötzmann, Parker, and Drake, and released as two separate volumes in different formats. Each contained a unique track listing. The following year Parker was an integral part of two important recording on as many labels: Art of the Improv Trio, Vol. 4 with saxophonist Ivo Perelman and drummer Cleaver on Leo, and Toxic: This Is Beautiful Because We Are Beautiful People with Polish saxophonist Mat Walerian and pianist Matthew Shipp on ESP-Disk. Parker also issued the co-led Bass Duo with Italian classical bassist Stefano Scodanibbio for Aum Fidelity. In 2018, via his Centering label, Parker released the three-disc box set Voices Fall from the Sky, a premier of two long-form works for singers (the title track and "Essence"), as well as a disc of previously issued songs. ~ Chris Kelsey