The Boston Phoenix
September 14 - 21, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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Piano man

Horace Parlan's Blue Note sessions

by Chris Fujiwara

The seven albums Horace Parlan recorded as a leader for Blue Note from 1960 to 1963 (all collected on a superb new box from Mosaic) marked him as a unique stylist. Parlan's soulfulness, his exuberance and inventiveness, create a climate different from anything else in jazz; and though he can certainly be compared with some better-known jazz pianists of the era, it's the differences that count. Parlan has something of Horace Silver's fun style of percussive punctuation but less of Silver's abandon, preferring, in his solos, to build intensity through small, precise rhythmic variations. And though he uses chords as Red Garland does, to vary density, the typical Parlan performance has an un-Garland-like compulsiveness.

Perhaps the easiest way to place Parlan is to name the musicians with whom he worked most often as a sideman. He was Charles Mingus's regular pianist during the bassist's great 1957-59 period, sustaining the irresistible gospel undertow on the masterpiece albums Blues & Roots and Mingus Ah Um. Although his group concept is less multilayered than Mingus's, he seems to have learned from Mingus how to use his fervent rich chords in ensemble passages. For example, when the horns return to restate the theme at the end of the quintet version of Parlan's "Wadin,' " the piano's preacher-like exhortations create a sense of triumph and assurance. Parlan also recorded frequently in support of three saxophonists associated with the soul-funk school of hard bop: altoist Lou Donaldson and tenorists Stanley Turrentine and Booker Ervin, the last a fellow Mingus alumnus. (Turrentine and Ervin both appear on two of Parlan's Blue Note sessions.)

Parlan's surprising voicings and his tendency to work with short melodic units reflect his incorporation of his physical disability into his style (crippled with polio at age five, he lacked the use of the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand). He has his favorite licks or devices -- snakes-and-ladders-type figures, crawling, tunneling, and tumbling. Up and Down is an apt name for a Parlan album, since so much of his soloing is preoccupied with capturing, releasing, and recapturing short spans of sound. Repetition is Parlan's structuring principle; it will flatten out the harmonic movement of a tune, sometimes to outlandish effect ("The Other Part of Town," from Up and Down).

Parlan's compositions bear the stamp of his technique and personality. "Wadin' " is a terse paraphrase of the opening phrase of Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing," with the first note omitted so that the melody starts on the burst of "Don't mean a thing . . . " With Parlan, harmony tends toward blues, and blues toward ostinatos, as in the attractive "Up in Cynthia's Room," from his first trio album, Movin' & Groovin' (revived for quintet on Speakin' My Piece), in which, except for the bridge, the melody keeps suggesting a blues pattern rather than the underlying "I Got Rhythm" changes.

On his supremely formalist reading of "C Jam Blues," the ramifying complexity of Parlan's solo comes from the gradual elaboration of right-hand lines and the varying placement (in terms of the meter) of the punctuating left-hand chords; this leads to a resolutely anti-swinging block-chords section in straight eighths. Parlan generally sounds most comfortable at medium tempos, where his subtle rhythmic articulations can make themselves felt, but in the rare slow ballad performance he is sumptuous and luxurious: on "I Want To Be Loved," the inevitable block chords take on an unusual understated intensity.

The Mosaic box documents one of jazz's great rhythm sections: Parlan, George Tucker, and Al Harewood. Tucker is a dominating bassist who sometimes suggests Mingus with his startling high-note choices, vehement ostinatos, and deeply plucked strings, as in his mighty intro to the unbelievable F-minor stomp "Us Three." On "Come Rain or Come Shine," Tucker's propulsiveness leaves Parlan free to concentrate on a fine and pleasurable construction of rhythmic figures. The fluid and supportive drummer Harewood subtly displaces accents in relation to the relentless Parlan ("Us Three"), breaking up the feel with a light snare clatter ("Wadin' ").

On his quintet and sextet recordings, Parlan's is not infrequently the best of several fine solos -- a feat when you consider that all the players have strong styles. There's Stanley Turrentine's combination of plaintiveness and hard swing; the clear, calm trumpet of his brother Tommy Turrentine; Booker Ervin's tragic gutbucket modernism; guitarist Grant Green's liquid tone and insistent phrasing; the spare lyricism of trumpeter Johnny Coles.

The interruption of Parlan's career as a leader at the conclusion of his Blue Note contract in 1963 is a loss -- Happy Frame of Mind, his last Blue Note album, indicates that he would have been a distinctive contributor to the turbulent late-'60s jazz scene. Since 1973, he has lived and worked in Copenhagen, recording with, among others, Archie Shepp. But this box set feels sufficient, a self-contained world of excitement and satisfaction.

The Complete Blue Note Horace Parlan Sessions is available solely through Mosaic Records, 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, Connecticut 06902. Or call (203) 327-7111.

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