Bassist/composer William Parker is bringing his latest jazz experiment to Montreal for its North American debut at Suoni per il popolo. The Essence of Ellington (featuring Parker’s own orchestra of 15 musicians) is a present-day tribute to "The Duke" – an avant-garde elixir made from select Duke Ellington compositions, fortified with new tunes inspired by his big-band swing. CBC jazz asked William Parker to tell us more about his elemental role model, and to reveal some of the alchemy behind his new project.
Q: What is the "essence" of Ellington?
A: Essence is the glow around the music that has nothing to do with what the music sounds like. It has to do with the aura: the vibration properties, energy level, flow of melody and rhythms. I know one thing it is not, and that is copying. I think the essence of Ellington is to be yourself.
Q: How is Ellington important for you?
A: If you listen to his piano playing you can hear the embryo of Monk, and Cecil Taylor. The energy of Cat Anderson’s trumpet is the essence of the new music. In fact, all the highs of Duke’s music are the foundation for the big band music that I have been doing for the last 30 years: the concept of writing for the players, using the orchestra as a singular voice, without being restricted to style.
Q: When did you first hear Ellington’s music?
A: It was my father's dream for my brother Thomas and I to play in Ellington’s orchestra. I started listening to Ellington when I was five years old. My father would play the recording Ellington's Live at Newport 1956 every evening after work. We would dance to the entire concert, particularly "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" climaxing to Paul Gonsalves' 27-chorus solo. It was my father's dream for my brother Thomas and I to play in Ellington’s orchestra.
Q: Have you learned anything from Ellington? As a composer? As a musician?
A: What all the great masters teach us is that history is a living thing. We cannot out-Ellington Ellington. What do we hear in his music? I hear joy and colours dancing across the sky over Harlem.
Q: What are the Duke Ellington compositions that mean the most to you?
A: Far East Suite: great colours, rhythms, orchestrations, melodies. "La Plus Belle Africaine": great bass work by one of my favourites, John Lamb. Duke had great instincts when it came to finding wonderful musicians. "Skin Deep": really swinging changes of tempo right on the door of free music.
The William Parker Orchestra performs at La Sala Rosa in Montreal on June 8, 8:30 p.m. as part of the 2012 Suoni per il popolo festival's free jazz series.
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