The idea of Universal Tonality came to William Parker in a flash. He traces the origins of the concept back to one night in the early ‘90s when he took part in a performance in Philadelphia that teamed various seasoned improvisers with a group of didgeridoo players and a troupe of Cherokee dancers. Despite a lack of any rehearsal or planning, the show went off beautifully.
“It came together without saying a word,” Parker recalls of the night. “So after this concert, I said, ‘Wow, that’s Universal Tonality — the concept that if we’re all breathing together, we’re singing together.’
An exquisite example of this system in practice will see release on Centering Records via AUM Fidelity (in deluxe 2-CD digipak & digital formats) on September 30, 2022, on a new William Parker album named after the principle itself. Clocking in at nearly two hours and featuring six extended pieces flowing across two discs, Universal Tonality documents a performance that took place at Roulette in Manhattan’s TriBeCa neighborhood in December 2002 (one of the final concerts at the venue’s original loft space). Parker invited 16 musicians of various ages, cultures and backgrounds to join him in an experiment of “breathing together.” Whether it’s embodying a roof-raising big band, or an intimate cross-cultural chamber ensemble, the collective heard here always displays an impressive coherence and sensitivity. The results of the group’s one-night-only communion can now take their place among Parker’s many landmark mid-to-large–ensemble works spanning the past three decades, including previously released Universal Tonality–driven pieces like Double Sunrise Over Neptune, recorded in 2007 and released the following year, and 2012’s Red Giraffe with Dreadlocks, released on the 2015 box set For Those Who Are, Still.
The musicians on the album represent different strands of Parker’s musical life. Violinist Billy Bang and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter worked with the bassist in ’70s-loft-era group The Music Ensemble. Jerome Cooper — best known as the percussionist in the Revolutionary Ensemble — occasionally sat in with The Music Ensemble, and drummer Roger Blank (who, like Cooper, plays the West African balafon here) teamed with Parker in another ‘70s collective, the Melodic Art-Tet. Violinist Jason Kao Hwang’s history with Parker dates back to the early-’80s quartet Commitment, while pianist Dave Burrell and trombonist Grachan Moncur III — the latter of whom died earlier this year, and rarely appeared on record in the 2000s — were stalwarts of the ‘60s jazz avant-garde that had inspired the bassist early on. Moncur also played in the first iteration of Parker’s key small group, In Order to Survive, circa the early ’90s, and Burrell has continued working with Parker since this concert was recorded.
Saxophonist Rob Brown, trombonist Steve Swell, guitarist Joe Morris and Jin Hi Kim (who plays komungo, a six-foot Korean zither) had been collaborators since the 90s, and have continued to be up through the present. Vocalist Leena Conquest first appeared on a Parker work in 2000 – the astonishing “For Fannie Lou Hamer” – and became an elemental member of his key touring bands in the ensuing decade. This concert is also among drummer Gerald Cleaver’s earliest appearances with Parker; they have generated much vital work together since. Miya Masaoka (who had carved out a space for the koto, a Japanese zither, in experimental and free-improvisational music) and tenor saxophonist Cale Brandley were musicians he admired who performed with him here for the first time.
Parker wrote a score for this 2002 Roulette performance (some pages from these illustrated scores are included with the artwork) but he made it entirely optional for the participants. It is easy to hear how inspired — and liberated — these musicians felt by Parker’s open-ended concept. Lyrics and personal writings by Parker, which Conquest recites, sings or dramatically interprets, also play a key role in Universal Tonality. When it came to the words, Parker gave her the same freedom of choice he afforded the instrumentalists, supplying her with various lyrics and personal writings that she could draw on as she saw fit. Conquest starts out “Leaves Gathering” with a passage that chronicles Parker’s initial musical awakening through colorful language. “[The] sky translated itself into music: the Tone World,” she says. “It swallowed me up, the way a whale would swallow up a guppy dipped in Mama’s homemade tomato sauce.” On “Cloud Texture,” she gives a fragmentary history of Parker’s family, describing a harrowing run-in between his father and the Klan in the South, and evokes the period when his father and mother met and fell in love against the backdrop of the Swing Era.
Reflecting on the performances, and his Universal Tonality concept as a whole, Parker can sound like he’s outlining a life philosophy. It is both telling and fitting that author Cisco Bradley chose to title his 2021 biography of William Parker after this concept. What he’s ultimately hoping is that, during a given performance, like on this special night in 2002, each musician will trust their own instincts — and those of the musicians around them — enough to let the sound find its shape in real time.
“It’s like sailing,” he explains. “As long as the wind is flowing, the boat goes. ‘Uh-oh, the wind stops — what do I do?’ Look at the score: Turn the motor on just a little bit, then you go on. But the more you do it, you begin to train yourself to not be afraid when the wind stops. Then you realize something very important: The wind never stops. It’s always blowing.”
That constant current of inspiration, and open, receptive communication, was present at Roulette that night, and it’s on full display on this magical recording.