Despite the snowstorm, Parker and Nicholson did make it safely to Ottawa.

A world-renowned jazz bassist and improviser is in Ottawa this week – but not just to play music.

William Parker last appeared in Ottawa in a duo concert with Ken Aldcroft last September. ©Brett Delmage, 2013
William Parker last appeared in Ottawa in a duo concert with Ken Aldcroft last September. ©Brett Delmage, 2013
William Parker will perform three concerts with local percussionist Jesse Stewart this Thursday and Friday evenings. But he will also take a wider perspective on music: with his partner, Patricia Nicholson, Parker will be speaking about music's role in the wider community.

Nicholson founded and is now executive director of the Arts for Art organization in New York City; Parker is a board member of that organization. For the last 19 years, they've been putting on the Vision Festival, as well as a year-long series of cross-disciplinary events, combining music, dance, poetry, visual arts, and more. The festival aims to expand its audience's ears while also honouring artistic elders.

On Thursday afternoon, Nicholson and Parker will have a 90-minute public conversation with Carleton University sociology professor (and bassist) Michael Mopas, about their work and their thoughts on jazz and improvisation. The event is free and open to the public.

Parker specifically asked for this event, Stewart said. “It was his idea, in fact, his and Patricia's that there would be an opportunity for there to be a public discussion about the role of music and art in community formation.”

Both have had decades of experience: Nicholson began putting together musical events in 1981, when she organized and choreographed A Thousand Cranes Opera at Dag Hammerskjold Plaza for the opening of the UN Special Sessions on Disarmament. She and Parker worked together in the 1980s to to help organize the Sound Unity Festivals, which brought together European, Asian and American musicians and dancers who work with jazz and other improvised music.

“They'll be talking largely though not exclusively about music and art's capacity to forge community. And I think in particular they will probably talk about their experiences in working on the Vision Festival,” Stewart said.

It's part of a very busy week for Parker and Nicholson – and even more for Stewart himself, with many opportunities (some free) to hear them. On Wednesday Stewart is delivering a major lecture; on Thursday is the Parker-Nicholson conversation; on Friday Parker will teach a masterclass on improvisation. And there's the three concerts (including a CD launch), and then a recording session on the weekend.

Wednesday: Why Jesse Stewart has been very, very busy

Last April, Stewart was awarded the Marston LaFrance Award by Carleton University, where he is an associate professor in the Music Department. It gave him a year off from teaching duties so he could concentrate on composing, performing, recording, and academic writing.

On Wednesday afternoon, he delivers a talk about and performance of some of the work he's done since last summer, including videos of some of the concerts.

With two major compositions finished (one premiered at the Guelph Jazz Festival last September), two CD releases, six recording projects at various stages of completion, a book chapter written on the impact of digital sampling on documentary films, other articles coming out soon, three book projects well underway, his Winterlude performances with a new instrument, and his work with developmentally delayed adults at H'Art of Ottawa, Stewart has been very busy for the last ten months.

In fact, he said his main problem has been how to trim the talk about it all down to a manageable length.

Luckily, next year is Stewart's sabbatical year, so he has another year away from teaching in which to finish the longer-term writing projects, and to actually perform Elements, the extended composition which he recently finished after working on it for several years.

Thursday: Combining dance and music in an art gallery

Nicholson is best known as a dancer and choreographer. Thursday evening she will be dancing in concert with Parker (as she has many times) and with Stewart (for the first time). They'll perform in the Carleton University Art Gallery (CUAG), where Stewart has presented concerts in past years.

Stewart has performed with dancers before – for example, with Montreal singer/modern dance artist Susanna Hood – and said he enjoyed it. One thing which will make the concert interesting is the acoustics of the gallery: Stewart noted that its parallel walls and hard surfaces make sounds very reflective in it.

The gallery is such a reverberant space, he said, “that for drums that's a challenge. But every challenge is also an opportunity, so I try to work with those acoustics: how can I respond to them in a way that is hopefully interesting? I want to make sure that whatever I do musically is musically appropriate but also appropriate to and supportive of whatever's happening with the dance component.”

Stewart will likely play “waterphone, some hand percussion, maybe I might bring one snare drum and a few other odds and ends.” But, being sensitive to the acoustics, he doubted he would bring a full drumset.

Friday: teaching improvisation and the return of a longtime trio

Besides a busy and varied performing career, Parker is also known for teaching at several major American universities and for working with young musicians in New York. He will give a free masterclass at Carleton University on Friday afternoon about improvisation. It's an area he can speak on with authority from decades of experience playing with many different jazz and other improvising musicians.

“William is one of the great forces in contemporary music and certainly in creative improvised music,” Stewart said. “When I think about William's bass playing in particular, I think of him as being very good at creating musical fields of energy. I think he's exceptionally good at that. Thinking about music in that way, I think that may have opened up some new areas of sonic exploration for me. How can I create a field of musical energy for other people to interact with and engage with? And I think William is one of the masters of doing that.”

But, more than that, he said, Parker has influenced him to branch out to trying a wide variety of instruments. Parker is “quite a prodigious multi-instrumentalist”. He's “branched out from his musical home base of bass and performed on shakuhachi and a variety of wooden flutes but also the doson ngoni and the kora and so many instruments”, but “brings his approach to creative improvised music to all those different instruments.”

And his rhythm section partnership with Chicago drummer Hamid Drake is legendary. “Hamid is also a dear friend and a mutual friend of William's and mine and a collaborator with both of us over the years, though he's certainly worked with William a lot longer than he's worked with me! But I think of that rhythm section as one of the great rhythm sections, on par with Dannie Richmond and Charles Mingus, and Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones. And one thing that I love about about their playing together is the almost telepathic level of communication between the two of them. And I think part of that comes from the fact that they've worked together for probably close to 20 years now. They've played together in so many contexts that William can turn on a dime and Hamid is right there. And vice-versa: Hamid can turn on a dime, do a metric modulation or some other total shift, and William is right there instantly. So that's something else I respect about his playing very much.”

How can I create a field of musical energy for other people to interact with and engage with? And I think William is one of the masters of doing that.
– Jesse Stewart

Stewart brought Drake to Ottawa last year, a trip which also included a Carleton masterclass, as he regularly has with other notable improvising musicians like Pauline Oliveros in 2011 – musicians he thinks will inspire students at Carleton.

He met Parker years ago at the Guelph Jazz Festival, where Parker is a beloved regular. They performed together once in Guelph, in a trio with Toronto baritone saxophonist and composer David Mott.

That was a memorable concert which Stewart still remembers with enjoyment. On Friday evening, all of them will reunite for a two trio performances at GigSpace – each show improvised on the spot.

The concerts will also coincide with the release of a new CD called Anagrams, a duet between Mott and Stewart. Mott has been a mentor to Stewart for many years, teaching him at York University. They've been playing together for over 15 years in many different contexts: in Mott's quintet, in a trio with bassist Rob Clutton, a duo, and even a nonet.

Although Parker doesn't appear on the album, he wrote the liner notes.

The CD was actually recorded about two years ago at the Sonic Gym in Dunrobin, and mastered in Ottawa by Phil Bova. “I'm excited that people will have a chance to hear some of this music. And also to read William's liner notes. I think he wrote really beautiful liner notes: very poetic.”

Saturday and Sunday: more improvisation in the recording studio

Mott, Stewart, and Parker will be back recording with Phil Bova on Saturday and Sunday – in a very convenient location, since Bova's studio is only about a block from Stewart's house.

And there will be more improvisation. “I think that's probably what we'll do. I have a few little sketches and charts of things I could bring, but with musicians as wonderful as William and David, and especially as I know David's playing so well, we've played together so long ... Certainly we've played pieces that are composed many, many times, but for me there's something magical about improvising, just playing free with one another. So I suspect that's what we'll do. But one never knows.”

    – Alayne McGregor

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