William Parker with doson ngoni listens to Ken Aldcroft play ©Brett Delmage, 2013
William Parker with doson ngoni listens to Ken Aldcroft play ©Brett Delmage, 2013

William Parker and Ken Aldcroft
Pressed Café, Ottawa
IMOO special presentation
Tuesday, September 10, 2013 (two shows)

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Think texture.

Not only texture, of course: also unusual sounds, dynamic range, and a variety of contrasting rhythms.

But the most salient feature of William Parker's and Ken Aldcroft's two shows at Pressed was how they used the full capabilities of their instruments to produce full-bodied, evolving, and sometimes unexpected extemporized soundscapes.

Parker is a composer, bandleader, and teacher, whose double bass has graced stages around the world for decades, playing with a huge variety of high-profile musicians and especially those playing avant-garde jazz. For the last six years, one of his many collaborations has been with Aldcroft, a guitarist who's a mainstay of the free-jazz improvisation scene in Toronto. They've played a number of concerts there, and released a duo record called One Sunday on Trio Records in 2011.

For their Ottawa appearance, they played two shows, both just under an hour, mostly filling Pressed Café each time (some listeners stayed for both). The concert was organized by the Improvising Musicians of Ottawa-Outaouais (IMOO), and IMOO organizer Linsey Wellman said afterwards that the turnout exceeded expectations.

Parker played the double bass, and, in the second set, the doson ngoni (a very tall lute from Mali) and the shakuhachi (a thick Japanese bamboo flute). Aldcroft was on electric guitar, with a selection of pedals. There was no set list, no compositions announced; they performed pure free improv.

The first show started with near-random notes, which coalesced and became more intense: bright metallic guitar contrasting with deep, earthy notes on bass. The music then flowed through a whole series of contrasting textures: Aldcroft played strongly accented rhythms, then flurries of notes, then hard riffs, then fast strumming.

Parker initially responded with equally strongly accented rhythms on bass, occasionally slapping the strings, but then pulled out his bows for a very different sound. Yes, bows: Parker brought two, a standard bow, and a vintage bow in a half-moon shape which he had recently acquired. At one point, he attached the two by one end, and played them together on either side of the bridge on his bass, creating a high-pitched sound like lost souls crying. He then used the edge of one bow to produce sizzling, punctuated notes from the bass strings, following that up with the buzz of very fast rubbing across the strings, and then higher-toned, slightly bent vibrating sounds from repeated bowing – to which Aldcroft responded with equally fast vibrating notes on guitar.

The set ended with with very light dancing harmonics dancing from Aldcroft's guitar, against deep, repeating full notes and extended riffs on Parker's bass. The music slowly faded out, and was replaced by strong applause.

The second show continued from the first, again contrasting light guitar harmonic notes with deep resonant bass notes. As the guitar sound became more fluid, the bass sound became even more ebony, ending up in almost a walking blues.

Then Parker pulled out the shakuhachi. He blew long, lonely lines, interrupted by occasional vibrato, circling around the light guitar beat. The piece ended with Parker chanting a poem over the guitar, one that he has repeated with variations at a number of concerts over the last decade:

“Death has died today
The world will never be the same
God is in tears
And the devil wears a big old grin
With his head in an oil well
Telling lies all day”.

The doson ngoni was the main feature of the next piece. It started with a simple, fast riff on both instruments. Then Parker started singing softly and wordlessly, and created rustling rhythms on the doson, against Aldcroft's stronger, bluesier guitar riff. As the guitar patterns became more complex and multi-voiced, Parker's voice was just on the edge of hearing. The sound morphed into a extended vibrating drone on both instruments, and then separated, with light doson over a sharp, high, metallic guitar sound. They moved back into unison with a deeper, clearer rhythm on both, which became more accented, and finally faded out.

Back on double bass for the last piece of the night, Parker started with strong bowing, producing loud, harsh sounds which repeatedly changed in pitch. He alternated that with pulling on the strings producing a progression of heavy, deep notes. At the same time, Aldcroft's guitar was spilling out bright, fast, sparkling notes, which became more syncopated, and then were echoed by Parker as his bass sped up to match them. Aldcroft moved to playing double lines on his guitar (high and low) with Parker's bass underneath; the music then sped up and became steadily more intense, with Parker repeatedly slapping the bass strings, and vibrating notes on the guitar. First the guitar, then the bass, slowed, and with a few last notes on both, the concert ended.

It was a concert which could be appreciated on several levels: showing Parker and Aldcroft's skill in finding new sounds from their instruments, but also showing how carefully and intensely they listened to each other and worked together in constant communication to create the music. Overall, I found the shows more intellectually interesting than emotionally touching, but there were places, particularly in the first show and in the last piece of the second show, where the momentum of the music was so strong I just happily let it sweep over me.

And certainly the concerts engaged the attention of the audience: I've rarely seen that cafe so utterly quiet as everyone there intensely listened while Parker and Aldcroft were playing.

    – Alayne McGregor

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