French new wave filmmaker Chris Marker recently released an English version of his 1997 interactive CD-ROM titled Immemory. The disc is essentially a contemporary choose-your-own-adventure — a web of photographs, text, popular imagery and film. The user is given several options on which to click, each produces several more options and so on. The thread that ties these fragments together is merely Marker’s mind, his version of memory. Playing along with Immemory is to enter into an agreement with Marker where you abandon structured, linear thinking and plunge yourself into one man’s subjectivity. And if we’re to believe William Parker in his essay that accompanies the William Parker Violin Trio’s Scrapbook, his new album is a meditation on the images, memories and sounds from the past that continue to shape his present.
Perhaps it’s a narcissistic concept to patch together an abstract album of memories dating back to childhood and expect to engage an audience. Scrapbook doesn’t initially come off as an album strongly rooted in memory, because there’s no way to infer which memories Parker is conjuring without reading his essay or thinking about the song titles, an exercise that only reveals the inherent subjectivity of memory. So while “Holiday For Flowers” gives no real clues that it’s based on the idyllic image of a Japanese family Parker observed while traveling, the individual tunes describe abstract moods with immediacy and intimacy. “Scrapbook,” the opener, might be the best, although it hints at the problems therein. It begins hypnotically with Hamid Drake’s scattered drumming and a plaintive violin riff by the incredible Billy Bang, with Parker’s throbbing bass pulling it together. But it quickly becomes clear that this is Bang’s album, as he stretches out into tangential Ornette Coleman territory, leaving Drake and Parker scrambling to keep up. Only a rambling drum solo punctuates Bang’s virtuoso noisemaking, but he re-enters with a flourish, menacingly evoking a tripped-out and pissed off Shostakovich.
Bang’s ability to bend a tone and subtly change its inflection makes Scrapbook sound both pretty and nasty, often within seconds of each other. “Sunday Morning Church” assumes a somber mood from the outset, Bang’s violin mournful over Parker’s repetitive, baritone bass notes. But Bang’s solo of searing intensity shifts the mood from solemn to impassioned. His instrument squeals and cries — it speaks its own language, or rather Bang is speaking his own language, transmitted through a violin. Thus, Scrapbook‘s most exciting moments are when Bang defies the logic of the song’s narrative, displacing himself from the time and space of the rhythm section, most obviously in the Mingus-inspired “Singing Spirits” and the pummeling “Urban.”
But while the album holds up well conceptually as an examination of the evolution and erasure of memory, it occasionally sounds like the players are struggling to bring it to fruition. Just as Coleman and Coltrane sounded so dominant in their groups, Bang overshadows two-thirds of the trio he’s playing with on Scrapbook. Not bad for someone Parker discovered in the Bronx carrying his violin around in a knapsack on his back. But his violin is overemphasized in the mix, making it sound like other instruments are rushing to keep pace. In Scrapbook‘s defense, it effectively evokes moods and visions, even if they’re not Parker’s specifically. And the concept of (im)memory seems particularly relevant to Thirsty Ear’s current project, in which artists like Parker and Matthew Shipp are exploring a new jazz using updated instruments and contemporary ideas while remaining deeply rooted in jazz history. With this creation of a very personal vision of historical importance, Parker is contributing to what will hopefully evolve into new viability for a medium that’s been historically tentative to combine the radically new with the still fresh-sounding old.