Thursday, January 5, 2017

NYC Jazz Record feature: LEON PARKER

"NYC Jazz Record", January 2017

LEON PARKER: Reaffirming Roots and Branches

By John Pietaro

After 15 years of life abroad, where he engaged in a musical pilgrimage of sorts, native New Yorker Leon Parker is back. Hopefully, to stay. 

Known as a brash young lion at the dawn of the ‘90s, the drummer/percussionist was as celebrated as deemed notorious due to a thorny frankness and an arduous drive to authenticity. Parker explained, “I’m the same person as back then, but after much reflection, I don’t hold the anger I once did”. What he may have given up in agitation, Parker’s cultivated in a renewed vitality for the drumset as well as the realization of his concept of body percussion and voice he calls EmbodiRhythm.

Born in White Plains, New York, 1965, Leon Parker was exposed to the lineage of jazz as a toddler. “My grandparents had met uptown during the Harlem Renaissance and they carried this incredible record collection with them through the years”. He was drawn to the inherent rhythms of jazz and early showed an affinity toward percussives. The decisive moment was seeing Buddy Rich play on the Tonight Show. “My parents got me out of bed to see this. I was about 6 years old and was inspired enough to demand they buy me a real drumset as opposed to just toys. Seeing someone play so strongly and with so much command of the instrument, I know I needed to do this”. 

In grade school, the youthful Parker began playing drums in a school band and befriended another budding young percussionist, Scott Latzky. “His father was a complete jazz nut and we used to go to his place to listen to his records”. Both then entered a local talent show, performing solo drumset spots. Within a few years, both were members of the Westchester Youth Jazz Ensemble, directed by James Harewood, later Frank Foster.

“I listened to a lot of the old Gene Krupa records when I was learning. Especially what he played on Goodman’s ‘Sing, Sing’, Sing’. I still love the floor tom; it’s a special drum that needs taming. Then I came to love Art Blakey’s drumming, especially his supportive playing behind others in his band. And I’ve always enjoyed Tony Williams and use some of his spice. But my favorite musician in the world is Roy Haynes. I’ve never copied his approach but the spirit is there.”

Parker, at age 17, began performing frequently with a local band and also started working with Hudson Valley area saxophonist Carmen Leggio. Still, he felt a world away from New York’s jazz center. “White Plains to NYC is only a 40 min train ride but for me it was as far off as Australia. The bridge was guitarist Melvin Sparks. He introduced me to Dr. Lonnie Smith”. Parker also engaged in Barry Harris’ programs and by 1986, was an “unofficial student” at the New School’s jazz program, under the watchful eye of Arnie Lawrence. He credits saxophonist Virginia Mayhew (“an unsung hero”) with bringing him to Lawrence’s attention. Serving as the frequent drummer on many student recitals, Parker came into contact with the up-and-coming players of that period. He also began making nightly vigils to Bradley’s during Kenny Barron’s long tenure at the club. When invited to do so, Parker began sitting in with the group, but not by taking over drummer Ben Riley’s kit: “I was fascinated by the cymbals. When I was 22 years old and used to go to Bradley’s all the time and carry only a cymbal with me. Kenny would let me sit in”. And then when Riley was unavailable to make the gig for one week, “I took the drum chair”, he said with a laugh, “but still played on just the one cymbal”, causing a rumble across the jazz community. 

Playing a slightly fuller drum set, he formed his own quartet and also began working with Bill Charlap and Joshua Redman. Soon, he too would become house drummer for the Blue Note jam sessions and at the terrace of the Village Gate, leading a trio with Brad Mehldau and Uganna Okegwo. In 1992, the drummer recorded and toured with Dewey Redman. 

A year later, Parker recorded his first album as a leader, ‘Above and Below’ and with it, set out to redefine the drumset to his own specifications. “Trying to do gigs on the ride cymbal alone, I realized it was crazy. I had come up with a drumset that let me do gigs like a normal guy with a focus on the cymbal”. A period of experimentation had him incorporate a hi-hat briefly. “Now I have one cymbal and no hi-hat. I can communicate so much more with that. BD, snare, two tom-toms, one cymbal”.
After releasing several more albums, the drummer became disenchanted with the direction the jazz industry was taking the music. “I saw all the bullshit involved. I was looking for something but was very outspoken”, he said of his bifurcated rebellion against and desire to be accepted by the broader jazz community. “I saw the authentic values disregarded while the music industry capitalized on the tradition of jazz. So I left in 2001”. 

Relocating to a small French village, Parker immersed himself in the essence of music’s communication. “I didn’t bring a drumset with me. I had been experimenting with body rhythms and vocal sounds, and wanted to explore this more”. He avoided much of the French jazz scene, focusing instead on teaching EmbodiRhythm workshops. Over the years he was away, Parker had only isolated occasions to play drums before heeding the call from old friend Aaron Goldberg. After playing a local show with the pianist, Parker was ready to return home to the US; he arrived in New York in time for last fall’s performance season. Gigs with Goldberg continue and Parker is now well within his comfort zone, performing with his own Humanity Quartet and facilitating EmbodiRhythms workshops. “Deciding to move back to New York, I had to look over the earlier expectations I had put upon myself and the institution of jazz. I no longer believe in institutions. We are artists and if there’s sincerity and authenticity in our work, then it remains powerful”. 

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