LEON PARKERThe Simple Life (Label M)
Leon Parker could help make jazz a popular art form again. Like Medeski Martin & Wood, he‘s an innovator who understands communication, and his arrival in the early ’90s came at a time when the music had spread far from its trunk, displaying many sprigs and flowers but not much you could moor your boat to. Nothing wrong with that; refinement is natural, and the blossoms were often spectacular. But this rhythm master is one of the elect few who have sought the essence of jazz, and who know that the quest demands more than just a knee bent to Satch. Despite a handful of albums that will stand as landmarks, he has received the reward America typically bestows on its geniuses — obscurity.
The Simple Life is Parker‘s first release as a leader in three years, and it comes not on a major imprint (he was last with Columbia) but on Joel Dorn’s Label M — which for the most part reissues neglected classic jazz to remind us what we‘re missing, but here has selected a contemporary work for the same purpose. And it’s a beauty. Getting right down to business, Parker opens with the Duke Ellington–Juan Tizol standard “Caravan,” which Ellington first recorded in 1937. The subtle horn layerings are gone, but not the richness: Parker nails the minimalist ideal of delivering full impact with a few well-placed lines, revealing the bones and sinew of a great Duke arrangement through voice (his own along with the harmonies and scatting of Elizabeth Kontomanou), Sam Newsome‘s soprano-sax arabesques, and his hands slapping his own body — never think this is only a gimmick, because Parker generates a speaker-blowing groove that will knock you on your ass.
In the 15 tracks of The Simple Life, he encapsulates his methodology. “Makin’ Love” is a touchingly solemn chant and wail over a basic body-slap rhythm. Vocals are percussion on “Divinity Pt. 1,” where Ugonna Okegwo shows why he‘s the planet’s bassest bassist. On “Belief (Live Version),” lest you think he can only think spare, Parker bashes his trap set bigger and bigger, swinging like a crazy man. And he lets you in on one of his inspirations with “Street Sounds (Interlude),” 20 seconds of screams, car alarms and a motorcycle peel-out recorded under New York‘s 59th Street Bridge. It’s one perfectly cut gem after another, brilliant but warm, beating with the heart of Africa.
Paced for extended listening, The Simple Life is gutty, head-shaking music that anybody can relate to. That doesn‘t mean it’s lowest-common-denominator swill; Parker‘s deep intelligence simply vibrates with the human spirit and makes you feel alive. Tough sell, right?