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This is FRESH AIR. In 2000, bassist William Parker started a new two horns, two rhythm quartet with old associates. That band is still around and is celebrated with a new box set, where they play alone, and with a variety of guests.

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has more.



KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: William Parker's quartet on "Groove Number Seven." Steve Lacy used to say the right partner can help you make music you couldn't get to by yourself. William Parker's bass tone was always sturdy as a tree trunk, but power drummer Hamid Drake gives him lift. The upshot is free jazz can swing too.

The quartet's front line is another firm partnership - quicksilver alto saxophonist Rob Brown and flinty trumpeter Lewis Barnes. Their scrappy unisons on the melodies are raggedly right, and they finish each other's phrases when they improvise. Parker writes them all catchy tunes to use as springboards.


WHITEHEAD: William Parker's Quartet "Live in Oakland 2006," when they'd been together six years. It's from a new box that should be on a bunch of Christmas lists. Parker's "Wood Flute Songs" is six concerts on eight CDs, recorded between '06 and 2012. The first half is for the quartet alone. On the rest, that foursome plus guests make up units of five to 12 pieces.

In a sextet, singer Leena Conquest and pianist Eri Yamamoto only intensify the groove. This is from a war victim's protest song, Parker's "Boom Boom Bang Bang."


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (singing) This democracy is killing me. This democracy is killing me. Boom, boom, boom, bang, bang. Boom, boom, bang, bang. Boom, boom, boom, boom. Boom. Boom, boom, boom. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. Boom. Boom, boom. Boom, boom, bang, bang.

WHITEHEAD: A seven-piece version of William Parker's band adds Bobby Bradford on cornet and Billy Bang on violin, who is sometimes a spiky presence in the rhythm section. Also, altoist James Spaulding, who played on dozens of vintage "Blue Note" dates without getting one of his own.


WHITEHEAD: James Spaulding quoting Gershwin. One thing this band and William Parker's composing do for Hamid Drake, they let the drummer get to all sorts of stuff he's into, including reggae, funk, North African and Native American rhythms.


WHITEHEAD: "Wood Flute Songs" comes in a handsome and unfussy little cardboard box, with a fat program book containing fine art reproductions and William Parker's notes. Its six recorded concerts are also available separately as downloads. The cautiously curious might try the quartet's roaring good night at Yoshi's in Oakland in 2006, even if it starts with a 10-minute bass solo. The latest music comes from June of 2012, and a quintet where pianist Cooper Moore throws some firecrackers.

I like the quartet with guests. But I like it alone at least as much.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, Downbeat, and eMusic and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Wood Flute Songs," the new eight-CD box set of live performances featuring the William Parker Quartet. Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews a traveling exhibit whose centerpiece is Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring." This is FRESH AIR.

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