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William Parker - Crumbling in the Shadows is Fraulein Miller’s Stale Cake

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Artist: William Parker

Album: Crumbling in the Shadows is Fraulein Miller’s Stale Cake

Label: Centering

Review date: Aug. 25, 2011

When musicians put pen to paper and stories emerge, the words often bear a striking resemblance to the way they play. Charles Mingus’ autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, exudes soul and feeling amid a complex ocean of historical reference. Henry Grimes’ poetry is observational, yet tranquil. Crumbling in the Shadows is Fraulein Miller’s Stale Cake, William Parker’s new box set, is the latest utterance by a musician that also possesses the gift of verbal expression.

The book includes more than 20 short pieces of poetry and prose, all of which feel like different forms of meditation. The project’s title was derived from the first story here, about a South Carolina slave owner named Fraulein Miller:

    Legend has it she was a benevolent master who would save pieces of stale cake for the slaves from time to time. This was something she was very proud of. Then one day several slaves made their way into the kitchen stealing large knives. They had made the decision to cut the throats of the overseers and escape. At the crucial moment just before bloodshed was to occur they heard the sound of a low string instrument, it was a bass being bowed and the music was like a dance but you couldn’t dance to it without listening and you couldn’t listen without feeling it. These displaced and tortured Africans held out their arms, they intertwined them like branches from a tree. Becoming unified as one voice they looked in the slave master’s eyes turning and walked off the plantation into the horizon never to be seen again.

Again and again, throughout the dreams, stories and poetic think pieces, Parker writes of love, and not the frivolous kind. Parker’s worldview is a utopic one, where there’s no war and all people live free. His narrative is populated by the living and the dead in Joycean tandem, emerging and then reentering the chronologically disparate shadow worlds they occupy. Real and imagined people dance through the vivid language, composers and performers interacting with figures out of black history in a way that’s dizzying and fantastic.

Underneath the booklet lies Crumbling in the Shadows is Fraulein Miller’s Stale Cake‘s three discs of improvisatory solo bass. The first two were captured on a single night in 2010, while the third is a reissue of Parker’s first solo record, Testimony, recorded in 1994. The latter is busier than the recent recordings, but you can still hear the hallmarks of Parker’s solo style. His playing is fancifully deliberate; ideas emerge serially, each defined and existing in its own space, and there is no telling what era, or genre, will be evoked in the next second.

As with the various personages populating his prose, history and topos are Parker’s playthings. On disc one’s “Equador/Resolution,” a slow swinging rhythm unfolds like molasses, stretching itself through augmentation, as if Morton Feldman played the blues. Defying convention and embracing elasticity, something about it feels like an archetype for solo bass. Parker’s playing thrives on this kind of juxtaposition; in “Night Density,” he slides easily from gorgeously “classical” bowed lines, heavy with blooming and ripening overtones, to bright percussives, turning his bass into a drum to call up the spirits pervading his writing.

Like the contents of the book, the music ranges from brief vignettes to free-flowing improvisations that sometime break the 20-minute mark. There is a unity in acoustics that successfully bridges the 16-year gap between sessions, and plenty of ambience that allows each detail to bud, bloom and fade in natural sound. Ideologically and musically, Crumbling in the Shadows is Fraulein Miller’s Stale Cake is a triumph of unified thought and clear vision.

By Marc Medwin

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