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A Team Concept

Leon Parker
Hands-On Approach: Percussionist and composer Leon Parker plays on Monday night at Kuumbwa.

Photo by John Sann

Drummer Leon Parker is as committed to collectivism as he is to his individual muse

By Nicky Baxter

IN THE 1980s, jazz drummer Leon Parker carried minimalism to its maximal conclusion. His drum kit consisted of a single cymbal--no trap drum, no tom-toms, no high-hat. Parker would go on to add a snare drum, a floor tom and a bass to his Spartan setup, but he still hews to the idea of keeping it simple.

"The phrase 'less is more' is part of my philosophy," Parker says, "and it's very logical for me. All the other types of music that have influenced me, apart from jazz, have helped me appreciate the importance of structure and concept." And, like minimalists working in other genres, Parker is a conceptualist before all else. Belief, his debut recording for Columbia, confirms that Parker is not just another jazz drummer but a musician/composer with an unflagging commitment to his muse.

Interestingly, Parker's approach has been hailed as avant-garde, even though his music seemingly has little in common with the free-blowing style often called the New Thing. Yet, like many of that genre's leading lights--Ornette Coleman, Charles Gayle--Parker is less interested in exploiting improvisational music's vaunted individualism then he is in taking advantage of its collectivist aspect.

"The freedom you have in jazz as an individual is beautiful," he admits, "but I like the communal statement. I can see how each part comes in, and the band as a whole is like a percussion ensemble."

On Belief, just his second outing as a leader, Parker manifests considerable confidence. It helps that he is amidst excellent company, joined by a unit anchored by alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, steel-pan player and pianist Adam Cruz, and bassist Ugonna Okegwo. (Parker and Wilson are currently touring with a different lineup.)

The tunes are elemental. Like the photo of the clean-headed Parker gracing the CD jacket, they evoke something primal (which is different than primitive). The first thing you hear on the opening track, "Horizontal Azul," is Parker tapping out a steady pulse on the cymbal. Horns counterpointed by singing steel pan follow, delineating a stately melody. When Parker switches to a standard kit, the intensity level doubles. At this point, Parker's band has been transformed into a roiling percussion ensemble.

The title track is introduced by Parker's swishing brushwork and African-influenced cymbal tailed by a moody Milesian horn arrangement. "Belief" may sound old-fashioned on the surface, but underneath Parker is altering the dynamics with his stripped-down drum set-up, without disrupting the rhythmic flow of the tune itself--juxtaposing an African and Cuban pattern over a standard jazz groove.

Belief is a bit less rawly effusive than Parker's first album, Above and Below (on the now-defunct Epicure label), but just as eclectic. "My spectrum in music is wide," acknowledges Parker. "I try to express that in my music, from soft, beautiful ballads to strong statements that make people dance."

Leon Parker performs on Monday (7:30pm) at Kuumbwa, 320-2 Cedar St., SC (427-2227). Tickets cost $16/$14.

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From the October 24-30, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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