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Spiritual Rhythms

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John Sann

All His Life: Leon Parker

Percussionist Leon Parker embraces a world of influences on 'Awakening' album

By Nicky Baxter

There was a time when many of Leon Parker's contemporaries thought the man was several cents short of a dollar. A cursory glance at the jazz drummer's gear in the 1980s appeared to confirm the suspicion that he was a little kooky: Parker's drum kit consisted of a single cymbal. No trap drum, no tom-toms, no hi-hat, just that lone cymbal. Now, minimalism in improvisational music rhythm-keeping has a long and storied history, but this?

Parker would go on to add snare and a floor tom and bass to his spartan set-up, but that's about it. Less is more is an apt description of his philosophy. Awakening, his new album on Columbia, further illuminates Parker's status as a major innovator. For this session, Parker incorporates a panoply of musical influences from the African Diaspora. The percussionist is joined by like-minded musicians whose playing enhances the album's fiercely creative force.

On "All My Life," the opening track, Parker effortlessly moves from conga to clave, slapping out polyrhythms beneath poet Tracie Morris' sparse, impressionistic lyric concerning spiritual awareness. Her incantatory style meshes well with the almost hypnotic pulse of the Parker-penned composition. Whether she is lovingly shaping phrases or repeating single words, mantralike, Morris subtly draws listeners into her dreamy world.

Hovering above the percussive stew is Sam Newsome's alto and soprano saxophone. His playing is richly imaginative, ululating like a bird's cry here, drawing out extended notes elsewhere. As on all the cuts on the album, rhythm predominates.

Co-written by Parker and vocalist/percussionist Natalie Cushman, "Tokyo" is wonderfully exotic yet deftly manages to skirt parody. Indeed, the composition offers only a feint nod to the East, providing instead a herky-jerky pulse that summons up images of a lushly verdant South American forest.

Parker's marimba is liltingly songlike, melodically hinting at Coltrane's "India." Congas add to the rhythmic depth of the piece. Wilson's soprano work both reinforces the groove and offers imaginative variations of the melody. A threesome of vocalists offers background chanting with a West African flavor.

"It Is What It Is," the album's longest track, is the most fetching. Ugonna Okegwo's sonorous bass opens things. In short order, Parker's conga insinuates itself into the rhythmic flow.

Still, it is Adam Cruz's ringing steel-pan drumming that captures one's attention. Whether rattling off quick bursts of high-pitched notes, reiterating the song's catchily melodic theme or commenting on Sam Newsome's flighty soprano saxophone, Cruz shines.

Rarely has this instrument been employed in such an artful manner; pay particular attention to Cruz's expertly executed second solo. Although Cruz and to a lesser extent Newsome command the spotlight, Parker is content to provide rhythmic flourishes; he seems to know the difference between gratuitous showmanship and genuine leadership.

As song titles like "Awakening," "Enlightenment" and "Peaceful Dream" suggest, this album conveys a sense of spirituality. Not the fire and brimstone raging of red-faced evangelicals; rather, there's a feeling of becalmed dedication to a transcendent higher force.

Indeed, one can say of Awakening that it is a nondidactic sound tract expressing love and devotion to that higher force through the joyful sound of music. One thing is certain, Leon Parker is a seeker whose tireless quest for musical perfection cannot be questioned, only admired.

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Web extra to the December 3-9, 1998 issue of Metro.

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