Here’s a study in contrasts.
Horace Parlan was born staring at a smokestack in a hospital in Pittsburgh, and used to run up and down streets in the South Side playing cops with neighbors, and then when he realized how smart he was, he decided to play lawyer instead. One of those early seasons of his life lead to polio, and polio lead to his right hand going blank with paralysis. After that, he decided to give up law dreams and put himself in for a real challenge- with only one fully functioning hand, he was going to play the jazz, hard. How he did this is extraordinary; with two unusable fingers on his right, he would place the survivors on piano keys and play something simple, over and over. Parlan became a master of repetition, his crippled right leashing his agile left, but, man, listen to how hard that left tries to break the leash.
Parlan is most famous for playing on two of Charles Mingus’ most famous and most extraordinary albums, Blues and Roots and Mingus Ah Um, but it is his solo work I’m going to focus on. While Parlan provides excellent accompaniment to Mingus’ exuberance, or later in his career, to Archie Shepp’s sharp experimentation, you can most truly feel the spirit of what makes him special in the recordings released under his own name.
The first notes on Parlan’s second album, Us Three, do not come from Parlan, but from bassist George Tucker. The album’s title track begins with Tucker plucking his upright like he’s settling in after a long night. And then, 17 seconds in, the piano hummingbirds in place, too quick to fall but rooted to one place in space. It says says something about Parlan’s modesty and also, perhaps about his nervousness that he gives Tucker the introductory notes, but when Parlan does come in, you know this is something different. That speed of those two notes being played, the energy of five fingers transferred into three.
What is wonderful about Us Three (both the song and album) is the way the three musicians, Parlan, Tucker, and drummer Al Harewood play follow the leader and leapfrog and tag with their music. One gets the feeling, as professional as these guys are, that this was a fun album to record, one where ideas one musician had lead to ideas for another, right there, as they were recording. Listen to the way Harewood’s simple, repeated drum phrase in the intro to Us Three both sustains and pushes forward Parlan’s piano. Play is what these guys do.
Parlan is still alive, performing and recording. These days, and most days since the mid 70s, he has lived in Copenhagen, where, hopefully he has gotten more acclaim than he ever did in the states. What can be said about his recent output, especially last years “In Copenhaggen” is that Parlan continues to be an especially emotional, beautiful, and unique pianist. What can also be said about Parlan, at 81 years old, is that part of him feels lonely and devastated. I won’t claim to know anything about Parlan’s personal life, but this album is too good, too tragic, too melancholy, to be method acting.
Horace Parlan is the only jazz musician I can look you in the eyes and tell you I love.
Coming up soon, a post on restless former-punk bands, and overviews of the new Free Energy, Josh Ritter, and Coltrane Motion albums.