Horace Parlan: Four Classic Albums

Double CD collection shows that although classified as a hard-bop pianist, Parlan had a subtler, more economic dimension

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Parlan was categorised as a hard-bop and post-bop pianist but there was in reality much more to him than that; he was always much more subtle. Never quite in the first rank at Blue Note – he recorded six albums with them in 1960–61 and another in 1963, later initially released under Booker Ervin’s name, before moving profitably to SteepleChase in 1973 – his legacy is important because he is so listenable.

The opening set, Speakin’ My Piece, typifies his work, slow blues and mid-tempo cookers driven by Tucker and Harewood simmering in the rhythm section while the Turrentine brothers provide clear, clearly enunciated solos. Parlan solos and comps with easy style, always economical with his right hand, as childhood polio had partially crippled the hand, forcing him to develop a more forceful left-hand voice while his right hand comps with highly rhythmic phrases.

It is all so effortless, so timeless, and 60-plus years later still so effective. The album also shows Parlan’s sense of musical adventure, with Stanley Turrentine’s Borderline, a minor blues in the usual AABA form but with a bridge of 10 bars and verses of eight bars each, which works surprisingly well. Likewise, brother Tommy’s Rastus, which sounds like a blues but is not, featuring both major and minor keys over its AABA form, the first two sections consisting of eight bars in a major key followed by four bars in a minor key, then an eight-bar major bridge, a return to a mixed 12-bar section and then a four-bar major tag for each chorus. It all fits together perfectly.

On The Spur Of The Moment is another quintet set, once again with Parlan providing the title track and two pieces – Skoo Chee and Al’s Tune – written by saxophonist Booker Ervin. More uptempo than its predecessor, notably on Skoo Chee, it still comes across with effortless ease, Parlan soloing with style, notably on Al’s Tune, another Ervin number.

The Us Three trio set lies at the heart of this reissue. The title track is based on the idea of a gospel chant, starting with one bass voice and then gradually building up to an intense climax. As it is based on just an F minor chord, the emphasis is on pure melodic improvisation. It doesn’t have the depths he was to show on the blues and spiritual duos he recorded with Archie Shepp on SteepleChase in 1977 and 1980, but it still packs a mighty, hypnotic punch, as does another version of Wadin’. I Want To Be Loved shows off his romantic side, Come Rain Or Come Shine successfully combines both tenderness and an earthy feeling, and The Lady Is A Tramp delights in its light-hearted sense of fun. This trio set allows Parlan to shine without front-line rivals, and he is always in control, no matter how laidback he might sound.

The final set is the least successful, the occasional introduction of Ray Barretto on congas and an clichéd Latin vibe cluttering up the music. And that’s not to mention Tucker’s overwrought and wintery solo on Summertime. That said, Parlan does pay homage to Ahmad Jamal by playing his composition Jim Loves Sue. He notes that “… Jamal is capable of ten times what he’s doing. But he has refined his style so that he can say a great deal with so very few notes”. He could have been speaking about himself.

Discography
CD1: [Speakin’ My Piece] (1) Wadin’; Up In Cynthia’s Room; Borderline; Rastus; Oh So Blue; Speakin’ My Piece; [On The Spur Of The Moment] (2) On The Spur Of The Moment; Skoo Chee; Al’s Tune; Ray C; Pyramid (82.14)
CD2: [Us Three] (3) Us Three; I Want To Be Loved; Come Rain Or Come Shine; Wadin’; The Lady Is A Tramp; Walkin’; Return Engagement; [Headin’ South] (4) Headin’ South; The Song Is Ended; Summertime; Low Down; Congalegre; Prelude To A Kiss; Jim Loves Sue; My Mother’s Eyes (80.58)

(1) Tommy Turrentine (t); Stanley Turrentine (ts); Parlan (p); George Tucker (b); Al Harewood (d). Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 14 July 1960.
(2) as (1). 18 March 1961.
(3) Parlan (p); Tucker (b); Harewood (d). NJ, 20 April 1960.
(4) as (3) but add Ray Barretto (cga). NJ, 6 December 1960.
Avid Jazz AMSC1450