Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Horace Parlan (1931-2017)



"Horace Parlan is a tall, quiet-mannered man, essentially a gentle person with virtually irremovable easy smile," wrote Leonard Feather for the liner notes of the young pianist's solo album debut.

50 years on, even some of the recent videos of Parlan, who passed away last week, shows that the "irremovable easy smile" wasn't removed until the end.

The 29-year old pianist of whom Feather highly spoke was from the city of Mary Lou Williams and Erroll Garner, but also Ahmad Jamal with whom he shared the same music teacher.

The key incident of his early life occurred at the age of 5, when his right hand was paralyzed due to a polio attack. After that opting for becoming a pianist wouldn't have been the first obvious choice but he went in that direction both because he had fallen in love with jazz by listening to Woody Herman on the radio, but also playing piano was a form of therapy for his fingers.

As a pianist, he couldn't use more than two fingers of his right hand at one time. In his usual way of playing, the thumb, the middle and ring fingers were inactive as the two middle ones were bent upward. He could use them only by letting the other fingers off the keyboard. Like Django before him, disability was turned into a personal style and a unique sound.

Horace Parlan's right hand. Compare to the left hand in the picture.

In spite of this, the 1950s saw him playing locally and making a name for himself among fellow Pittsburghers, including the Turrentine brothers, Stanley and Tommy, with whom he later recorded on Blue Note. During this period, he was still searching for a voice.

"I'm not equipped to speak musically in the manner of Tatum or Peterson or any of a number of other pianists I admire," said Parlan, "so I had to find a groove of my own. I think simplicity is the thing. I learned that from listening to Ahmad [Jamal], who is equipped to do a lot more than he does, but he doesn't choose to."

In 1957, when Parlan was sure that now he was fully equipped, the thought of New York became irresistible. Out of sheer luck, an slightly frightened Parlan, looking for a job in the new city, was offered one by no one but Charles Mingus with whom he stayed until 1959.


Parlan, reminiscing the Mingus years with his rendition of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, featuring Wilbur Little (b) and Dannie Richmond (d), 1978

During the first half of the 1960s, a series of high quality albums were recorded and released (in a few cases with long delays) featuring Parlan as the leader in formats ranging from trio to sextet. Nat Hentoff took note of Parlan's growing presence when he wrote:

"He has continued to grow in the past few years. He knows what he wants to say, has developed the equipment to say it as he hears it, and is entirely without pretentiousness or compromise. He is, in short, the kind of jazzman I've learned to expect from Blue Note since I bought my first Sidney Bechet record on that label over fifteen years ago."

Yet, sadly, consulting both 2002 and 2004 editions of the Penguin's Guide to Jazz on CD, in which the Parlan discography starts only from 1973, the Blue Note recordings where in and out of circulation (mostly out) probably due to Parlan's migration to Denmark in 1973. As the Persians say, fell from the heart the one who fell from the sight.

 In that same aforementioned book, the authors argue that Parlan's best moments, with his tough bass chords and highly restricted melody figures, should be looked for on his rather obscure solo on Lament For Booker Ervin:


This is the musical notes of what Parlan plays:
Driven into obscurity, In 1999, Michael Cuscuna caught the pianist live during a North American tour:

"[Parlan] has resided out of sight and sound and mind of the jazz audience in his homeland for the majority of his singular career, and it was a rare treat to meet him and hear him perform in duo with Archie Shepp at the 1999 Montreal Jazz Festival. Onstage, Parlan was quietly commanding, deeply emotional presence, offstage, a soft-spoken veteran whose calm, affirmative personality carried him through an intercontinental tour that, at age 68, had become visibly taxing."

A year later, in 2000, there came the complete Blue Note box on Masaic label which Cascuna produced. Revisiting a lost career that part of which was revived thanks to the Mosaic box, Chris Fujiwara wrote one of the most satisfactory pieces on Parlan:



"Parlan's soulfulness, his exuberance and inventiveness, create a climate different from anything else in jazz; and though he can certainly be compared with some better-known jazz pianists of the era, it's the differences that count. Parlan has something of Horace Silver's fun style of percussive punctuation but less of Silver's abandon, preferring, in his solos, to build intensity through small, precise rhythmic variations. And though he uses chords as Red Garland does, to vary density, the typical Parlan performance has an un-Garland-like compulsiveness. He has his favorite licks or devices -- snakes-and-ladders-type figures, crawling, tunneling, and tumbling. Up and Down is an apt name for a Parlan album, since so much of his soloing is preoccupied with capturing, releasing, and recapturing short spans of sound. Repetition is Parlan's structuring principle; it will flatten out the harmonic movement of a tune, sometimes to outlandish effect."


Horace Parlan passed away on March 23 in the port town of Korsør in Denmark. You can catch a glimpse of his rural life and his never-ceasing love for music in this documentary which is the end piece of this tribute to a great musician:



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