William Parker’s long career in experimental music hasn’t diluted the earthiness of the bassist’s Bronx upbringing. His Organ Quartet, which gave its first-ever live performance at Bohemian Caverns on Sunday night, might be described as “avant-garde soul jazz.” More often than not, though, it was just plain soul.
Alongside drummer Gerald Cleaver, the 59-year-old Parker spent the set keeping pace with bandmates who were constantly in flux. Yet despite shifts in tempo and form, and even spontaneous changes of tune, they never sacrificed the tight grooves at the music’s root. Indeed, they grounded the often abstract sounds erupting from the bandstand.
As the band name implies, however, it was organist Cooper-Moore — not Parker — whose sound was most prominent. Whether accompanying the horn soloists (tenor saxophonist Darryl Foster and special guest trumpeter Lewis “Flip” Barnes) or building his own solos, from blues and gospel licks to psychedelic noise and back again, Cooper-Moore’s electric keyboard screamed and growled its way to the forefront. If the noisier portions seemed at times to be heading off the rails, the organist made clear that he knew exactly what he was doing, mouthing along to every note before capping the wild lines with soulful licks and signaling a return to the theme with a glance to the horns.
Foster, an R&B veteran, played eloquent, flowing lines with a sexy edge. Barnes, on the other hand, was a power player; his aggressive staccato attack nearly turned his ax into another percussion instrument. Their freewheeling solos on “Criminals in the White House” (a Parker original composed specifically for the occasion) marked the evening’s musical extremes, the trumpet’s hard edges giving way to the saxophone’s soft center.
But while the rhythm section remained in the background, the performance was so consistently swinging that there could be no doubt as to who was in charge. With Cleaver in close pursuit, Parker visibly willed the grooves into place, his head nodding along beneath his trademark knit hat. The earthy blues that closed the set felt like the natural conclusion.