Accompanying his wife, a Pace University communications professor researching youth culture in China, to Shanghai over the past decade, trombonist Rick Parker initially looked forward to the cultural exchange possible in the world’s most populous city. But over the course of several visits he found himself frustrated by the lack of local artists on the scene.
“In Shanghai it’s all Americans and Australians and some Europeans playing jazz,” Parker says over the phone from his home in Brooklyn. “There are very few Chinese people playing jazz there. So I’d go there and think, ‘I live in New York. I don’t need to go to China to do this. This is redundant and not very interesting.’ If I was going to play music all the way over there, I wanted to meet some people coming from different directions.”
Last summer, Parker finally had the opportunity to venture outside of the city and his multi-cultural fortunes improved. He traveled to Yunnan province in Southwest China, which he describes as a crossroads town frequented by backpackers trekking across Southeast Asia and Chinese urban dwellers hunting for fresh air. In the town of Dali he crossed paths with a group of musicians from Xinjiang Province in the country’s northwest, whose music was heavily Arabic influenced. “Unlike the western world, where the music is well-tempered and piano-based, a lot of their music has a lot of sliding between notes and big vibratos,” he says. “And all that stuff is completely natural on the trombone. So it was a blast to try to open up and play their music.”
Even more importantly, Parker formed a collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Li Daiguo, who performs experimental improvised music using cello, pipa, mbira, Chinese flutes, throat singing and beatboxing. The two performed and recorded together while in China, with Parker employing electronics and synthesizer in addition to his trombone. They’ll continue their partnership when Li visits the States this week, appearing at The First Banana on Saturday, October 25th, on a Fire Museum-presented bill that will also feature local ambient/drone-rock collective Northern Valentine.
The sounds that the two create together are uncategorizable, a fluid blend of past and future, traditional and modern. They move from the ambient to the abstract, with folk-like acoustics colliding strangely with sci-fi electronics. Parker has been using effects on his trombone since 2003, when he formed a band called Ambient Assault with keyboardist Sam Barsh and a rotating cast of drummers. His interest in electronics stemmed from his search for a different role for the trombone beyond soloing over chord changes in jazz bands. While he continues to play in that context, his more experimental work is focused on collective, often structureless playing. “In new classical music like Steve Reich or Philip Glass, there’s not one solo instrument; it’s a collage of sounds,” he explains. “I wanted to create something more like that, or like what Miles Davis was doing with Bitches Brew and his electric music, where there’s not always someone in the center but it’s more of a collective ensemble.”
His experimental music has continued to evolve in parallel with his jazz playing; his eclectic roster of projects includes his jazz ensemble, the Rick Parker Collective; Little Worlds, a trio which reinterprets Bela Bartok’s “Mikrokosmos” piano music; 9 Volt, an adventurous quartet co-led by Israeli-born guitarist Eyal Maoz; Tarana, a jazz/Indian/electronic project led by drummer Ravish Momin; and Super Hi-Fi, a two-trombone dub reggae band
Li was born in Oklahoma and studied classical violin and bluegrass, majoring in literature and music at San Diego State University before relocating to mainland China in 2003. Since then he’s also traveled to Zimbabwe to study the mbira. Their styles meshed so well, Parker says, because “at heart we both really like being accompanists. We had a really good give and take and egoless playing. I felt like we were pushing each other up as opposed to one person trying to step in front of the other.”
The two also found common ground through their interests in exploring a variety of cultures and discovering how those experiences shapes their own music. “Daiguo and I both want to learn from different musical traditions and adapt them into our own musical identities rather than just grab an exotic instrument, musician or scale and call it an intercultural music,” Parker says, “It’s really easy to fall into the trap of just stacking western music with an exotic folk music but often there is no exchange there. Of course this happens within western music forms as well, for example, a pop star becoming a ‘jazz’ singer or a jazz musician performing a rock song or using electronics. There are definitely good ways of doing this that lead to some great music, but there are also many examples that trend towards being exotic for the sake of being exotic.”
Li Daiguo/Rick Parker Duo, Northern Valentine & Fatima Adamu performs Saturday, October 25th at The First Banana; tickets and information on the show can be found here.
Li Daiguo, Rick Parker, The First Banana