The Trouble With Leon: Drum Rebel Loses Control

In the early 90′s, the jazz world was snapping out of its fixation on the Young Lions, with their instrumental technique and nice looks, and realizing, to its embarrassment, it had no good answer to that seemingly innocent question, What’s new in jazz? Well, Leon Parker didn’t sound like anybody else. (Mr. Parker plays solo and with three fellow percussionists-Kazi Oliver, Alonzo Undly and Wendell William-Feb. 9 at the Flea Theater, 41 White Street.) This mostly self-taught kid from Greenburg, N.Y., had been beating on drums, and anything else he could get his hands on, since he was 3. He first startled the jazz world when he stripped his drum kit down to a single ride cymbal to accompany veteran pianist Kenny Barron. Then, as a member of a talented and well-hyped trio led by piano phenom Jacky Terrasson, he quickly passed from curiosity to star, his minimalism tempered to permit a three-piece kit: snare, bass drum and cymbal.

The critics were charmed. Here was a kid who felt the beat so deeply he could swear off the muscular, hyperkinetic percussion game for the Zen intimacies of tone and timbre. Mr. Parker was the original multiculti man, by way of Westchester. (His parents are black, but he doesn’t think of himself in racial terms, besides identifying strongly with his father’s Cherokee blood.) In his loose-fitting garb and skullcap, Mr. Parker cuts a nonspecifically exotic figure (an Indian tea merchant comes to mind) which only fits his idiosyncratic blend of jazz and Latin American and African rhythms. “The music schools are filled with people who are excellent,” said Mr. Parker’s first producer, Joel Dorn, “and the insane asylums are filled with people who are original, but there are not that many people who have both.”

On his debut album, 1994′s Above & Below (Epicure), Mr. Dorn mostly hewed to recognizable jazz settings, but he wasn’t afraid to let Leon be Leon. One morning, he told Mr. Parker to go in the studio and “play your body.” The resultant slaps across the different densities of Mr. Parker’s person wound up opening and closing the album. “It was like he’d been practicing it for three years,” Mr. Dorn recalled.

Two years later, Mr. Parker moved up to bigger things at Columbia. His first album there, Belief , was a critics’ darling that counterbalanced elegant 4/4 jazz with the sweet, incantatory stasis of chants and beats. With the latest album, 1998′s Awakening (Columbia), Mr. Parker went even further into “world beat” territory, this time without an obvious jazz safety net.

At the Village Vanguard back in November, a saxophonist and his regular bassist, Ugonna Okegwo, were his only concession to post-bop orthodoxy. Three other musicians were beating out rhythms on skins, or chanting, Mr. Parker taking center stage with his conga and his African djun-djun. When the spirit moved him, he experimented with the resonances of chair and floor. (“That just kinda happened,” he said later. “These moods always overtake me.”) Increasingly, Mr. Parker is moving away even from this thorough revision of the jazz band concept to concentrate on his solo percussion performances. At the Knitting Factory a few months earlier, he fascinated the audience with such stripped-down accouterments as a Tibetan singing bowl and West African hand shakers, not much bigger than salt and pepper shakers. The mood was, for the most part, serious, as if he had arrived at a set of rhythmic rituals for a religion of his own devising.

By now, the critics have wised up to Leon Parker. He’s not a jazz reformist but a revolutionary, they say, perfectly happy to throw out the jazz baby with the bathwater in his search for purer, more healing sounds. Awakening is a lovely, melodic album, but it’s also a challenge for jazz types who were raised on the notion that music should create tension as well as resolve it. When I caught up with Mr. Parker just before Christmas, he was still reeling from the mixed reviews.

“I was surprised,” he said. “Some reactions were like a spurned lover. I figured if you love me, you love me. But I don’t want to deal with the expectations of being a jazz musician. I don’t give a [whispered obscenity] what they say. I’m creating me . The critics didn’t put me here. My music put me here.”

Revolutionaries need to be loved, but it’s Mr. Parker’s misfortune to crave acceptance from the jazz establishment that he is trying to up-end. “I was talking to musicians 10 years ago, trying to make sense of them,” he said. “And they were looking at me like an alien, and they’re still looking at me like an alien.” It’s a mark of his grandness, winning in its way, that he conceives his enemy as nothing less than consumerist Western culture itself. In his mind, he’s the guy with the ancient skins and chants holding off the cyberbarbarians at the gate. “People used to be part of communities,” he says. “And they came together and influenced each other [musically]. Now, people communicate by e-mail. I’ll e-mail you and find out what record I should listen to. Then I’ll cop a song and sample it on my computer. That’s supposed to be music? I don’t know. I’m not really here.”

Where are you then, Mr. Parker?

“Well, I guess part of me is here and part of me is before here. And I won’t let go of that. It’ll kill me if I let go of that.”

The irony is, Leon Parker is winning his war to expand and deepen the definition of jazz even as he’s losing his personal battle with the major record labels. Faced with anemic sales and the near complete indifference of the youth market, the majors are taking a more ecumenical approach to signings. Witness the Feb. 9 release of Sam Newsome and Global Unity , the Columbia debut of Mr. Newsome, soprano saxophonist and “world jazz” fellow traveler. Mr. Parker plays a supporting role on that album, even though he’s been dropped from the label. Columbia can now market a Leon Parker-influenced style of music without the bother of Leon himself, which, given Mr. Parker’s reputation for being a prima donna and a loose cannon in the press, must have its allure. As one industry vet who considers himself a friend of Mr. Parker’s put it, “He’s just wired a certain way. At the precise time his evil twin shouldn’t take over, it takes over. Afterwards, he feels as bad about it as you, until the next time.”

For a man whose music is supposed to be balm for the soul, trouble has a way of following Mr. Parker. “I’ve pissed off everyone,” he said. “Even some close friends who I love dearly I’ve pissed off. ‘Cause I can’t help it. I do what feels right to me at that moment in time.” For now, he’s devoting himself to his shamanesque percussion performances and his “Vocal Body Rhythm Workshop,” being offered at Free Range Arts, 250 West 26th Street, in the spring. When the time and the karma is right, let the major labels come to him. “It’s about control, man,” he said, finally. “The problem is, Leon Parker cannot be controlled.”

Now Hear This …

Matt Wilson is another young drummer-bandleader worth seeking out-his Quartet plays the Knitting Factory’s Old Office Feb. 26 to Feb. 28-and he couldn’t be more different than Leon Parker if he were his good twin. Whereas Mr. Parker often seems bent on refining his music and his career to the point of jazz invisibility, Mr. Wilson keeps chipping away at jazz success the old-fashioned way-barnstorming van tours in the Midwest and the like. An indefatigably cheerful 34-year-old from the Illinois farm country, Mr. Wilson wouldn’t score big points in any Downtown cool competition (that’s almost the point), but he’s an ace drummer with an ear for melody and a whippy-wristed sense of time. His band is long on sax virtuosity (tenor and alto), and it keeps things unpredictable with a conceptual bent that veers between A Prairie Home Companion (check out “Going Once, Going Twice”) and a frat-house rock band (“Schoolboy Thug”). The Knitting Factory gig will be harvested for live tracks for the quartet’s third album, the follow-up to their New York Jazz Critics Circle award-winner, Going Once, Going Twice (Palmetto).