Essential New Music: William Parker’s “Mayan Space Station”

There’s a lot to be said about William Parker. He’s a peerless double bassist, a culture-spanning multi-instrumentalist, an ambitious composer, a spirit-channeling improviser, an author, a label proprietor and a festival organizer. You might say that he’s productive—Mayan Space Station is one of 12 albums that he’s put out in 2021, and we’re only in July. But one thing that’s not often been said is that William Parker rocks. Mayan Space Station will take care of that. 

Much of Parker’s recent effort has been directed toward vocal music; he doesn’t even play much bass on his recent boxed set, The Migration Of Silence Into And Out Of The Tone World Volumes 1-10. But his bull fiddle is a forthright presence throughout Mayan Space Station. Also present are drummer Gerald Cleaver (a sympathetic partner of long standing) and electric guitarist Ava Mendoza (a relative newcomer). Most of the album’s six tracks forge ahead on open-ended grooves, which Cleaver elaborates with intricate cymbal flourishes and Parker fortifies with robust melodic asides that peak in and out of the rhythmic matrix. But it’s easy not to pay them due heed, at least at first, because this music has been designed to put the focus on Mendoza’s blazing guitar. 

So much early jazz/rock foundered on the unwillingness of so many its guitarists to get their hands dirty and rock. That will never be said about Mendoza’s playing, which combines a fiery tone with melodic invention and adroit rhythmic flexibility. Add to that her mastery of the signal multiplication and textural potential made available by contemporary outboard effects, and you have a musician who knows how to rock hard, invent on the fly and throw colors like an action painter. It would be tempting to say that her tense chording and slashing attack steal the show, but that would miss the point that she’s been given license to do just that. She’s just doing her job, but she does it really well, and she wouldn’t sound so great doing it without the endless stream of rhythmic invention driving her along. 

You might wonder why Parker, who’s been recording for nearly half a century, would pick this time to make a hot jazz/rock record. Perhaps, given that his oft-stated intent is to perform music that opens portals to the spirit world, he has decided to see if a bit of electricity can’t boost his cosmic signal. The early signs are that he’s on to something.

—Bill Meyer