Steve Lacy used to say that the right partner can help you make music you couldn't get to by yourself. Take the quartet William Parker founded in 2000, for example. Parker's bass tone was always sturdy as a tree trunk, but power drummer Hamid Drake gives him lift. The upshot is that free jazz can swing, too. The quartet's front line is another firm partnership: quicksilver alto saxophonist Rob Brown and flinty trumpeter Lewis Barnes. Their scrappy unisons on the melodies are raggedly right, and they finish each other's phrases when they improvise. Parker writes them all catchy tunes to use as springboards.
A new Parker box set deserves to be on a bunch of Christmas lists. Wood Flute Songs includes six concerts on eight CDs, recorded between 2006 and 2012. The first half is for the quartet alone. On the rest, that foursome plus guests make up units of five to 12 pieces, with mixed results. In a sextet, singer Leena Conquest and pianist Eri Yamamoto only intensify the groove, as in Parker's war-victim's protest song "Boom Boom Bang Bang." A seven-piece edition includes Bobby Bradford on cornet, Billy Bang on violin (he's sometimes a spiky presence in the rhythm section) and altoist James Spaulding, who played on dozens of vintage Blue Note dates without getting one of his own.
For Hamid Drake, this band and William Parker's composing let the drummer get to all sorts of stuff he's into, including reggae ("Daughter's Joy"), funk, North African and Native American rhythms ("Ojibway Song," "Hopi Spirits").
Wood Flute Songs comes in a handsome and unfussy little cardboard box, with a fat program book containing fine art reproductions and William Parker's notes. Its six recorded concerts are also available separately as downloads. The cautiously curious might try the quartet's roaring good night at Yoshi's in Oakland in 2006 — even if it starts with a 10-minute bass solo. The most recent music comes from June 2012, and a quintet where pianist Cooper-Moore throws some firecrackers.
I like the quartet with guests. But I like it alone at least as much.