I first encountered Horace Parlan's unusual and dramatic piano style on Dexter Gordon's magnificent album Doin' Allright, recorded for Blue Note in May 1961. On the recording, Gordon and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard were out front, backed by Parlan, George Tucker on bass and Al Harewood on drums. What stood out for me was how Parlan operated not as a rhythm-maker but as a dominant voice, on par with the horns. His chord voicings were so juicy and sexy that your ear heard him with the same level of interest as Gordon's insistent tenor sax and Hubbard's sizzling trumpet. In fact, Doin' Allright does alright largely because of Parlan's taste and fashionable piano stylings. Once you start digging Parlan, you'll find you can't wait for his solos.
Parlan on Blue Note albums from the early 1960s tended to feature his left hand in the middle range of the keyboard so it could assume characteristics of the right, with the right hand flavoring the sound. It was beauty formed out of necessity. Parlan had polio as a child, which partially crippled his right hand. And then there were Parlan's builds. At just the right moment in his solo, Parlan had this ability to create density with airy block chords, creating a crowning moment before falling back to let the horns in—without giving up his place as one of the essential voices.
Which brings me to Speakin' My Piece, a Parlan-led album that was recorded in July 1960—nearly a year earlier than Doin' Allright. Here, tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine and his trumpeter brother Tommy joined the same rhythm section. This session is a little more soulful than Gordon's, since Stanley Turrentine was influenced by R&B bands of the late 1940s, including Illinois Jacquet and Earl Bostic. The other difference is that three of the six songs were written by Parlan, who took longer solos.
Parlan's jaunty Up in Cynthia's Room on the album remains one of his great compositions, and his solo ably demonstrates his feel for hard bop and drama. Parlan favored space to ratchet up the drama, which is evident on his Speakin' My Piece, a fabulous hard bop theme overlooked today.
Yes, Parlan recorded with Charles Mingus in the late 1950s (Blues and Roots and Mingus Ah Um, in particular) and, in the years that followed his Blue Note dates, he recorded with many leading jazz artists after he moved to Copenhagen in 1973. But my favorite Parlan will always be the Blue Note sessions of the early 1960s along with his more recent recordings from Denmark, where he still resides today [above].
JazzWax tracks: Horace Parlan's Speakin' My Piece doesn't seem to be available at a reasonable price or as a download. So do yourself a favor and opt for a set of seven classic Horace Parlan albums for $14 (go here).