My Little Brown Book

By Horace Parlan, as told to Hans Barfod.
Saxart. ISBN 978-87-92653-01-7

Horace Parlan Song Book

Edition Wilhelm Hansen, Copenhagen
ISBN 978-87-598-1982-1
Horace Parlan - My Little Brown Book

Horace Parlan was a poliomyelitis victim at the age of five. The disease left him with a loss of mobility on the right side of his body. In photographs his right hand appears to be bowed and extraordinarily jointed. However, Hans Barfod’s text is frustratingly uninformative for those seeking details. How exactly does the deformation impair Parlan’s piano technique?

Whatever the answer, learning the piano was considered good therapy. Impressively, Parlan became competent enough to work with Charles Mingus for a couple of years, not to mention four years with Roland Kirk, as well as numerous recordings with Dexter Gordon, Booker Ervin, Stanley Turrentine, Clark Terry, Thad Jones and others.

One guesses that Parlan’s youth was spent in Pittsburgh, but the reader can‘t be certain. Occasional vagueness about detail is one of the minor faults of Barfod’s book. Patchy proofing overlooks Archie ‘Sheep’ (Shepp), or Parlan’s first solo LP making him ‘very exited’ (excited). Such an important jazz figure deserved a slightly more professional account. But don‘t allow that observation to deter you from reading a book wherein the strength of the story transcends the manner of telling. The many black-and-white photographs are excellent.

In 1971 Parlan was mugged in Manhattan. The following day he witnessed an armed robbery. “You can’t create good music in an atmosphere full of tension with drugs and crime on the streets,” he writes. Horace Parlan left New York to settle in Denmark.

Today Parlan is eighty and blind, with serious mobility problems. He still lives in Denmark. Towards the end of the book he says: “The last recordings I made were done in my home. My legs and eyes don’t work.”

A moving account, from an unusual viewpoint.

The Song Book presents 53 treble clef melodies, with chord symbols, in alphabetical order in the familiar fake book style. The folio is spiral-bound to lie flat, clearly set using Inkpen music font. The collection includes six Parlan titles, these being Arrival, Broken Promises, Little Esther, Love and Peace, Norma and Party Time.

Other titles provide a mix of well-worn and widely available standards, such as Memories of You, How Long Has This Been Going On?, Every Time We Say Goodbye, Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered and others, together with oft-played jazz originals such as Tune Up and Con Alma. There are also rarely played titles such as Richie Powell’s Time and Billie Strayhorn’s My Little Brown Book, the title of Parlan’s biography above.

Apart from making available a handful of Parlan originals, the main interest in this collection will be Parlan’s competent take on the harmonies of the standards offered. His versions are workmanlike and sensible. One or two of the originals have a low tessitura. Those would be more conventional (that is, more useful) in a higher key.

John Robert Brown

First reviewed in Jazz Journal, July 2011. Used by permission. Reproduction forbidden.
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