The title refers to the dichotomy between poet David Budbill and bassist William Parker. Budbill is white and a rural quality dominates his poetry. He has spent many years living in sparsely populated areas where he could be alone and think and his verse reflects this. Parker, on the other hand, is an urban creature whose playing embodies the chaos and uncertainty of the metropolis.
These differences hide a closer connection, however. Both Budbill and Parker are students of the human condition and this is what stands out. Most of the material on this nearly two hour long double disc set comes from an October 16, 1998 show that duo did in Woodstock, Vermont. Both Budbill and Parker have plenty of time to stretch out and perform their craft.
Budbill muses on issues extending from mortality to happiness to finding animal remains on one of his many walks through the wilderness. He has a powerful and commanding voice that reveals a love of performance as well as a heartfelt belief that what he is saying matters, if only to him and when not taken too seriously.
Parker alternates between backing Budbill’s voice and doing his own extemporaneous explorations. Listeners expecting to hear his bass right off the bat will be surprised when the disc opens with the shrill of a pocket trumpet. This is just one of many instruments that Parker utilizes in addition to his upright. The bass, however, does remain his primary tool and the most interesting moments of the disc are those where he creates the perfect background for Budbill’s poetics. Particularly good is the theme that Parker uses for the fifth piece, "What Bring You the Most Joy?" It has both a lyrical and a wobbly quality that encourages the listener to sing or hum along even though there are no words and humming does not do it justice.
Budbill provides some musical accompaniment for Parker’s playing. It would be dishonest to say that his work on the gongs and bells is great but it does come in at the right place and serves to highlight what Parker is doing.
In addition to the October 16 performance, Zen Mountains Zen Streets features some highlights from shows that took place in the proceeding two days. These are only excerpts so you don’t get the sense of hearing another concert but it is interesting to observer how both men subtly change their performances. This later is not better or worse, just different. It features its own wondrous elements and, like the rest of this disc, deserves a fine place in the cupboard of improvisation.