For thirty years, Jeff Parker has been jumping back and forth between genres with playful ease. The American guitarist and composer is part of legendary post-rock band Tortoise and the avant-garde jazz formation Chicago Underground Orchestra, but also worked with Smog, the project of experimental folk singer Bill Callahan. His recent work is more personal in nature. With The New Breed (2016) and Suite For Max Brown, which was released in January, he paid tribute to his parents and showed that his urge to innovate has in no way diminished now that he has passed the age of fifty.
Written by: Dirk Baart
Photo: Jim Newberry
It's ten o'clock in the morning in Los Angeles. The city Jeff Parker moved to from Chicago a few years ago is locked up like the rest of the world, which has an impact on Parker’s creativity. “In recent years, I have mainly made music on my own,” he says. “It's a bit easier since I live in California, because I have a studio here at home. Nothing fancy, just a room with some microphones and instruments. The lockdown doesn’t really change my situation, but I haven't been able to make music for the past few weeks. No idea why, but I'm not getting inspired."
The emphasis that Parker currently places on his solo material can be read as a statement. “I try to show the world – and myself – that I am a composer and producer. I had never done that until recently. I was always part of collaborations.” Parker mentions Tortoise, the band that achieved cult status in the 1990s with its combination of krautrock, electronics and minimal music. Parker joined the group in 1996 and played on TNT, Tortoise's acclaimed album, released a year later. Thanks in part to Parker, Tortoise leaned more towards jazz on TNT than it had until then. In addition, Parker is co-founder of Chicago Underground Orchestra and Isotope 217, a kind of hybrid of that ensemble and Tortoise. The list of musicians with whom Parker has collaborated over the past thirty years is long and ever-growing. It can regularly be traced to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), of which Parker is a member. He played with the late tenor saxophonist and trombonist George Lewis, who published a book about the AACM in 2009 and was previously praised on Front by Angel Bat Dawid. “The way I interact with music is almost always social in nature,” explains Parker. “There's no common thread running through the projects I'm involved in, other than putting as much of my creative energy into them as I can. Purely because I owe it to my fellow musicians.”
The fact that Parker is now moving away from those collaborations has given him the space to create such a common thread in his own music. He calls it The New Breed. It is the title of the album he released in 2016, and the name of the group of musicians Parker gathered to record the music he wrote for The New Breed and Suite For Max Brown. Bassist Paul Bryan and cellist Katinka Kleijn are part of the 'collective', as are drummers Jamire Williams, Jay Bellerose and Makaya McCraven. But above all, The New Breed is the name Parker has given to the creative process underlying his last two records.
“The way I make music is quite trial and error. Ideas often don't work and I throw everything away, but I like to experiment. What if I try this? Or if I put this piece here? For the past decade I have been involved in a process in which I combine sampling with the improvisation often encountered in jazz and traditional composition. Just write songs, so to speak. Then I try to unite all those approaches into one sound through production. I don't want you to hear the process anymore, that it's barely distinguishable between what is a sample and what is improv." On Suite For Max Brown, Parker succeeds in that mission. His record sounds like a collage, in which a multitude of separate ideas form part of a whole, but from which it is often impossible to deduce which fragments have been sampled, improvised or composed.
An exceptionare the moments on Suite For Max Brown when Parker clearly draws from other people's music. His own version of John Coltrane’s ‘After The Rain’ is beautiful in that respect, but more interesting is ‘Gnarciss’, his free interpretation of Joe Hendersons ‘Black Narcissus’, the opener of Power To The People (1969), on which Henderson collaborated with Herbie Hancock and the celebrated jazz bassist Ron Carter. “I heard the intro to that track and couldn't believe my ears. I immediately wanted to use it as a starting point for something new. It ended up on the record in an almost unrecognizable version. We just kept adding things to it.”
Like the short but extremely swinging 'C'mon Now' – with a prominent sample of Otis Reddings ‘The Happy Song (Dum-Dum)' – 'Gnarciss' is a moment where Parker manages to bridge generations and to pay tribute to his musical heroes in a modern way. They are also tracks that reveal Parker's lifelong fascination with hip-hop. “I never fully immersed myself in the technical side of hip-hop, but I've always been a fan of the genre,” says Parker. “Sorting samples is not a conscious process. I fall back on something that in the hip-hop world is also called producer's ear. That means that you immediately have the impulse to manipulate a certain fragment when you hear music, even if it is only in passing. “Oh, I could just take the kick drum there and make something completely new from there.”
The approach Parker takes on Suite For Max Brown is therefore related to his past as a DJ and crate digger. His playful music sometimes sounds like he's mixing a jazz record and a hip-hop record like a DJ would, or like producers like J Dilla and Madlib did at the beginning of this century. Parker particularly remembers the moment during one of his sets he more or less accidentally managed to fuse part of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme with a record by Japanese musician and producer Nobukazu Takemura. Parker must have had the same epiphany as the YouTuber who found out that an improvisation by Miles Davis fit right in on "New York I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down." “I suddenly had a combination of free jazz and a digital beat. That's what I wanted to do on Max Brown. I have a lot of respect for the heritage of both hip-hop and jazz, but I also want to do my best not to get too caught up in their traditions and to keep disconnecting from them.”
Suite For Max Brown is an eclectic record, on which, in addition to hip-hop and jazz, traces of funk, soul and 90s R&B can be discerned. Traces that in most cases can only be traced back to Parker himself: the majority of the 'samples' consist of clippings from recordings with 'members' of The New Breed. Often these recordings were made in 1-on-1 sessions with Parker, rarely in groups. Parker later merged the layers as he saw fit, stringing them together with his guitar lines. The record also contains many fragments from his own archive. They are cut or looped versions of guitar lines that have sometimes been gathering dust in his digital library for years. It makes them unique and less recognizable as a sample, but that approach was partly born out of necessity. Musicians from the experimental circuit simply cannot afford to buy the usage rights of samples on a large scale. “It saddens me that copyright laws prevent musicians from making music with recordings, when that feels like such a logical form of creation to me. Actually, only big pop stars can now work with samples. The rest are afraid of being sued.”
Jeff Parker brings the past to the present on The New Breed and Suite For Max Brown, and not only musically. In terms of content, he draws inspiration from his own family history. The New Breed, the concept encompassing the current phase of Parker's career, is a reference to the clothing store his father Eddie owned in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the town where the guitarist was born in 1967. The album of the same name was a tribute to Parker senior, who died during the recording process. A photo of him – in front of the facade of the clothing store in question – adorns the cover.
In turn, Suite For Max Brown became a paean to Parker's mother, Maxine Brown. This time it was a photo of her that Parker used as artwork, a slightly wrinkled photo of 19-year-old Brown, taken in the 1960s. “At first I wasn't sure if I should dedicate the album to her,” Parker says. “I didn't want it to come across as insincere, that it seemed like a trick. But at the same time, I thought it was important to dedicate an album to my mother while she's still here to hear it. I had a feeling it would touch her a lot, and it did. She is very proud of it.” Parker hastens to emphasize that the largely instrumental Max Brown is not directly about his mother, any more than the compositions on The New Breed directly capture his father's personality. “It's not that a certain harmony reminds me of my father, or that a chord captures my mother's state of mind. It's more like my parents have become a part of what I do. When I do what I want to do and make the music I want to make, it's a tribute to them.”
Parker's parents —both of whom were teachers— supported their son’s decision to become a full-time musician, though they obviously struggled with his failure to complete his education. “I knew I would become a teacher too when I got my degree,” Parker recalls. “As soon as I had been unable to get any shows, I would undoubtedly have registered myself as a substitute teacher. "Just for a month, to make some money." But before you know it, it's thirty years later. My father was quite enthusiastic about me being a musician and often came to see me when I played. But my mother was concerned. Rightly so, of course, it is a hard world. You are at the bottom of the ladder as a musician, only getting paid when there is something left over after all the other people have been paid. Every musician I know is now out of work.” Laughing, he adds: “My daughter is also a musician, she sings on the closing track of The New Breed and the opener by Max Brown. It's great to make music with her, but I'm just as worried about her now as my mom was about me."
Suite For Max Brown is out via International Anthem.
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.