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Jeff Parker explores a variety of sonic possibilities, following only the compass of rigorous individualism.
Early autumn, late afternoon, I’m perched on a pew at Augustana Lutheran Church, at the northeastern edge of the University of Chicago campus. The church, relatively small and definitely modern, serves as a venue for the annual Hyde Park Jazz Festival. It has near-perfect sight lines and fine acoustics. This makes it a smart choice for the diverse timbres and dense textures of Jeff Parker’s solo guitar set, which pours from the pulpit on a cloud of electronic manipulation, looped self-accompaniment and the occasional “field recording” of found sound.
The hour-long SRO performance dramatically extends the content heard on Forfolks (International Anthem/Nonesuch), a self-contained world of lolling melodies, pedal-point backgrounds and soft-focus kaleidoscopes of processed timbre. (In his Hyde Park concert, Parker plays with more edge but retains plenty of trance.) Released at the very end of 2021, Forfolks is one of three albums to arrive under the guitarist’s name in the space of 10 months. September brought Eastside Romp (on the French label RogueArt), a 2018 trio date with bassist Eric Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits. By November, we also had the quartet set Mondays at the Enfield Tennis Academy (Aguirre), recorded during Parker’s weekly gigs at the jazz club known as ETA in Los Angeles, where he has made his home since 2012.
Forfolks concocts a gauzy dreamscape of solo experimentation. On the other hand, Eastside Romp features compact, deeply interactive performances that depart from the usual guitar-trio transparency, thanks to Parker’s panoply of guitar effects. And on still another hand, the vinyl-only Mondays documents a quartet featuring a longtime associate, saxophonist Josh Jackson. The double-LP comprises four slow-to-evolve, meditative tracks, each taking up one side of vinyl; here Parker sticks to largely unprocessed guitar sounds, emphasizing his rawhide tone and chunky attack, on ostinatos and solos that ride a carpet of loops and delays.
Taken together, these three recent releases only hint at the dizzying range of contexts that have hosted Parker’s remarkably steadfast approach. And that’s not counting the half-dozen other albums on which he played during that same span. He appears on the newest from innovative “beat scientist” (and close friend) Makaya McCraven; on the latest album helmed by veteran Los Angeles bassist Henry Franklin for the jazz-mashup series Jazz Is Dead; and on several lesser-known discs by hard-to-categorize artists like Chicago’s contemporary classical group Ensemble Dal Niente and the Belgian DJ named Lefto.
Parker’s entire discography encompasses nearly 200 albums over the past two decades. Besides the 20 or so directly under his name, he has co-led the various Chicago Underground configurations (duo, trio, quartet) and has played in the mainstream big-band Chicago Jazz Ensemble as well as cornetist Rob Mazurek’s uncategorizable Exploding Star Orchestra. Parker’s guitar graces multiple albums led by AACM stalwarts such as saxophonist Ernest Dawkins, flutist Nicole Mitchell and the godfather of Chicago’s avant-garde scene, Fred Anderson. He’s recorded on projects as far-flung as Brian Blade’s Fellowship and Dave Douglas’ activism-oriented ENGAGE ensemble; in Peter Erskine’s funk-filled Dr.Um and on most of McCraven’s new-jazz-wave discs; and on equally divergent discs from singer-songwriters Mia Doi Todd and Joshua Lloyd Harmon. In 2014, he played on a Christmas album by the late organist Joey DeFrancesco. And, of course, Parker stars on a dozen or so records by Chicago’s post-rock superstars Tortoise, the inventive instrumental band that first brought him to most people’s attention in the mid-1990s (and with whom he still tours regularly). All that from a guy who would like nothing better than to sit at home and fiddle around with colors and sounds.
“I’ve always looked at performing as kind of a necessary evil,” Parker admits. “I don’t like to play gigs. I mean, I like to play with other musicians, but I’m pretty uncomfortable on stage; I’m pretty self-conscious.” Soft-spoken and thoughtful, Parker’s sentences sometimes resemble his switchback, stop-start guitar lines. He has a boyish, charming smile; when not smiling, his wide-eyed gaze suggests a perpetual state of well-informed wonderment — not unlike that of Bill Frisell, another guitarist whose résumé roams a vast musical landscape.
“I love music, so I deal with performing,” he continues. “But if I had my choice, I’d rather just stay in the lab and make stuff.” The “lab” is Parker’s home studio, and he credits it for allowing him the freedom “to be so prolific these past few years, in terms of my own music.”
Parker was born in Connecticut in 1967 but grew up in southeast Virginia; he headed back to New England to attend Berklee College of Music. When he moved to Chicago in 1991 — largely because he’d been hired by Tower Records to open their store on the city’s near north side — he had a fairly limited knowledge of the music that would soon become his life’s work. He had only a little familiarity with the AACM, the world-famous Chicago-based musicians collective that revolutionized jazz in the 1960s and ’70s. He also had no illusions about his own abilities as a guitarist.
“I had limitations to work with, totally,” Parker says, matter-of-fact. “When I was younger, I tried to play as fast as I could, but I knew I was never going to develop that kind of technique. And I realized that I didn’t really hear music that way. My favorite players were people like Grant Green, Gabor Szabo, the great Hungarian guitarist — guys who weren’t flashy players. They just played strong rhythm and had great tone and really clear ideas. And that was always kind of my thing.” He also mentions Frisell and Wes Montgomery, and his “all-time favorite, Kenny Burrell” among those whose music helped shape his own.
As for later influences — the British improviser Derek Bailey, or the Japanese free/noise player Masayuki Takayanagi — “I didn’t know anything about the more avant-garde players until I got immersed in the Chicago community,” Parker recalls. “I had listened to a few of the AACM musicians, mostly Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus, and a little bit of the Art Ensemble; they just loomed so large. But I didn’t know about Muhal Richard Abrams or Fred Anderson or any of that.”
Parker figured to stay in Chicago for a while and perhaps move to New York sometime later. But as he began to forge musical relationships in his new home, he found a mentor in AACM saxophonist Ernest Dawkins. Through his community-minded Live the Spirit organization, and especially by bringing younger players into his bands, Dawkins remains a passionate advocate for old-school music education. Parker made his first recordings as part of Dawkins’ intrepid New Horizons Ensemble, which soon led him to his most high-profile gig.
“One night I went into this bar to have a beer, and the bartender was like, ‘You’re the guitar player in New Horizons! We should play some time.’” The bartender was Johnny Herndon, one of the two drummers for Tortoise, whose members’ catholic tastes included a strong appreciation for the AACM; the band had a couple of records out by then, but Parker hadn’t heard of them. Shortly after, he attended one of their shows, which proved revelatory.
“I’d never quite heard anything like it,” Parker still marvels. “These guys were playing this strange music. It was just two bass guitars, two drummers and some guy playing weird melodic percussion. The venue was packed and the audience was, like, pin-drop quiet. I had never heard or seen anything like that. It definitely made a big impression on me.”
Parker and Herndon became fast friends, and before long, the guitarist had moved into the loft space shared by the band; soon they were inviting him to work with them on stage at Chicago gigs. Meanwhile, Parker continued to build his AACM résumé, performing in bands led by percussionist Kahil El’Zabar, saxophonist Ari Brown and members of the Art Ensemble, among others. In 1995, he was inducted into the AACM; the following year, he officially joined Tortoise. It’s difficult to imagine another musician being able to move so easily between such drastically different musical spheres.
By 1998, Parker — having already played with several groups at Fred Anderson’s club, the Velvet Lounge — had also signed onto Anderson’s quartet, intensifying his already busy (and typically eclectic) schedule. He simultaneously worked with a couple of other experimental bands, but also with hard-hitting organ groups led by Charles Earland (then living in Chicago) and the city’s Chris Foreman (of the Deep Blue Organ Trio). And when drummer and Chicago native Chad Taylor finished school and moved back to town, he and Parker started playing Sunday afternoons at the Green Mill. There, they workshopped — with like-minded neighbors such as trombonist Jeb Bishop, bassist Joshua Abrams and cornetist Mazurek — the concepts that would soon coalesce as the Chicago Underground Quartet.
“When I got to Chicago, I was in my early 20s,” he reflects. “I was just figuring my thing out, going wherever the wind blew me, trying to work and be creative and learn; I kind of became whatever was happening in the city.”
Since moving to the Los Angeles area to be with his life partner, Parker’s albums have grown increasingly experimental. They depart from “jazz per se” and have helped solidify the distinctive “post-swing” aesthetic made by younger colleagues who came up in Chicago — drummer McCraven, trumpeter Marquis Hill and vibraphonist Joel Ross, to name a handful. On the first of these, The New Breed (2016) — the title and cover photo refer to the Afrocentric clothing store run by his father in the 1960s — Parker’s quartet digs into hip-hop beats with repeated hooks and shimmering instrumental textures filtered through a garage-band sound.
“I’ve always been interested in music production,” he explains. “And once the ability to sample things moved from hardware to software, you could use a laptop to make beats that way. I always wanted to blend my interest in that way — the more digital way of making music — with improvising and composition and arranging, because they’re two seemingly disparate worlds. So my idea was to really make one record: a weird, jazz-adjacent record that had a hip-hop-informed production aesthetic.”
A lifelong hip-hop fan, and a sometime DJ during his time in Chicago, Parker began tinkering with samples in the early 2000s, amassing a trove of them in his spare time; these became fodder for The New Breed, dedicated to his father.Parker then used the sampling and sequencing methodology of that album as a template for the 2020 record dedicated to his mother, Suite for Max Brown. His father had passed away before getting to hear The New Breed; Parker made sure to complete Max Brown while his mother was (and is) still around.
On neither of these albums, however, did the band assemble in one place at one time. Like McCraven, Parker elicited the work of his cohorts and then assembled the tracks on his computer. In that sense, it’s been said, you can think of these as solo albums, despite the presence of like-minded collaborators. The pandemic impelled Parker to take the next step and create a truly one-person affair with Forfolks.
One important difference, though. While Parker has performed music on stage from his previous albums, he couldn’t completely replicate the sounds that he had meticulously layered in the studio. On Forfolks, he constructed the music so that, with a laptop on hand and pedals on the floor, he can re-create the music, and even build on the original tracks in person. The performances can evolve in the way that a jazz piece accumulates new tricks and twists when a band goes on tour.
In fact, the prospect of touring laid the groundwork for the album. During his first years in L.A., Parker had spent time developing a solo repertoire, in part because he found few other California musicians to work with. As he explains, “I came with the approach of playing standards and then using loops and drones to move the air around whatever sonic space I’m in.” In 2020, he made plans for a solo tour to take place a year in advance, or whenever society might open up after the pandemic. Hearing that, Scotty McNiece, the co-founder of International Anthem Records, suggested he record that material to have something to sell when the tour finally took place. McNiece also had long admired Parker’s previous solo essay, the quasi-ambient Slight Freedom.
“I think of Jeff as kind of the OG of boundary-breaking music and of music from the Chicago melting pot,” says McNiece, who began working with Parker on other artists’ projects before issuing The New Breed. “He doesn’t have that ‘patriarchal’ presence, but he’s been bridging communities and genres and sounds for many, many years. So he’s also kind of a bridge from the previous generation. And for him to be in the mix while Makaya was getting into that stuff, it’s another example of Jeff doing just that — helping to shepherd the direction of the music. What Makaya is doing is very much in the tradition of what Jeff was doing and continues to do.”
Looking at Parker’s encyclopedic discography, you wonder how one guitarist can make meaningful contributions to so many different genres of music. These are not jobbing gigs, or studio sessions, where a sharpshooter rides in to nail his part before heading to the next rodeo. Yet Parker fits into seemingly any context without shape-shifting or camouflaging his style. More than that, his contributions seep in between the cracks of the music, so that in many cases, it’s hard to imagine that song, or that album, without him.
The counterintuitive catch is that Parker’s versatility stems from his refusal — or inability — to attempt any sort of camouflage; he succeeds by not blending in and instead complementing the musicians around him.
“I always modeled myself after musicians who had a strong, individual kind of thing,” he says. “I remember I was in high school, in the ’80s, and it was one of those giant music festivals. And Santana was playing, and Pat Metheny, which was kind of weird already. But I was just, ‘Wow, here’s Pat Metheny sitting in with this rock band’ — and sounding great.” Parker pauses to laugh in delight at the memory. “It was like a light bulb went on for me, where he went in somewhere else and just did his thing. It made me think about things a little bit different. And then I’ve just been kind of dealing with that ever since. Miles Davis is another point of reference. He played pretty much the same way from the mid-’50s until he passed: only the backgrounds changed.”
Davis, of course, was the one changing the background; Parker excels at sounding unmistakable even when he’s not the one in charge. “It also depends on how flexible your sound is,” he continues. “I can do, like, a lot of different things; I know that I have a lot of sonic possibilities. I guess the challenge for me was to always make it into something unique.
“All my mentors encouraged me to contribute things in a distinctive way. I mean, I was surrounded by these really idiosyncratic figures. Nobody could play like Fred Anderson. Nobody played or wrote music like Ernest Dawkins. The same with Tortoise: There was nowhere to go but up. Everything was already there. It was already unique. So all I had to is be myself.” - Neil Tesser
Featured photos by Jim Newberry.