By Colin Powers
I am writing to you about Jeff Parker because I think he is a special musician and because his (second) most recent solo record, “The New Breed,” is exceptionally H-O-T, and perhaps you will like it. I have no other qualifications. Many others have done a fine job of covering Parker’s considerable output of the last 25 or so years, but I will take a quiet stab at it too. Quiet stab, you say? Uh-oh! Segway inbound!!
You could say that guitarist/composer Jeff Parker’s career has itself been a quiet stab, slowly killing the beast from somewhere offstage. The beast shall here remain unnamed… Thrill Jockey, the Chicago record label home to several of his most notable projects and collaborations—Tortoise, Isotope217, Exploding Star Orchestra, Chicago Underground Trio/Quartet— refers to Parker as a “polyglot posterchild” for Chicago’s “multidirectional, cross-pollinating, interstylistic music scene.” What the eff, Thrill Jockey! Chew and swallow!
To me, Jeff Parker is definitely at the center of something WEIRD and EXCITING going on in Chicago (though he has recently moved to L.A.). This is not to say that something WEIRD and EXCITING has not always been going on in Chicago’s music scene, nor in Parker’s life. We are not dealing with a fresh seedling here. Parker’s jazz cred runs as deep and as wide as Fred Anderson, Bill Dixon, Joshua Redman, and Brian Blade. He’s a younger member and the only guitarist of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), a Chicago nonprofit collective first established in the mid-60’s to provide space and opportunity for Black jazz musicians to compose and perform at a moment when resources (especially venues) were sparse and jazz was beginning to be pushed to the margins (probably most well-known among early AACM artists are Jack Dejohnette, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, and the members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago). I hate to be simply name-dropping here, but my point is that this mother fk-er isn’t your typical indie rocker.
Parker’s music is a mixed bag of chamber jazz, squirrelly noise, somewhat straightforward bebop/fusion, and beige, off-kilter hip-hop. “The New Breed,” released in June 2016, is largely an example of the latter. The album’s first track, “Executive Life,” with its driving, infectious opening beat, could sit comfortably on any Nightmares on Wax or Madlib release, though there’s something rawer in its arrangement that speaks to Parker’s multivarious outings as a recording artist. At 7’38” long, the track shifts quickly from steady, head-nodding hip-hop to a sort of patient, watching-my-laundry-spin-in-the-washing-machine landscape. “Jrifted,” the album’s other relatively long track, has a similar appeal to groove and beat-making, even featuring a brief sampled break at the end. This track also has two distinct solos from Parker and alto saxophonist Josh Johnson, giving us a chance to hear their musicianship out in front of the swampy backdrop.
My ABSOLUTE FAVORITE song on “The New Breed” is “Cliché,” which features Ruby Parker, Jeff’s daughter, on vocals. It is a MUST LISTEN, something like an Esperanza Spalding song cooled on the windowsill overnight. It’s lyrical and smooth, but the impressionistic thing is still there. Jeff establishes the melody with his guitar after a few bars of a simple, understated drum beat and then Ruby, along with the saxophonist, begins matching him after a while and the thing just takes OFF. The family vibe that inspired the record (Parker named it after his father Ernie’s former clothing store) and which is on display in “Cliché,” makes this a feel good record with an element of head-scratching and eyebrow raising stirred in. It’s like, scratching your head because you’ve had your hat on all day, but it’s cold out, but the breeze feels good at first, and you say AHHHH and when you begin to feel cold you can put your hat back on and be warmed. Jeff Parker’s music often has this effect. I give this album a I’m-Hanging-Out-With-My-Friends-At-The-Club-And-The-Club-Is-My-Living-Room-Here-Are-My-Electronics-And-My-Mod-Furniture kind of rating.