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Jazz Guitarist Jeff Parker Crosses Musical Genres On 'Suite For Max Brown'


This is FRESH AIR. When guitarist Jeff Parker lived in Chicago, he played all kinds of big and small shows with all kinds of creative musicians. Parker now lives and works in Southern California, but jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Parker still has that go-anywhere attitude, as a new record confirms.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Jeff Parker's "Gnarciss," his cheeky revamp of Joe Henderson's "Black Narcissus" with Rob Mazurek on piccolo trumpet. It's from Parker's breezy album "Suite For Max Brown," a demonstration of how jazz mixes it up with other musics these days. Jeff Parker never did heed jazz borders, coming up in category-resistant bands like Tortoise and the Chicago Underground. The guitarist has chops and great timing but is rarely a showboat. He can pare back his line like a backwoods blues man.


WHITEHEAD: Jeff Parker gets something like a jazz guitar tone, but he's not so interested in jazz guitar music. It's one ingredient in a style that also draws on R&B and early hip-hop, droning electronica, jazz funk, Afropop and maybe flailing '60s rock solos like on "Eight Miles High." This is "Go Away" with Paul Bryan on bass guitar and Makaya McCraven on drums.


WHITEHEAD: The drone running through that like a bright stripe and that looped vocal cry, these are not straight jazz choices. The album "Suite For Max Brown" is billed to Jeff Parker and The New Breed, but mostly that's just Parker, maybe with a helper or two. Tinkering at home, he uses vintage synthesizers and stretchy sampling software to sketch the music and add primary color. Then he might have live musicians put some meat on those synthetic bones. That's what trumpeter Nate Walcott and drummer Jamire Williams do over a metronomic beat on the track "Max Brown," a human-machine hybrid.


WHITEHEAD: Dualities abound on Jeff Parker's "Suite For Max Brown" - human versus machine, the droney versus the jumpy, the raw and the cooked, the home tinkerer and live musician. The record's even co-produced by two labels, Nonesuch and plucky indie International Anthem. Jeff Parker invokes his days as a crate-diving club DJ, a job where you can juxtapose beats from all over as long as they serve or creatively stem the flow. The leadoff track on this album named for Parker's mother, Maxine, features Jeff and his daughter Ruby Parker on layered background and foreground vocals. It piles up the poppy textures.


RUBY PARKER: (Singing) Everyone moves like they've someplace to go. A wise one told me they were disconsolate. There are no trap doors if you believe in fate.

WHITEHEAD: The kind of genre-bridging Jeff Parker does on "Suite For Max Brown" seems utterly normal here in the 2020s. This new normal permits any combination of musical languages at any time, without privileging one over another. That's not exactly a new idea, especially among Chicagoans. New ideas are hard to come by, but since the raw materials keep changing, recombinant music does, too. We are hard to shock nowadays, but Jeff Parker gives it a go.

On John Coltrane's moody "After The Rain," a glossy electric piano takes us to the brink of smooth jazz before Parker's guitar walks us back. In this permissive age, it seems nowhere is off-limits.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead reviewed Jeff Parker's new album.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEFF PARKER'S "AFTER THE RAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.