Tortoise's post-rock experimentalist on how a recent meditative mood led to less improvisation and more hypnotics on the jazz and hip-hop-infused Suite for Max Brown.
Over the course of an evening last October, I got to witness the wide range of Jeff Parker’s musical world. Early in the night, I stood in an empty parking lot in Center City Philadelphia with a few hundred other folks, looking down upon a freshly landscaped abandoned parcel that was temporarily converted into a bandstand as part of a month-long public art project. Joshua Abrams’ eight-piece Natural Information Society, featuring Parker on guitar, performed a slow, meditative set of repetitive, looping figures in search of a transcendent goal. Parker’s soft tone blended with the timbres of Abrams’ guembri (a 3-stringed bass lute) and Jason Adasiewicz’s vibraphone, helping to create a warm body of harmony.
After finishing his section of the hours-long piece, Parker quickly packed up and made his way about a mile-and-a-half down Spring Garden Street to the Ruba Club, where he took the stage with drummer Makaya McCraven’s quartet to a sold-out house as part of the October Revolution festival. In a set of climactic improvisations and hard-hitting beats, McCraven’s groove-based, hip-hop-inspired jazz stood in distinct aesthetic contrast to Abrams’ slowly unfolding minimalism. It was one of the most ripping sets I’ve heard Parker play. He took lots of burning solos, evoking his bluesy, soul-jazz side within a modern context and leading the band through a series of musical peaks.
Switching between such seemingly divergent sounds is nothing new for the 52-year-old who has worked with a wide array of artists over the course of his career. He’s probably best known for his membership in post-rock pioneers Tortoise, and as a sideman with Joey DeFrancesco, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Joshua Redman. Parker’s also a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). But hearing the distinctly contrasting sounds of these two sets revealed something remarkable: Parker has established a personal voice so clear and so strong that he manages to make himself heard and recognized in any group—while always contributing to the vibe.
Though he’s been honing his sound for several decades, it now seems Parker has reached a new plateau in his career, starting with the creation of his 2016 release, The New Breed. On that album, Parker pulls together all of the interests and inspirations he’d alluded to in his past work, using hip-hop production and heavy sampling to create tracks with funky, sometimes herky-jerky rhythms that combine with live instruments performing composed figures and improvisations. These tracks find Parker drifting toward subtle minimalism, as well as asserting soulful solos to create colorful and engaging music where his guitar is at the center of a much larger sonic world.
In January, Parker released his follow-up, Suite for Max Brown. Created using the same type of studio process as The New Breed, it shows a natural progression that, along with his 2018 single “Blackman,” gives a big picture of the New Breed project. What Parker is creating isn’t guitar music; it’s studio-based composition that draws on all aspects of his voice. Across groove-centric tracks like “Fusion Swirl,” the loose and sprawling “3 for L,” the ethereal “Metamorphoses,” and his warm and meditative take on John Coltrane’s “After the Rain,” Suite for Max Brown is the logical next step forward from The New Breed—an expression of an innovative sound that belongs wholly to Parker.
PG caught up with Parker at his Los Angeles home where he was briefly resting between legs of his tour with the New Breed band.
How is the New Breed project different from your previous work?
The New Breed is my way of merging my interest in hip-hop production with improvising. It became a specific way I put together music. For the new record, I’m employing the same kind of techniques and using a lot of the same musicians, but my interests have changed and broadened a little bit in the last couple years and it’s more reflective of where I am now, but using the same process as the first New Breed album.
How would you say your interests have changed between albums?
I’m more into longer loops and make more of the music by myself now, and I’m in a bit more of a meditative state. On the new album, there’s not as much of me trying to blend improvising with the music. It’s more of me just trying to make weird shit. With the first New Breed album, that’s what I was trying to do: mix my interest in hip-hop production with an improvising jazz group. On this, there’s some of that, but not as much.
How did forming the New Breed band inform the music you made on Suite for Max Brown?
This is a follow-up to The New Breed, so it made sense for me to use the same people. The way I choose who to play with is, the people who I think understand where I’m coming from and view themselves as musicians in the modern age in a similar way to myself.
Not everyone, though. [Drummer] Jay Bellerose is a pretty old-school dude. He’s the person you know who has only had a cell phone for two years, barely has a computer, isn’t on social media, and only plays drums from the ’30s. But everyone else is interested in a lot of different things related to merging these worlds of digital and analog music, and is interested in production, and has a pretty broad perspective of the musical landscape in general.
This fall I saw you play two sets in two venues on the same night in Philadelphia. You keep busy with other people’s projects and there seems to be a lot of overlap between musicians in those groups and in your group.
I play side gigs with all kinds of people. Ever since I started making my own music, I’ve always followed this idea of what it means to be a musician as the circumstances change. A lot of it is based in being practical, like making a living, and to be flexible and be open, and also what you can learn from these situations. The more situations you put yourself in, the more experience you have to draw from. If you look at it the right way, it just makes you a better musician.
TIDBIT: Parker explains his album-making process: “I’m a composer first. I have a framework and I assemble the musicians and we record it and improvise off the compositions, and then I try to blend everything together after that.”
Nowadays, musicians have to do everything. You have to produce and engineer your own recordings, and you have to learn how to sample and set up digital music libraries. This is stuff I’ve been interested in my whole career, probably for 30 years at this point. Ever since I heard A Tribe Called Quest in the golden era of hip-hop, my relationship to jazz music really changed. It didn’t just feel like my parents’ music; it felt like something I could relate to as a 20-year-old kid. I started to figure out how they were making that music—sampling it from old records—and it changed the way you’d play, your phrasing, playing with MCs, playing loops over and over again live.
I tend to connect with musicians who are interested in exploring things the same as myself. Makaya sought me out as a mentor when he moved to Chicago because he saw I was DJ-ing, playing with Tortoise, doing all this free-improv stuff, making beats, making my own in-the-cracks records. When he moved to Chicago, I was one of the first musicians he wanted to find and, since then, we’ve become peers. We exchange ideas and I love what he brings to my music, just like he likes what I bring to his.
It sounds like you’re both coming at things from a different angle but achieving similar results.
We make our music in opposite ways. He records improvisations and then samples it and cuts it up and makes compositions out of it. With me, I’m a composer first. I have a framework and I assemble the musicians and we record it and improvise off the compositions, and then I try to blend everything together after that.
How did you come up with the process for creating the music on The New Breed? I imagine you created samples and wrote melodies and guitar lines to build off of those?
Yeah, that’s one way. I also would sample a whole song and re-create it from that. I’d take a song, chop it into pieces and it becomes something else. That’s how the song “Gnarciss” is.
Basically, I use the recording process as a way to make compositions. I don’t so much write music with pen and paper anymore. I kind of removed that part of writing music.