In his 30-year career, Parker has released six albums as a leader and seven with Tortoise, and served as a sideman with George Lewis, Joey DeFrancesco, Smog, Brian Blade, Joshua Redman, Meshell Ndegeocello, and many others.
Photo by Jim Newberry

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.

Hear “Fusion Swirl” from Jeff Parker’s newest full-length, Suite for Max Brown.

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