Tortoise Guitarist Jeff Parker Gets Back to His Jazz Roots Mondays in Highland Park
Lee Anne Schmitt
One night in March, a retro cocktail bar in Highland Park summoned the spirit of 1956 Greenwich Village. Four musicians were in the back corner of ETA, working out jazz standards like Thelonious Monk’s “Ask Me Now” on bass, drums, alto saxophone and restrained, almost polite guitar. After the set break, they returned with a wilder, weirder, more electrified set, and suddenly it was 1972 — complete with distortion pedals on the Gibson 335 and more liquid, chordal guitar playing. They closed with a stretched-out, feather-light drum solo over Kenny Burrell’s soul-jazz classic “Chitlins Con Carne.”
On Monday, April 17, guitarist Jeff Parker, who bashfully led the group at ETA and appears there most Mondays, will play with his longtime band, post-rock pioneers Tortoise, at the Teragram Ballroom. For most of the audience — likely heavy with Gen Xers who remember the band from the days when Tortoise and other post-rock artists were seeking the common ground between Krautrock, cool jazz and Jamaican dub — it will be 1998 all over again.
Such feats of time travel are just the way Parker — who maintains a consistent technique and almost Buddha-like stillness when he plays — has always rolled. “Man, I try not to change my style too much,” the friendly, introverted guitarist says in the bar’s kitchen between sets. “That was my goal — to have one style that could adapt to different kinds of music.”
“Jeff has that thing that all musicians want and spend years cultivating: a unique, instantly recognizable sound, or a ‘voice on the instrument,’" says local drummer Matt Mayhall, a former member of the slowcore band Spain whose jazz trio Parker also performs with. “When you hear Jeff on a record you know it’s Jeff, just like when you hear [Thelonious] Monk you know it could only be Monk.”
Parker’s acclaimed 2016 solo LP, The New Breed, sounds like a blaxploitation soundtrack mixed with the understated solos of jazz guitarist Jim Hall. Parker released another solo album last year, Slight Freedom, which includes a Frank Ocean cover. For all his rootedness in music history, some of Parker’s music actually sound more like tomorrow — if future music can be cobbled together from shards of the past.
When Parker was growing up near Virginia Beach, Virginia, he listened to Hendrix and ZZ Top like the other kids he knew. But Parker’s dad took him to see Duke Ellington, and as a kid he found his way to Gabor Szabo, a Hungarian who settled in California and mixed disparate elements into a signature guitar style, providing Parker with an early model.
Watching one of those big multi-artist 1980s benefit concerts on TV — Live Aid or Farm Aid or something, he says — offered the teenage Parker an epiphany. “Pat Metheny was there, just doing his thing. He had his thing, and it worked. He took their music in his direction.”
When Parker went to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston, he still needed, he recalls, “to learn how to play jazz.” At Berklee, he was exposed to styles as different as the ghostlike broken chords of Bill Frisell, the bebop inventions of Charlie Parker and the otherworldly imagination of Sun Ra. The process of discovery continued when he moved to Chicago in the early ’90s, playing with organ combos. “I went backward with the guitar,” he says, as he listened to earlier figures such as Charlie Christian and Grant Green.
Parker joined the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians — an important collective of avant-garde musicians associated, in its ’60s and ’70s prime, with Black Power. And before long, he was recruited to be part of Tortoise.
After two decades in Chicago, Parker took off for Los Angeles in 2013, largely because his partner, artist-filmmaker Lee Anne Schmitt, began teaching at CalArts. Chicago, he said, was more a town for working musicians who played out frequently. “I loved the community there,” Parker says, “but I was getting complacent. I felt like I was getting held back. I felt like I had things I wanted to do I would not be able to do.”
Since landing in L.A., Parker has impressed other musicians with his odd kind of eclecticism. “Even though he’s often aligned with the avant-garde, Jeff is actually one of the most ‘inside’ musicians I know,” Mayhall says. “There’s nothing willy-nilly about his playing. Not only is he supremely mindful of his tone and sonic presence, his phrasing has a very deep level of logic to it. If you really follow what he’s playing, you can tell that every single note is carefully and brilliantly chosen. Add to that his rhythmic feel, which is tastefully tugging against the pulse as opposed to being hyper-precise and on top of the beat.”
The beat itself, though, has always been important to Parker — he’s a fan of classic ’90s hip-hop groups like A Tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr, and spent hours in the studio trying to replicate their sound. “I was experimenting — ‘making beats’ — and I always wanted to find a way to mix the production aesthetic of hip-hop with improvising.”
The resulting album, The New Breed, is Parker’s best received to date. The New York Times’ Nate Chinen chose it and Slight Freedom for his top 10 of 2016, crediting them both with “slow-burn charisma and a sense of solitude.” (The New Breed's most-played song, the quietly irresistible “Get Dressed,” features drums by Los Angeles titan Jay Bellerose, part of Parker’s ETA band.) On the cover is a picture of Parker’s father, who died in 2015, while the album was being recorded: The guitarist calls the album an unintentional tribute to his old man.
Parker is dedicated to the jazz tradition and to probing its edges, but he’s unconfined within its bounds. “It’s how I learned to function socially as a musician,” he says. “But I don’t consider myself a jazz musician. I might tell someone that at the airport or something.”
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