Before & After: Jeff Parker

A genre-crossing experimentalist with the soul of a bebopper

JeffParker

Guitarist Jeff Parker

“I always describe myself as a frustrated bebop guitar player. That’s kind of where my heart is. One day I’ll make a bebop record, I think,” Jeff Parker says. This comment might come as a surprise to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the guitarist’s vast output, especially his work as a longtime member of the genre-melding experimental-rock group Tortoise.

Reared on his dad’s Art Blakey and Lee Morgan albums, Parker likes hearing jazz cross-pollinated with other musical styles. A Tribe Called Quest’s landmark 1991 album, The Low End Theory, with guest Ron Carter, was a particular revelation. “It let me know that the music could [exist] in a different context,” he says. “I like jazz too, but I liked when you could hear it expanding. That’s kind of what led me into experimental music.” Last year, Parker released his own vision of such a hybrid with The New Breed (International Anthem).

Although Parker, 50, has called Los Angeles home since 2013, he maintains strong connections to Chicago, where he had lived since the early ’90s. In addition to Tortoise, he played with a wealth of the city’s creative musicians, including saxophonist Ernest Dawkins and various projects led by cornetist Rob Mazurek (Exploding Star Orchestra, Isotope 217). He’s been an associate member of the AACM since 1995.

This Before & After session took place in March, after Tortoise’s sound check at Mr. Smalls, a venue in the borough of Millvale, Pa., just outside Pittsburgh’s city limits. Tired after an early morning flight from Mexico City, Parker nevertheless delivered thoughtful opinions, listening intently to everything from straight swing to psychedelic deconstructions of the masters.

1. James “Blood” Ulmer
“Theme From Captain Black” (Tales of Captain Black, Artists House). Ulmer, electric guitar [credited as “James Blood”]; Ornette Coleman, alto saxophone; Jamaaladeen Tacuma, electric bass; Denardo Coleman, drums. Recorded in 1978.

BEFORE: [when the alto enters] Well, that’s Ornette, for sure. Probably … Blood? Is it Prime Time?

It’s Blood. In some ways it is Prime Time.

Ronald Shannon Jackson? Jamaaladeen?

AFTER: [looking at the cover] Oh, yeah, I have that record. Oh, Denardo! I should have been able to get that. It’s been a while. It’s funny because it’s not even Ornette’s record. But it sounds like his music, obviously. They’re all disciples of his, from what I know. It seems like it’s a concept that kind of holds that music together. The musicians listen in a very passive way. You can tell—it sounds like everybody’s kind of independent, but also it’s kind of this direction or concept that keeps everybody together. In that way the music has [an] almost visual effect. It’s very colorful. It’s totally abstract in a way that you don’t hear [in music nowadays].

And Blood’s other stuff sounds completely different from this.

Yeah. It’s probably a sign of the times. I mean, Ornette’s music always had that [pauses] feeling about it. What little I know from talking to other musicians who have worked with Ornette [is that] sometimes people would assume it was kind of random but it was totally the opposite. He really rehearsed his band to death. It’s colorful, layered music. Nothing sounds like that.

2. Grant Green
“No. 1 Green Street” (Green Street, Blue Note). Green, guitar; Ben Tucker, bass; Dave Bailey, drums. Recorded in 1961.

BEFORE: That’s Grant. Is that off of Green Street? I can’t remember the title. I listened to Grant Green a lot.

When did you get into him? When you first started playing or later?

Actually, a lot later. People used to tell me my playing reminded them of him. I hadn’t really checked him out. But then when I heard him [laughs], it felt like he was doing what I was trying to do! [It wasn’t so much his] trying to translate a lot of Charlie Parker bebop vocabulary onto the guitar, which is definitely not anything new, but just to make it swing in a way that would have a nice tone. After I heard him, I got super into him. At the time I was playing with a lot of organ groups around Chicago. I was really concerned with developing my tone. Once I heard him, that was it. He became the template. I listened to him so much that I had to stop. Only recently I feel like—and by recently I mean like in the last five years—I can listen to him and appreciate him now.

3. The Nels Cline Singers
“Confection” (Draw Breath, Cryptogramophone). Cline, electric guitar, effects; Devin Hoff, bass; Scott Amendola, drums, percussion, live electronics/effects. Recorded in 2007.

BEFORE: It sounds familiar. I know I’ve heard it. Is it Nels? [laughs]
I figured it was Nels. Nobody comes up with stuff like that.

AFTER: OK, I don’t have this one. I thought it sounds like part Sonic Youth [and] kind of like a Pat Metheny, ECM harmonic thing. Then when it went into that weird bass breakdown, I knew there was only one person. [laughs] I mean, Nels, he’s a good friend. He’s a bud. He’s brilliant. I can’t say enough about him.

What impresses you about him?

I think mostly it’s his fearlessness as a guitarist. He has incredible virtuosity and confidence. He plays all over the map. I admire him because I’m trying to do the same thing as him. You’re in with a whole bunch of different gigs, and you try and make sense out of all of it in your own musical vision. He embodies that more than almost any musician I can think of. He’s kind of a master of many styles. He’s much more into the mechanics of the guitar than I am. I’ve always had really broad interests in music, but I was always more … I approached it like an anti-guitar player. Whereas Nels, I know that he loves, loves, loves the guitar and loves guitar players. I’m pretty indifferent.

What other instrumentalists inspire you?

With jazz it was mostly saxophones—Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Ornette, Jackie McLean. I was always trying to evoke that feeling when I played. I always felt like I happened to pick up the guitar; if there had been a harpsichord at my house I probably would have gotten into that, and maybe that’s what I’d be doing now. But I happened to pick up the guitar and stuck with it.

What age did you start?

I started playing the guitar when I was 9. I started on piano, took a year of lessons on that. It never … came very easily to me. I play piano a lot. I write music on it. I had to take it in college. But I can barely play it. I can barely play triads [laughs].

They don’t teach [guitar] in a straight line. They teach it in a more vertical approach, whereas it is horizontal like a piano. If you go up from low to high, go up in a straight line, that’s when the pitches go higher. And it wasn’t until much later that I realized that about the guitar, from this Mick Goodrick book called The Advancing Guitarist. Once I actually had that revelation from that book, the guitar really started to make sense for me.

4. Mary Halvorson
“Blood” (Meltframe, Firehouse 12). Halvorson, guitar; Annette Peacock, composer. Recorded in 2014.

BEFORE: It kind of sounds like [Marc] Ribot, but the beginning did not sound like him at all. This sounds like something that he would play, but it’s much less than he would play. It’s cool, though. The use of the volume pedal reminds me of Mary Halvorson, but I don’t think it’s her either. It’s a nice piece. The player was very expressive.

AFTER: Oh, it was Mary! Wow! That was cool. It’s not … most of her playing I’ve heard has been very precise. That’s a lot more lucid than I’ve heard her play, which is cool. I was talking to a friend recently [about a time] where I listened to [Halvorson] play and thought it was amazing, but I kind of wished it would be a little more loose. The confidence to really stretch comes with maturity. Not necessarily growth, but you become more comfortable with who you are as an artist and you’re not as concerned with nailing everything all the time. It’s more the feeling behind it. And that [track] was awesome. Just in that regard, it’s great to hear the heart, you know?

5. George Van Eps
“Once in a While” (Once in a While, Jump/Delmark). Van Eps, guitar; Phil Stevens, bass; Nick Fatool, drums. Recorded in 1949.

BEFORE: What’s that tune? “Till There Was You”? Wait, that’s not it. Man, I can’t remember the name of this song. I have no idea who it is.

Is this style on your radar at all?

No. I have a lot of respect for it, though.

AFTER: I don’t know his playing at all. What was that song? “Once in a While.” That’s not something I would listen to so much [laughs]. The feel is not really up my alley. The guitar playing is great, but not my thing.

6. Fred Frith Trio
“Only Light and Shadow” (Another Day in Fucking Paradise, Intakt). Frith, electric guitar; Jason Hoopes, bass; Jordan Glenn, drums, percussion. Recorded in 2016.

BEFORE: Kind of sounds like music for films, like they’re playing with a film. Sounds like they’re not too concerned about creating a climax. They’re staying in this place of tension and letting the music stay there. There’s something familiar about it. Not exactly sure why. I’m enjoying the drummer, the percussionist. The guitarist, I’m not quite sure who it is. David Torn, maybe? Sounds like he has an Echoplex.

AFTER: Oh, Fred Frith! Wow. Very cool. I’m sad to say I’m not so familiar with his work. He seems to be, just from listening to this, not putting his playing out front. He seems to be more concerned with creating a palette than putting his thing out front.

The only thing I think [I know with Frith] is the Bill Laswell record that I used to listen to in college called Baselines. His playing is very subtle on that, from what I remember. I know several people that have worked with him, and I need to check him out more. Super interesting player, musician.

7. Julian Lage
“Prospero” (Arclight, Mack Avenue). Lage, guitar; Scott Colley, bass; Kenny Wollesen, drums, vibraphone. Recorded in 2015.

BEFORE: Guitar, vibes, drums. Is there a bass? I don’t know who it is. It sounds like, if it’s not Bill Frisell, it’s a Bill Frisell-influenced guitarist. But I don’t think it was Frisell.

AFTER: [With complete respect to] all of the musicians, it wasn’t really up my alley. It made me nervous, that music. Maybe that’s a good thing, sometimes. There was not much space; tension with no release. Maybe that’s what they’re going for. I like music that has a lot of space. Or [music that] breathes, you know?

[Lage] is an amazing guitarist. I heard him, man, when he was still playing with Gary Burton. He must have been 17 or 18 years old. He sounded great. They’d play and everybody would take a chorus or two, and everybody in the band, including Burton, was shredding, playing a lot of notes. [It was a] very nervous-fast, tight-fast band. [Lage’s] playing really stood out. He sounded really mature, especially for somebody so young.

And I’ve heard some stuff by him that’s been amazing. I heard the duo he did with Nels, and I thought that was great. But this, for some reason, this wasn’t in my zone. I’d like to hear the whole record. … I don’t listen to enough new music. I get caught in my own Charlie Parker/Lee Morgan thing [laughs].

8. Sonny Sharrock
“Dick Dogs” (Live at the Knitting Factory, New York City, Volume Two compilation, A&M). Sharrock, guitar; Dave Snyder, keyboards; Melvin Gibbs, bass; Abe Speller, Pheeroan akLaff, drums. Released in 1989.

BEFORE: [laughs as the power-chord intro changes to a rapid guitar/synthesizer line] I didn’t expect that! It’s got to be from the ’80s, with the synth. I recognize the guitarist. The drummer sounds like he’s playing some rototoms. Ah! Splash cymbals. Overtones. The synth tones. That sounds like Sharrock! It is Sharrock! Yeah, yeah.

AFTER: That’s not my favorite context in which to hear Sharrock, I would say. He’s somebody who conceptually had a big influence on me and a lot of musicians I know—just more like the spirit [of his playing], some aspects of his guitar playing. But it was more like the feeling, the energy, the kind of unhinged aspect of his playing. You’re never quite sure where to put him—rocker, jazz. [He] kind of had this crazy style. If you plugged him into any context he immediately became whatever he wanted it to be. But some of the stuff he did—Black Woman, Ask the Ages…

I almost picked that. I think it’s one of the greatest albums ever, for the reasons you mentioned.

I would have to agree. I was working at Tower Records in Chicago when that came out. It was a favorite, a big influence on everybody in Tortoise. For a while we were even playing … what’s the tune? [hums a little]

“Promises Kept.”

Yeah, we were covering that with Tortoise for a while.

9. Marc Ribot Trio
“Sun Ship” (Live at the Village Vanguard, Pi). Ribot, guitar;
Henry Grimes, bass; Chad Taylor, drums. Recorded in 2012.

BEFORE: I like the guitar player’s tone. It sounds familiar. Larry Coryell? It doesn’t sound like music he would play. Is it Ribot? It is! He’s got the greatest tone, man. It’s full, focused. It’s a dark tone. Dark, full-focused tone, you know? Is this the Vanguard record with Chad?

And Henry. It’s a Coltrane tune, “Sun Ship.”

Wow. I remember Chad produced it. He was really excited about it. That’s amazing. You can hear the sound of the Vanguard.

Chad’s something else, man. We met in Chicago, just playing bebop gigs around town. I think when I met Chad he had just graduated from high school. He actually went away to college and moved back to Chicago. We would just play a lot of pickup gigs, straight-ahead gigs. [It’s interesting], just seeing the directions that he ended up going in.

10. Shockabilly
“Criss-Cross” (That’s the Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk, A&M). Eugene Chadbourne, acoustic and electric guitars; Mark Kramer, piano, organ, bass guitar, alto trombone, percussion [Dad’s clocks], tapes; David Licht: drums, percussion. Recorded in 1983.

BEFORE: It sounds familiar. [as it fades to an end at 2:31] That’s it? Oh, wow. That’s abstract, for sure. Not quite sure what to think of it. As an overall piece of music I can’t say it did a ton for me. Kind of cool guitar playing. Sounded like he was playing with a drumstick.

AFTER: I have this record. That’s why I knew I had heard it before. I was actually just talking to a friend about this record within the last two weeks.

Well, that was “Criss-Cross,” though it’s pretty indecipherable except for one recurring phrase. Any closing thoughts?

I didn’t know what to expect [as far as what] you would play for me. Everything was super interesting. People who know me know that most of what I listen to is hip-hop and bebop. I’ll stray into other stuff for a while, just because I’m curious. [laughs] But I’ll always end up going back to listen to … Hank Mobley records. He was the baddest. 

Read Peter Margasak’s Hearsay profile of Parker from 2000 here