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Jeff Parker: Suite for Max Brown (Nonesuch/International Anthem)

A review of the guitarist's album dedicated to his mother

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Jeff Parker: Suite for Max Brown
The cover of Jeff Parker’s Suite for Max Brown

Best known for his membership in the pioneering jazz-rock ensemble Tortoise—and now the elder statesman among a crew of 21st-century Chicago renegades bringing a fresh elasticity to the AACM slogan “ancient to the future”—guitarist Jeff Parker says in the liner notes to Suite for Max Brown that he is always alert for “ways to be surprised.” That intrepid curiosity permeates the album, a collection dedicated to his still-living mother Maxine that has a mix-taper’s love of abrupt mood shifts and variable textures.

The opener, “Build a Nest,” sounds like a droogy cartoon theme spiked by breakbeats and some altered vocals from Parker’s daughter Ruby. It morphs into a 25-second interlude splashed with an Otis Redding sample that yields in turn to “Fusion Swirl,” Parker’s one-man band of driving bass and drum lines, siren drone, and a sound like asphalt shingles being torn off a roof.

Suddenly, a live quartet ushers in a gleaming but still beatific cover of Coltrane’s “After the Rain,” with Parker’s guitar and Josh Johnson’s electric keys subbing for the sax and the cymbals of Jamire Williams gilding the ethereal essence. Then it’s back to Parker the mixer, messing with a glockenspiel on “Metamorphoses,” fluffing it up with riffs from a Korg MS-20 that gently undulate like a waterbed. That in turn swings into a pumped-up interpolation of Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus,” retitled “Gnarciss,” featuring a sextet that includes cello, piccolo trumpet, and Makaya McCraven on drums.

McCraven is also present for the relentlessly busy “Go Away,” with Parker’s nimbly picked, lighthearted single notes rebuffing the industrious bass and drums battening down the groove, until the whole enterprise starts flirting with the notion of becoming a martial blues. The final number, “Max Brown,” is a 10-minute, 36-second sound buffet and the magnum opus on an 11-song collection that clocks in under 40 minutes. It features the beat-centric melodicism of backpacker hip-hop, occasionally peeled back to showcase some arresting textures, a journey that buffs your equilibrium like a good night’s sleep. Can’t wait to hear how Jeff Parker tries to surprise himself next.


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