The veteran guitarist has created an effortlessly detailed album, full of tradition and experimentation that spans generations. It lives at the vanguard of new jazz music.
Jeff Parker always writes parts that sound unassuming at first listen and unavoidable by the fifth. It’s the X-factor that the guitarist and master collaborator has brought to every project on his long and still-growing list of projects, jazz or rock or otherwise: Tortoise, Isotope 217, the recently reunited Chicago Underground Quartet, his solo work as a bandleader, his work as a soloist, and his supporting contributions for countless others. Despite his ability to do backflips with a guitar, his best-known lick from Tortoise’s 1998 song “TNT” is more like a heel-click—an easy, humble gesture, perfectly timed and placed.
It’s a preternatural thing, of course, but it’s also a skill that he’s cultivated by changing up his scenery and embracing the unfamiliar. A few years ago, while splitting his time between his longtime home of Chicago and his new home of Los Angeles, Parker connected with the players at International Anthem, a new collective of jazz-raised, boundary-challenging musicians based in Chicago. Some of them were exploring the intersection of live improvisation and modern digital recording—loops, samples, beats—which was an area that had fascinated Parker ever since Madlib’s jazz-ensemble project Yesterdays New Quintet blew his mind over a decade ago. Parker had been messing around with these elements for years during occasional DJ sets, thinking about how they could apply to his own playing, and had accumulated several hours of experiments. With this new label, he saw the right opportunity to formally release those results. He turned them into his 2016 album The New Breed, some of the most soulful and beat-driven music he’d ever put out under his own name and his first release for International Anthem.
What Parker tapped into on The New Breed, he blows wide open on Suite for Max Brown, a mesmerizing follow-up and informal companion piece. While his electric guitar remains a highlight, Parker builds out a fast-slashing range of ideas using dozens of other sounds and instruments, most of which he plays himself. They’re disparate in color and texture, pronounced and often short, each one elbowing or sliding its way in front of the one before it, impatient to steal the show. As a player and composer, Parker shines throughout. As an arranger, he catches fire.
Suite for Max Brown is a place where a 26-second, Dilla-indebted loop of an Otis Redding sample and 10 minutes of a jazz quintet weaving around what sounds like someone stacking plastic cups can share a tracklist; each is equally meaningful. He’s less of a specialist and more open to breadth than ever before. “Del Rio” opens with vintage-Korg cloud cover, which parts to reveal an easy-stepping melody that Parker plays on the African mbira—which in turn tees up a warm gust of wind in the form of a big, swooping guitar lick. That last move is one that Parker makes a few times on Suite: entering on guitar at just the right, unexpected moment of a tune. It’s as smooth and elegant as calligraphy; it sounds like he’s literally signing these new ideas with his signature instrument.
“3 for L” is a slow swing soaked in L.A. sunlight and leans closer to Parker’s more traditional jazz-bandleader side, but the crafty, mysterious percussion work of Jay Bellerose adds an extra dimension. Bellerose sounds like he’s fixing a bicycle in slow motion, assessing the clicks and clacks of its gears shifting up and down while Parker sits off to the side, narrating the process with his electric. It sets the table for the casual shiver of “Go Away,” the album’s turn-it-up moment, which inconspicuously lifts the bassline from an earlier song and reframes it with a different, more driving energy. Zero in on any one element in the mix here—like the light, instantly combusting pop of the handclaps, which hide in plain sight like they’re part of a selective-attention experiment—and the song suddenly becomes an entirely different thing. It’s like looking at a photo mosaic from several feet away, then putting your face right up to it.
His inspiration, however, runs deeper than adventure. Parker’s father, Ernie, passed away while he was making The New Breed, which was named after a clothing store that Ernie owned and featured on its cover a photo of him outside of it, smiling. (The New Breed is now also the name for the group of supporting musicians here, which, in addition to Bellerose, includes old friends Makaya McCraven on drums and Rob Mazurek on piccolo trumpet.) Parker decided to dedicate this next one to his mother, whose maiden name is Maxine Brown and whose portrait graces the cover here. This folds in an extra layer of emotion to every odd pluck, rattle, or whoosh, knowing that the album is essentially a hand-crafted gift of appreciation for his mom. Parker’s sweetly interpreted cover of a jazz piece from her generation, John Coltrane’s “After the Rain,” feels especially baked with love. It has no beat or time; it just glows for a little while, gratitude spilling out from his fingertips and through his amplifier.
That familial thread ties Suite to its predecessor in one more graceful way. Parker’s daughter, Ruby, who sang the last track of The New Breed, “Cliche,” also sings on the opener here—the only lyrics on either album. Her words on “Build a Nest” pledge allegiance to appreciating the process of creation as its own reward, and not just as a means to a destination. “Everyone moves like they’ve someplace to go/Build a nest and watch the world go by slow,” she sings as Jeff slowly drums alongside her, his kick beats dragging like they’re attached to a parachute. He drops in some piano plinks and some muffled backing vocals. And together, with the help of some friends, they build a nest from which to watch the world.