From his early days as a member of Chicago staple Tortoise, to his current renaissance as a jazz innovator, Jeff Parker has been re-defining the modern uses of the guitar since the early ’90s. Trading in his post-rock roots for hip-hop imbued jazz, Parker is as restless a musician as you’ll find. His first album of 2016, The New Breed blends astral chords with drum machines and improvised horn rampages. The group that Parker assembled for this release, consisting of Parker on guitar,Josh Johnson on saxophone, Paul Bryan on bass, and Jamire Williams on drums, is the West Coast Get Down’s only rival in terms of sheer talent. The group is dynamic and interlocked, soloing off of Parker’s melodically inclined structures.
The New Breed, though, is only one of Parker’s two acclaimed releases from 2016. Slight Freedom came out a few months after The New Breed, an odd circumstance considering the languid pace Parker often works at. Freedom has been done for a few years, but after multiple issues during the record’s pressing, it saw a release towards the end of last year. A lesser album—especially an affair as low-key as Freedom—would wither under the weight of The New Breed’s lofty enterprise, but Freedom is its predecessor’s equal in composition, if not scope. The release plan certainly isn’t ideal for the Los Angeles transplant, but nothing seems to bother this constant tinkerer. With both albums out in the world to near unanimous acclaim, Parker is galvanized to keep going, to keep creating. I spoke with Parker over the phone about the early days in Chicago, playing with a group of outsized personalities, and playing old Frank Ocean tunes three years too late. —Will Schube
I want to start at the beginning. You moved to Chicago in the early ‘90s. Why did you decide on Chicago versus a place like New York or LA?
Jeff Parker:I didn’t necessarily decide on Chicago. When I was done with music school I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. I got a job at Tower Records—they were opening a new store in Chicago. I should preface this by saying I went to college in Boston. The thing in jazz school was for musicians to move to New York—and it still is—but I felt like I wasn’t quite ready to move to New York although eventually I was planning on ending up there. I felt like I needed to figure some things out.
A job at Tower Records in Chicago fell into my lap and I had some friends who lived there. Everything just sort of happened. My plan was just to go to Chicago for a year or two, practice, save some money, and move to New York. People started calling me for gigs after about a year and a half and I started to develop a lot of musical relationships in the city. I ended up staying, which was, in retrospect, probably the best thing for me at the time. I kind of feel like the city chose me more than I chose it.
How do you think that scene has helped shape your sound?
Jeff Parker:Chicago is a very raw place, you know? It’s a working class city. It’s a tourism industry there so it has a pretty thriving music scene. I don’t know. It’s a real get in the dirt and do it kind of place. It’s very grassroots, very DIY—it’s an independently minded city. The music community there is very independent. There’s not a lot of industry. In the ‘90s there was a real network—especially in indie rock—of distributors, record labels, and college radio stations all in that area. It was very much geared to people figuring their own shit out. Then you get it in these independent channels and you kind of work it from there. That was really perfect for me at the time, being in my early 20s and trying to figure out my own way in the music industry.
Is that how you ended up playing in Tortoise?
Jeff Parker:Yeah, totally. We were all—everybody in Tortoise—in the same place. Most of those guys came up playing in punk and hardcore bands. They were looking to do something different and I was from more of a jazz background, but looking to do something different, too. We kind of all just stumbled upon each other at the same time.
What’s it been like as a veteran jazz musician, seeing this massive rise in popularity for jazz music with players like Kamasi leading the charge?
Jeff Parker:Man, to be honest, I didn’t really have the same relationship with that phenomenon. I’ve been in it the whole time. I’ve seen successes come and go. I don’t know, man. It’s hard for me to comment on that.
For you, The New Breed—and to a lesser extent, Slight Freedom—has been your most successful releases to date. If it’s not the re-emergence of jazz amongst an indie rock leaning audience, why do you think these 2016 releases have been your most popular to date?
Jeff Parker:Honestly, I think the record I did for Thrill Jockey, The Relative, did pretty well commercially. I made some records with this group called the Chicago Underground Quartet that did really well in its time. We were on the cover of Wire Magazine. The critics dug that stuff, too. I think it’s just a matter of timing that The New Breed resonated with people. I attribute it to finally feeling like I have a really good situation with the label, International Anthem. Those dudes were really stoked. They were stoked to make the record with me, and they were really excited when they heard it.
Those guys put everything into it, man. The guy, Scotty McNeese, he has such a vision for his label. He wants to put out very high quality work. The concept behind The New Breed, he really got behind it in a way I hadn’t had anybody ever do before with my solo music. He was really willing to present it to the public in a certain way. I could have made this record ten years ago. Most of the music on it—most of the ideas—is that old. I didn’t have the means to make the record in terms of a studio situation. We were able, this time around, to work on the album pretty intermittently over the course of a year. And then, the label was willing to invest in the project. Both of those things really contributed to me being able to put it out.
How did your relationship with International Anthem come about?
Jeff Parker:It came about through me working with Makaya McCraven. He did a record called In The Moment which did very well in 2015. It’s another take on the intersection of improvisation in jazz and hip hop production. I was heavily involved in that project as a guitarist. His record resonated with a lot of people. When I saw how great International Anthem handled his record, I was like, ‘Huh, I got this project. Maybe they’ll be interested in working with me on it.’ So I approached Scotty and that’s how it happened.
Are you planning on putting out more records with them?
Jeff Parker:For sure. But the process for me is pretty slow. I haven’t put out that many records because it takes me a long time to figure stuff out. I will do something else, but knowing me, it could take a while [laughs].
You did put out two records this year, though. Slight Freedom is on a different label than The New Breed. Why did you separate the two yet release them in the same year?
Jeff Parker:The two records are totally different, for sure. Eremite Recordings put out Slight Freedom and that’s another great label. I discovered them through working with Joshua Abrams. He’s an old friend and a really great musician. He’s made some super incredible records and his project is called the Natural Information Society. I guess the backend is, I moved out to LA, transitioning probably about 5 or 6 years ago. But I completely gave my place up in Chicago in 2013 and moved here full time. I was out here and I didn’t really know anyone. I just rented a practice space and I would just go in there while my wife was at work and I would just work on this solo shit all day. Eventually I worked up a repertoire. Coincidentally, people started calling me to play these solo gigs, or just to perform; I guess I could have brought a band but I had been working on the solo stuff so I figured I’d try it out. I did these gigs and eventually I had this repertoire. I decided I wanted to try to put it out.
I guess it’s a weird coincidence that they came out at the same time, but it was a real long process getting Slight Freedom out. The music on Slight Freedom was finished over three years ago. The record went through eight test pressings. They kept sending them and they were fucked up. Eventually, the label boss fired the pressing plant and got his money back after they pressed up 1,000 bad records. We started all over again with a new plant. My plan was to have the solo record come out and then The New Breed come out a year or so later. It took so long for Slight Freedom that it actually came out six months after The New Breed. They weren’t supposed to be concurrent.
What’s it like hearing a record you finished so long ago? At least with me and filmmaking, when I finish a project I generally feel very distant from it.
Jeff Parker:That’s exactly it. I was scared for it to come out. I’m beyond this [laughs]. Even with The New Breed, I’m already thinking about what I can do next. There’s a cover of the Frank Ocean tune “Super Rich Kids,” and I’ve been playing that since his album came out. That was over four years ago! People are gonna think I’m behind the times [laughs]. Frank already has a new thing out and I’m playing stuff from his old record. But yeah, that’s exactly how I felt. I was already way down the road by the time the music dropped.
When you were putting the band together for The New Breed, did you write the music or was it mostly improvised?
Jeff Parker:Of course there’s improvising, but I wrote all the music.
Did you write it with these musicians in mind?
Jeff Parker:No. I wrote it with an ensemble in mind, for sure, though. My idea was to explore my interest in hip-hop production, composition, arranging, and improvisation. I was trying to get all of these disparate worlds to come together and make sense of it. It’s really hard to manipulate improvised music in the studio just because the nature of both things are pretty contradictory in an aesthetic sense. I thought about it a lot. I could have explored that idea with almost any musician and it would have been different, cool or not cool. The record sounds the way it does because of all the specific musicians who are on it this time.
It’s interesting because listening to Jamire Williams’ solo record and then listening to him on your record you can definitely hear hints of his style, but it’s still your record. Is that tricky to balance playing with musicians who have such personalities?
Jeff Parker:[Laughs] For sure! Everyone was in, man. I knew it was kind of special. Just the rapport between everyone was amazing. I had played a couple of gigs with the quartet—Josh Johnson, Paul Bryan, and Jamire. I knew that we had a rapport and then we got in the studio. The way I did it, I had the compositions and then we improvised off of the themes. That was the concept. The improvising was incredible. It was pretty transcendent. That first tune, “Executive Life,” that’s the second take. We did two improvs. On the first take, I didn’t give much direction. It was good, but after it was done, I gave everybody a little bit of direction. What you hear on the record is in real time. When I listen to it now it still blows me away. It’s full of incredible performances.