Guitar Player Magazine, April 2005
By Jimmy Leslie
It’s out on the fringes of jazz where Jeff Parker, purveyor of Chicago cool, survives and thrives. An experimentalist with underground cred for days, Parker is currently a member of the successful instrumental ensemble Tortoise. The list of cutting edge outfits that once claimed Parker as a member are too numerous to mention, but each offshoot of his beautifully twisted musical tree contains a common thread of post-everything freshness. But even though there’s often an “out” element to the music Parker performs, his own guitar playing is usually rather “in” by comparison. No matter how treacherous the harmonic terrain, Parker provides enough recognizable landmarks for the listener to remain oriented and involved. Perhaps that root sensibility is the reason Parker receives calls from the likes of Branford Marsalis, Joshua Redman, and a host of other top-shelf jazzbos.
On Parker’s second effort as a bandleader, The Relatives [Thrill Jockey], Jim Hall’s wooden sound is a clear point of tonal reference. Parker’s harmonic hallmarks include cyclical motifs and riffs, angular lines, and bebop-influenced arpeggios that take the most simple and effective route to outlining chord changes. Through it all, Parker’s guitar style is most enjoyable for its tonal clarity, linear focus, and complete lack of clichés.
What was your goal when you began your career as a guitarist?
I wanted to find one voice on the guitar that was flexible enough to work in a lot of different situations, and I feel I’ve done that. When I play various types of music now, I don’t sacrifice my own guitar style. I just try to be creative and bring something to the music that’s fresh.
How important is Chicago to your experience as a musician?
Very important. Chicago has a tradition of supporting fringe music, and it’s a nurturing place for independent artists because there’s a network of independent record labels and distributors, as well as an audience that appreciates left-of-center music. There’s a lot more freedom to experiment here, which is what I’m all about.
How was the vision for this solo effort different from your first?
My first record was much like a live gig, with lots of improvisation recorded in the studio. I went the other way this time. I wanted to sculpt this record by doing a lot of overdubbing and editing to create ultimate versions of the compositions.
How do approach the guitar when you practice?
When I look at the neck of the guitar, I see points, and the points form shapes—like constellations. I can look at the guitar neck and see keys and arpeggios, but when I look at the big picture and consider the sound, it’s about the shapes the groups of notes make. The tension is at the peak. If two diagonal lines intersect, the point where they meet is the tension, and the resolution is where they retreat.
How does that lead to something you can use in a composition?
My doctrine is to find an idea, develop it, and expand on it. But there has to be something of relevance attached for the idea to make sense. I’ve also had this infatuation with repetition and stagnation the past couple of years. If you change the accents over time, certain polyrhythms are implied. Sometimes you can keep one thing the same, but change everything around it.
One of the things that makes your motifs interesting is the way they cycle. How much does this have to do with time signatures?
Some odd time signatures swing in a certain ways, depending on where you place the accents. I like playing in 5/4 a lot, and I enjoy superimposing one time signature against another. For example, “Rang” starts in 4/4, but the drummer is playing with a three-against-four feel. Once the melodic theme is stated, the time shifts to 5/4. Then the bass and keyboards play an ostinato in five, while the drums solo out of time over it. Eventually, everyone comes together for a vamp in five. I sketched that all out while I was practicing.
Where on earth do you get an idea for something like that?
It comes from listening to someone like Elvin Jones play drums. He’s constantly shifting the accents of the beats, which adds other dimensions and colors to the music. I also studied minimalist classical composers such as Steve Reich and Morton Feldman.
I rarely, if ever, hear you play a guitar lick. Does this come from your non-guitar influences, or are you simply ultra wary of clichés?
I’ve definitely made a conscious effort to avoid clichés, but I do listen to a lot of guitarists. Some favorites are Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, and Kenny Burrell. Kurt Rosenwinkel and I were housemates in Boston, and we played together all the time.
Is there any other modern guitar player with whom you feel a kinship or draw inspiration?
Nels Cline is a good friend, and he’s one of my favorite guitar players. Sonic Youth is a big inspiration, as well. The way Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo interact and orchestrate their guitar work is amazing, and it reminds me of Jimmy Page’s beautiful guitar orchestrations with Zeppelin.
Do you use the same rig live and in the studio?
Yes. I use a Fender Extra Heavy pick to play an ’81 Gibson ES-335 strung with D’Addario Jazz Medium EJ22s. Sometimes, I’ll play my ’50 ES-150. My signal goes to a Boss RV-3 Digital Reverb/Delay, a Big Briar MF-102 ring modulator with an expression pedal, a Crowther Hot Cake distortion, and a DOD FX17 wah/volume pedal. My amp is a mid-’70s Fender Super Twin.
Are you purposely taking jazz somewhere you believe it needs to go?
When I was in college studying jazz, I knew I had some original ideas, and I definitely made a choice to do something different in order to truly contribute something to music in general. I’m idealistic. I don’t have any expectations of the music, and in order for me to keep growing with it, I don’t put any limitations on what I can do. I’ve been lucky with my career to be granted the freedom to do some of the stuff that I want. If you deal with the music first, it will point you in certain directions.g
The Relatives [Thrill Jockey]
TNT [Thrill Jockey]
Standards [Thrill Jockey]
It's All Around You [Thrill Jockey]
From Jazziz Magazine, 2004
By Bill Milkowski
From the time of Eddie Lang’s innovative guitar work in the 1920s to the present day, a spirit of experimentation and discovery has fueled the evolution of jazz guitar. In recent years, a fresh batch of innovative players has emerged to take jazz guitar down some exciting new paths. JAZZIZ engaged six original voices from today’s guitar crop to riff on their forward-thinking methodologies.
A native of Hampton, Virginia, Parker moved to Boston to study at the Berklee College of Music. In 1991, he settled in Chicago, where he has become a vital part of the Windy City alternative music scene, playing with the experimental indie-rock band Tortoise and its jazz-funk offshoot Isotope 217, while also leading his own free-bop bands. On his latest release as a leader, The Relatives (Thrill Jockey), Parker experiments boldly within the context of a guitar, bass, drums, and electric piano quartet, organically blending aspects of straightahead jazz with elements of the avant garde. While his warm tone and flowing lines may sometimes suggest a Jim Hall or Pat Martino (particularly on darker, more angular fare), Parker also displays a decidedly more unhinged quality on raucous, deconstructionist fare.
Parker cites a wide cross section of guitar influences, all of whom have helped him shape his potent sound. “Jim Hall was always a huge inspiration for me,” he says. “Those records he made with Sonny Rollins and Art Farmer redefined the guitar’s role in modern jazz music. He played a full guitar style with these really individualistic, unique voicings that could really fill up an ensemble. And the way that he would accompany the soloists would really round out the band in a way that the guitar never really had before. Hearing Derek Bailey for the first time kind of turned me around, just in the way that I dealt with the instrument. Of course, Jimi Hendrix and Sonny Sharrock were both huge influences. But one of my favorites from when I first started playing the guitar was Gabor Szabo. I just loved his sound — that really singing, beautiful tone. I always appreciated guys who had a seemingly more open conception to the instrument and whose conception of music seemed really broad. You know, guys who didn’t play too many notes just for the sake of it.”
Regarding his own uncompromising music as a leader for both the Delmark and Thrill Jockey labels, he says, “I’m of the theory that experimental music doesn’t necessarily have to be inaccessible. I came up listening to Funkadelic, which was some of the weirdest music that’s ever been created. And that stuff was on the radio. When I was a kid, that’s the music that really made me want to be a musician because it was on such a great, high level musically, but also because it seemed like they were doing something that was different and unique and strange. Yet it also seemed like something that people could relate to.
“I obviously love and have practical training with jazz music,” he continues. “But I don’t necessarily consider any of the music that I’ve made as jazz just because jazz is such an abstract term now. What I’m doing is just my own personal way of dealing with the music that I like and presenting it to the public. Before, when I was in Boston, I was in a pretty straightahead bag. It wasn’t until I got to Chicago and started playing with musicians from the AACM that I figured out that I could do something that was a little different. Now I’m just trying to learn as much as I can, keep my ears open, and figure out new ways to play the guitar.”
Guitar Player Magazine, April 2005