If you went looking for a poster-child for Chicago's multidirectional, cross-pollinating, interstylistic music scene, you couldn't find a better one than Jeff Parker. Parker: jazz guitarist with pro credentials, widely travelled and prized by top soul-jazzers and hard-boppers. Parker: inveterate rocker who revitalized Tortoise with his ferocious improvising and tasty licks. Parker: experimentalist willing to try new dub, hip-hop, electronic, collage, free, chamber - anything worthwhile, irrespective of genre or orientation. Community expander, boundary buster, restless explorer - Jeff Parker is constantly trying out new things with new partners. A man on the move.
Somehow, Jeff Parker manages flow through all these incarnations without copping a dilettante's superficiality. He applies the same depth of musicality and keen ear for quality to everything he does, which is part of what has made him one of the most sought-out musicians in the Windy City. Another part of that appeal, it must be said, is Parker's immense generosity and warm humility, the latter of which perhaps explains why he's only made one other CD as a "leader," the acclaimed trio outing Like Coping, released on Delmark in 2003.
Founded in 1995, The Relatives is a quartet of like-minded musicians drawn from the Chicago Underground Orchestra. Parker's been working with bassist Chris Lopes since college days, when they were at Berklee together in Boston in the mid-80s. Drummer Chad Taylor, who recently moved back to New York after a fruitful period in Chicago, has been a colleague of Parker's since just after the guitarist moved to Chicago in 1991. The newest comrade, Sam Barsheshet, who plays electric piano on the record, sat in on a gig with Parker in 2002. "I enjoyed his playing and open conception," says Parker.
Parker says this session, which was waxed in January, 2004 at SOMA and engineered by John McEntire, is "more 'song-oriented' than the previous album, and less of a jazz-oriented 'blowing date.'" It includes original compositions by Taylor ("Istanbul") and Lopes ("Sea Change," "Bean Stalk,""Toy Boat"). Parker's own compositional contributions include "Mannerisms," a piece that's become a local standard, prized by various groups - Chicago Underground Quartet, Ted Sirota's Rebel Souls - for its sinuous, groovy lines. "Rang (for Michael Zerang)" is a piece written by Parker for his friend and colleague, percussionist Michael Zerang. "It was written when we were both on a tour of France with the Vega Trio, right at the start of the Iraq War."
"The Relative" was composed by Parker and bassist Matthew Lux, with whom the guitarist worked in Isotope 217, the band for whom it was originally conceived. "I decided to revive it for this recording," says Parker. "I composed the bulk of the tune, but the weird, twisty bassline that roots the intro and outro was composed by Matt Lux. The first two-and-a-half minutes of the tune are my attempt at demonstrating an abstraction of my perception of Relativity, which essentially means that as one moves in space, one's perception of said space is altered by one's movement. I tried to aurally capture this by having everyone perform various repeating figures on different tracks that start at one tempo, then ramp up or down to another tempo, and end together at the original tempo."
The CD's one non-original is a gorgeous reworking of Marvin Gaye's "When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You," on which Barsheshet shines particularly brightly. "I've always embraced the feelings of melancholy that I experience when I listen to the original version of this song," says Parker. "I thought it would be a challenge to try and capture some of that spirit in a swinging, but slightly abstract version of the tune, which is, essentially, how I perceive the original version to be. The premise was to have the band improvise over the form of the tune, and then I overdubbed the guitar melody (with embellishments) over top of it. I was trying to get a vibe like some of the great jazz recordings from the 70s when they actually used to play good jazz on commercial radio and people dug it."
Of the group and CD's name, Parker returns to his Einsteinian explanation: "The Relatives refers to the notion of a community (in this instance a community of musicians) functioning much like a family does, and also the abstraction of Relativity, which implies that as one moves, one's perspective changes along with one's movements. Since we're always moving, we're always changing."
Always moving, always changing. Good thoughts for this polyglot poster-child. ---John Corbett