A Fireside Chat with Jeff Parker

AAJ Staff By

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I feel that I play both jazz and improvised music. To me, there are specific perimeters that inform the genre of jazz improvisation.
It is not always necessary to classify things. Sure, it makes it easy for the consumer in all of us to be able to find or relate to something if it is referred to as a four letter word, "jazz," "blues," or "rock," but does that mean Elvis, the proposed "king" of rock, has anything remotely to do with the Velvet Underground, also found under the "rock" section? And following such logic, does 'The Godfather' (found under dramas) have anything to do with 'The Pianist,' also a drama? So to say that Jeff Parker plays "prog-rock" or is "avant-garde" because he did sessions with Isotope 217 or Guillermo Gregorio is silly and quite the narrow-minded view of what music and subsequently life is. So allow Jeff Parker himself to educate, as always, unedited and in his own words.

All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.

Jeff Parker: I guess the only simple way I can put it is just loving music. I picked up an old guitar that was lying around the house and started learning bass lines off of funk songs that were on the radio, Earth, Wind & Fire and Parliament/Funkadelic. I just started playing that way and my folks saw that I was into it and signed me up for lessons. That's when I started playing when I was nine. Before that, I actually started on the piano when I was eight. That was more just my parents signing me up for music lessons. I wasn't really too interested in it at that point.

AAJ: Do you consider what you do improvisation?

JP: I feel that I play both jazz and improvised music. To me, there are specific perimeters that inform the genre of jazz improvisation. To me, it is having a certain harmonic conception, rhythmic conception, in order for you to deal with the most obvious characteristics of that music. But as far as improvisation, that is a very broad term that applies to many genres, inside and around art and music.

AAJ: Do Jeff Parker and the AACM have any correlation? After all, the AACM never featured a guitarist, so it is difficult to understand where those comparisons come from.

JP: Yeah, I don't know. AACM music has definitely been influential to me. Honestly, Fred, I had been exposed to very little of it before I moved to Chicago and I actually started immersing myself in the local scene around here and of course, playing with a lot of musicians who are in the AACM. I am influenced more by the musical spirit of this organization and where the angle that they come at jazz and black music from.

AAJ: Are you still involved with the Chicago Underground?

JP: The Underground started back when Rob Mazurek, who I had known from a long time from playing more straight ahead jazz, pick up gigs playing standards and things and I had played on some of his old demo tapes when he first started his own group. I hadn't seen him for a while and he knew that I was involved in some more creative music around Chicago. He decided that he wanted to do something a little bit different than what he was normally doing, which was pretty straight ahead, Fifties Blue Note style jazz. He wanted to do something different. He talked to Dave Jemilo, who owns the Green Mill and asked him if we could go in and play on Sunday afternoons. It was kind of a workshop and we would come in there and experiment with forms and work out ideas and fully improvise and we would work them out as a group. Eventually, a band came out of it that was the Chicago Underground Orchestra. It had various names before that, but it kind of settled on the Chicago Underground Orchestra. With myself being busy and Sara P. Smith, who was the trombonist, moving away, as well as Chris Lopes, who plays bass and I was busy with Tortoise. That left just Rob and Chad and so that is how the duo started, when I couldn't play with the Chicago Underground, so they just decided to keep going and play with the two of them.

AAJ: And Tortoise?

JP: I still play with Tortoise. I wasn't in the band in the beginning. I'm the most recent member. I know that they formed just to get away. A lot of them have more of a punk rock, experimental, indie rock background. They wanted to do something different from what they were normally doing which was playing music that had different rhythmic sensibilities, but also explored different timbres. Loud guitar and vocals weren't the main thing that stood out in the music.

AAJ: How about Tricolor?

JP: Not really. We were kind of recording a new album a while back, but I am not really sure what is coming of it. I know Dave Pavkovic is the organizational force behind that group and I know he is busy with other things. We haven't been doing too much lately.

AAJ: Let's touch on your Delmark debut as a leader, Like-Coping.

JP: They had asked me a long time ago, probably six or seven years ago, if I ever wanted to do a record for them. I just felt like it wasn't in my reality to do at all at that time. Just now, I was feeling kind of stagnant musically. There were a lot of older projects that I was involved in that seemed as though they had run their course. I was looking for something new, a different trajectory to be propelled into, so I took them up on their offer.

AAJ: And the future?

JP: I was just in France touring with a trio, Michael Zerang and a French bassist named Bernard Santacruz. We have a few compositions, but it is free improvisation for the most part. We also have some Tortoise gigs coming up and we have been working on a new album for a long time. I have been playing, just beginning a musical relationship with Nels Cline and drummer Scott Amendola. I am going out to play with them. I will be there from May 25 till June 1.

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