Best known as guitarist in alt-jazz, post-rock outfit Tortoise, Jeff Parker has also had an interesting career as a stalwart of the Chicago underground music scene as well as performing as a sideman with renowned jazz players such as Brian Blade, Fred Anderson and Joshua Redman. A recent move from long-time home Chicago to Los Angeles unearthed some home recordings of samples and beats made over 10 years ago. These formed the basis of a new solo album – The New Breed – mixing jazz with hip-hop. We caught up with Jeff Parker as he was preparing to embark on a 6 date European tour that includes a show at Ronnie Scott’s on Sunday 2 April.
London Calling: Can you explain the story about how you unearthed the ‘lost’ recordings that formed the basis of this record?
Jeff Parker: Around 12-15 years back I was obsessed with tearing apart the technical process of hip hop music - sampling and editing, DJ-ing, assembling a library of records, collecting classic breaks, etc, and the new technology gave us easy access to samplers and editing software. So to keep myself busy, I was making a lot of music in my home studio, but also on airplanes and in tour buses and vans while I was travelling. It was more of a technical exercise for me at the time, to learn about the processes that the producers I admired employed to create their music. Of course, after a while, I had dozens of hours of musical ideas that I’d been working on that I hadn’t really done anything with. I’d had the thought to somehow blend my interests in hip-hop production with improvising and composing for a long time. I didn’t really have the right situation to pursue trying to record these ideas until I moved to Los Angeles. I reconnected with my old friend from college, Paul Bryan, who graciously offered the use of his recording studio and engineering skills - and when I got to know Scottie McNiece from International Anthem, his label seemed like a great outlet for it.
LC: What was the recording process for this album – did you base the songs around the original samples and work out from there? Was it a spontaneous process or did they evolve over time?
JP: Yes, the sample-based music was the template for much of the record, sonically-speaking. Basically, I wanted to make a jazz record that felt and sounded like hip-hop, or embraced the production aesthetic of hip-hop…which is challenging, because they are two very contrary worlds - one based in the moment, and the other based in the sonic manipulation of the past. Initially, I wanted to pursue a different direction, but Paul encouraged me to stick with the spirit and sounds behind the demo recordings. Therefore, the finished album is a combination of the manipulation and re-creation of the sample-based demos and live group performance and improvising. There’s also quite a lot of editing involved - it was an integral part of the arrangement process. So we had to record it in a way that allowed us to experiment without having to redo things, while still maintaining control over all of the sonic elements of each individual instrument.
LC: Family is clearly important on this album – your father on the sleeve, your daughter singing on Cliché – it must have been quite cathartic releasing it last year?
JP: My father, Ernie Parker, passed away while I was making this album. He was a teacher and a great man, beloved by many. He is directly responsible for my pursuit of the path of music-making, so it was a natural choice for the album to become a tribute to him. I’ve been making recorded music with my daughter, Ruby Parker, since she was 3 or 4 years old (she’s now 15) - and when I realised that the song Cliché was in need of lyrics and vocals, again, it was a natural choice for me to ask her to sing on it. The song Here Comes Ezra was written and named for my son Ezra. My partner, Lee Anne Schmitt, is a filmmaker. She made the short film for Cliché.
Jeff Parker's father on the album art for The New Breed.
LC: The critical acclaim for the album must be very gratifying?
JP: Yes, it is a good feeling to know that there is some critical appreciation for the work that one puts out into the world. But, ultimately, my music is for the people, we’re the ones who need it. I’m extremely grateful to Scottie and Dave Allen at International Anthem for working so hard at getting the music out to as many folks as they could, and to Alejandro Ayala and Stephen Buono for doing such a great job on the publicity for The New Breed.
LC: How do you find living in LA compared to Chicago - musically and personally?
JP: My personal life is very nice out here in Southern California, my family and I have settled in the city of Altadena, a quiet community at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. I have a nice home studio here, it’s the first time I've had a proper workspace. Los Angeles is an entertainment industry town, so the brunt of the music activity there is commercially-based - which is 180 degrees from Chicago, which is an art-music hub - probably the most active creative music community in the world.
LC: As well as the album, what else can we expect to hear at the London show?
JP: Me and the band (Josh Johnson, Paul Bryan and Jamire Williams) will perform all of the songs from The New Breed, as well as some newer and older material. Hopefully, there will be an extra special guest vocalist sitting in with us to sing Cliché!
LC: If you had to choose one musician who has influenced you the most, who would that be?
JP: Charlie Parker. He’s the one who opened the door for me and made me realize that music is art and science - not just sound. He was a mad scientist.