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Jazz Guitarist Jeff Parker Crosses Musical Genres On 'Suite For Max Brown'

Parker's breezy new album, which mixes live music with vintage synthesizers, draws on R&B, early hip-hop, droning electronica, jazz-funk, Afropop and flailing '60s-rock solos.



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Other segments from the episode on February 10, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 10, 2020: Interview with Michael Pollan; Review of the album Suite for Max Brown.



This is FRESH AIR. When guitarist Jeff Parker lived in Chicago, he played all kinds of big and small shows with all kinds of creative musicians. Parker now lives and works in Southern California, but jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Parker still has that go-anywhere attitude, as a new record confirms.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Jeff Parker's "Gnarciss," his cheeky revamp of Joe Henderson's "Black Narcissus" with Rob Mazurek on piccolo trumpet. It's from Parker's breezy album "Suite For Max Brown," a demonstration of how jazz mixes it up with other musics these days. Jeff Parker never did heed jazz borders, coming up in category-resistant bands like Tortoise and the Chicago Underground. The guitarist has chops and great timing, but is rarely a showboat. He can pare back his line like a backwoods blues man.


WHITEHEAD: Jeff Parker gets something like a jazz guitar tone, but he's not so interested in jazz guitar music. It's one ingredient in a style that also draws on R&B and early hip-hop, droning electronica, jazz funk, Afropop and maybe flailing '60s rock solos like on "Eight Miles High." This is "Go Away" with Paul Bryan on bass guitar and Makaya McCraven on drums.


WHITEHEAD: The drone running through that like a bright stripe and that looped vocal cry, these are not straight jazz choices. The album "Suite For Max Brown" is billed to Jeff Parker and The New Breed, but mostly that's just Parker, maybe with a helper or two. Tinkering at home, he uses vintage synthesizers and stretchy sampling software to sketch the music and add primary color. Then he might have live musicians put some meat on those synthetic bones. That's what trumpeter Nate Walcott and drummer Jamire Williams do over a metronomic beat on the track "Max Brown," a human-machine hybrid.


WHITEHEAD: Dualities abound on Jeff Parker's "Suite For Max Brown" - human versus machine, the droney versus the jumpy, the raw and the cooked, the home tinkerer and live musician. The record's even co-produced by two labels Nonesuch and plucky indie International Anthem. Jeff Parker invokes his days as a crate-diving club DJ, a job where you can juxtapose beats from all over as long as they serve or creatively stem the flow. The leadoff track on this album named for Parker's mother, Maxine, features Jeff and his daughter Ruby Parker on layered background and foreground vocals. It piles up the poppy textures.


RUBY PARKER: (Singing) Everyone moves like they've someplace to go. A wise one told me they were disconsolate. There are no trap doors if you believe in fate.

WHITEHEAD: The kind of genre-bridging Jeff Parker does on "Suite For Max Brown" seems utterly normal here in the 2020s. This new normal permits any combination of musical languages at any time, without privileging one over another. That's not exactly a new idea, especially among Chicagoans. New ideas are hard to come by, but since the raw materials keep changing, recombinant music does, too. We are hard to shock nowadays, but Jeff Parker gives it a go.

On John Coltrane's moody "After The Rain," a glossy electric piano takes us to the brink of smooth jazz before Parker's guitar walks us back. In this permissive age, it seems nowhere is off limits.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and The Audio Beat. He reviewed "Suite For Max Brown," the new album by Jeff Parker and the New Breed.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be journalist McKay Coppins. His new article in The Atlantic, "The Disinformation War," is about how the Trump campaign is using Facebook and other social media to disseminate propaganda and misinformation and why Coppins says the Trump campaign may be the most extensive disinformation campaign in U.S. history. He'll also tell us about the campaign's efforts to discredit and dismantle mainstream media. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry GROSS. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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