Interview: Jeff Parker on Chopping and Assembling "Max Brown"

Jeff Parker, best known as the magic-fingered guitarist of post-rock pioneers Tortoise, is the quintessential jazz-centric head whose heady vision includes ingeniously deconstructing myriad genres. Over the last quarter-century, the LA-via-Chicago guitarist's seemingly effortless fretboard-hopping wizardry has brought Tortoise's cerebral experimental-leaning rock to the next level.

But while Parker's work as a member of Tortoise and as a collaborator in bands like The Chicago Underground and Isotope 217 is stuff of post-jazz legend, it's been his forward-looking and shapeshifting solo output that has made indelible marks in the current landscape.

In 2016, Parker fittingly called his then-new record—and band—The New Breed (International Anthem) and with it arrived a musical rebirth of sorts. Parker, having settled in LA after a long and fruitful stint in Chicago, not only reinvented his jazzy explorations with glitchy R&B, hip-hop and funk flavors, he's also helping lead a crew of fresh upstarts. Parker, alongside the likes of Makaya McCraven, Jaimie Branch, Irreversible Entanglements, Damon Locks, and more, have galvanized the avant-garde underground.

Jeff Parker. Photo via Big Fish Booking Company.

Parker's hot streak has continued with this year's release of Suite for Max Brown (International Anthem/Nonesuch) where he proves to be a studio and beats-making scientist. The vibes are chilled-out, the grooves hypnotically heavy and the chops righteous on Suite for Max Brown which pays tribute to Parker's mother (her photo graces the album cover). Similar to The New Breed, Max Brown is a family affair (Ruby, Parker's teenage daughter, makes another star-making turn on vocals) where the guitarist developed its glimmering and expansive sound-worlds in his home studio before taking it to the studio of bandmate and ace producer Paul Bryan to flesh out with flying colors.

Free-floating and groovy yet dizzily complex with a flurry of beats, samplers and electronics that bends minds and rattles ears, Parker and his core group of Bryan (bass), McCraven (drums) and Josh Johnson (alto saxophone), with invaluable contributions from trumpeters Rob Mazurek and Nate Walcott, drummer Jamire Williams and others, have created an otherworldly stylistic sprawl with Suite for Max Brown.

Reverb phoned up Parker at his home in Los Angeles to talk Max Brown, touring right before COVID-19 hit, getting personal on his records, his many projects, collaborations, and more.

Suite for Max Brown is out now. Visit Jeff Parker's website here for more info.

Were you able to squeeze in the tour that was scheduled in March right before COVID-19 hit?

It happened, yeah. We came back right after that. That was the last time I kind of saw anybody. We played in New York and Miami the following night then came home and have been in quarantine ever since.

I looked up to see if your show at (le) poisson rouge in New York City happened and I couldn't find anything online.

It did, man, and it was great. The energy was crazy because it was the last show that people saw before this stuff. It was that feeling for all of the gigs. It was weird.

Then you went down to Florida and were able to play one last gig of the tour there? Were you forced to cancel any gigs after that?

No, Florida was the last one.

You lucked out. So many musicians have had to cancel entire tours and everything is up in the air.

Yeah, we did. We kind of pushed it.

Jeff Parker - "Fusion Swirl"

But the Big Ears Festival that you were slated to play was canceled, unfortunately.

That got canceled, yeah. That was a drag. Thankfully, I got the bulk of it done before all this kind of wearing down. There was more to do, obviously Big Ears and there's stuff in the summer that's on hold. I think everyone is waiting to see what happens. But, luckily, I got it done, man. The record came out in late January and we toured Europe for three weeks then we came back and did a week in the States of heavily publicized record release shows. All the shows were sold out; the promotion has been really amazing.

Actually, right now, my plan was to just be at home. I didn't have many gigs booked. I feel really sorry for the people whose records came out right before this, whose things were happening right as this went down. Like Paul Bryan's record came out the day the lockdown happened.

Your latest record, released in January, Suite for Max Brown, is dedicated to your mother and the previous one, The New Breed, turned out to be a tribute to your father.

He passed away while we were making the album (The New Breed). That became just what I was dealing with and everything naturally went in that direction. That record, it did so well and meant so much to so many people that I wished that he had been around to see it as a tribute to him. I just figured I make this one for my mom while she's still around.

I imagine she digs the new record, too.

Oh, yeah. It's crazy. I called her up the day it came out and was like, "Ma, your picture is all over the Internet!" [laughs]. And she was, like, "What?!"

How did your mom feel about her picture being on the cover of the record?

All good, man. She was very excited about it.

You've had many records under your own name before these last two. Had you ever gotten this personal before?

I would say yes but not in the same way. (2003's) Like-Coping was a hard record for me to make—not to make the music but for me to put myself out there as a solo artist for the first time. I wrote my own liner notes to that one. I talked about never seeing myself with any type of a solo career. At the time, I was pretty content with playing in bands with my close friends and us writing music together, making our way, supporting each other and holding each other up.

But it was for that reason that I looked at myself as different from the jazz community. It seems to be a little bit different now but jazz always wanted to put somebody out front. I didn't really agree with that at the time. But I did it and I made it pretty clear in my liner notes that I was only doing this for the money [laughs]. I was like, "Well, I got a daughter and family now and I have to find more work." So, here I am making this jazz record. That was pretty personal.

Aside from that, my other records and Like-Coping, it was a collective, an ensemble album. It was a trio with me, Chris Lopes, and Chad Taylor and those guys wrote as much of the music as I did it. There was a band.

It seems like things have changed with the last two records.

With these two albums (Suite for Max Brown and The New Breed), this is me making my music. With The New Breed, it was more of my music. It was me producing my own records, writing all the music and making all the decisions. It was just my music. With Suite for Max Brown, I even took a big step further where I recorded most of it at home in my home studio and I played a lot of instruments myself. It's my own music. I'm trying to deal with that these days because I never really dealt with it before.

So, you look at earlier records under your own name such as Like-Coping and The Relatives as different aesthetically speaking versus Suite for Max Brown and The New Breed.

Jeff Parker - The Relatives

For sure. Conceptually, in terms of how those records are made. All those bands, like The Chicago Underground, Tortoise, Isotope, and my trio with Chad and Chris—I hate to call it my trio—but we're all blending everyone's interests into making these records. And we make them all the same way. They're mostly like using a digital process, using hard-disc recording. We made all those records using the studio in some way or other to arrange the music, overdub things and for layering. I've always made all my albums like that, so in some ways it's not that different.

The only thing that's really different is, at least where my own two records come from, there's more of a hip-hop kind of aesthetic, like looping things, sampling things from records and triggering them. Tortoise uses sampling as a tool more in our live performances, but not so much in the studio.

You use a similar approach to your own as music as Tortoise does?

Absolutely. It's in my DNA at this point. Some things are similar. There's more improvising when I'm doing The New Breed project. With Tortoise there's none.

With Tortoise, you guys don't experiment with free-improv at all?

We do but, for instance, one of the last gigs that Tortoise played was at Solid Sound, Wilco's festival that they curate every two years at MASS MoCA, and we did a live improvised set to the film, La Jetée. That's how Tortoise does it. If we do improv, it's more ambient in nature, or a really highly structured, conceptual kind of thing. It won't be like soloing or jams or something close to jazz improvisation—like not at all.

You've worked with many groundbreaking producers such as your Tortoise bandmate John McEntire and Paul Bryan. What have you taken away from them as far as your own production skills are concerned? You're mixing, sampling, editing, engineering, and producing on your own.

Mostly just technical stuff. They're both technically knowledgeable about working in the studio in pretty different ways. Mostly that but I have a background in arranging and I have pretty clear ideas about what I'm trying to do. Paul engineered some of Suite for Max Brown and he mixed the whole thing. He's my voice of reason the last couple albums. He helps me a lot in that way.

They're both pretty hands-off as far as producers go, especially John McEntire. John will lend opinions only when you ask him mostly and even then he's pretty agreeable. He's more of an engineer than anything; he'd probably be the first person to tell you that.

You also worked with Chris Schlarb on the latest Chicago Underground Quartet record, Good Days.

The only time I've worked with Chris, like on the Chicago Underground record, he was pretty hands-off with that. I've done a lot of sessions for Chris where he's producing the record and he just hires me to play guitar. His thing in that way is completely different. He's very in charge when he produces, much more than Paul or John have been that I've seen.

Can you talk about your in-studio process on how you edit, sample, and make beats? I know that's crucial in your most recent two records.

I think it's that I love records. I got into playing music from listening to my father's records. I was in school studying jazz and once I heard the more sample-based way of making music like Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, and Gang Starr, my relationship to jazz music totally changed. When hip-hop in the '90s went sample-based, it changed everything for me.

This music came along that was kind of recontextualizing jazz through sampling records and it wasn't traditional and within the sense that they were sampling old records. But it was postmodern in that they were making music from recordings and looping it in this way, you know, adding James Brown breaks to it. It was funky, fresh and very smart, there was art in it and technology… it was just amazing to me. It changed everything about being a jazz musician and the way that I related to the music. That set a lot of my process.

I listened to music all the time and once you start making beats, you develop this thing that's called, for lack of a better term, "producer's ear." That's where you hear a recording and it catches your ear, you can start to think about ways that you can chop it up in sample parts of it and move it around. A lot of my process comes from hearing records, either other records or even stuff that I made myself and kind of reworking it. A lot of Suite for Max Brown comes from that process. I also have old tunes that have been laying around that I wrote 20 years ago and I'll work on those. It's a lot of different ways.

Which hip-hop records were touchstones for you that made you think about jazz differently?

Obviously, A Tribe Called Quest when The Low End Theory came out, that was a big one, The Pharcyde's first album, Gang Starr, DJ Premier, Public Enemy It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back

Are those records still an influence to you sampling-wise and how they were constructed in relation to how you pieced together your most recent albums?

Absolutely. I think sampling is a beautiful art form. It's a drag that copyright law and weird ownership issues keep artists from being able to exploit it in a really creative way.

But you've been able to sample records by famous artists on your records, right?

Just one. On the new one, luckily because it came out on Nonesuch, which is under the same umbrella as Rhino. They had the rights to the Otis Redding thing that I sampled and they let me do it for really cheap. But I didn't really sample anything other than that on the record so that's the only thing that I had to worry about [laughs].

Was there a personal connection to that Otis Redding tune, "The Happy Song (Dum-Dum)," for you?

Uh, no [laughs]. I just thought the beat was dope.

On Suite for Max Brown, you do a couple of covers like the Coltrane tune, "After the Rain."

We started playing that tune while we were touring The New Breed record. I knew the tune but I only had played it with Makaya McCraven the first time and I was like, "Wow, this is really beautiful." We kept playing it and the tune connected with me and I wanted to record a version of it. I was working on a solo guitar version of it but it was never coming together. So, I just ended up doing a group version of it, which it sounds that way, but none of the parts were actually recorded at the same time [laughs].

Is that how Suite for Max Brown was pieced together, like a patchwork?

Yeah, a lot of it is, very much. Well… kind of. I think there's a lot of taking things and patching them together. Like "Gnarciss," the version of the Joe Henderson tune that we did, that's everyone pretty much playing. The core group, which was myself, Paul Bryan, Makaya McCraven, and Josh Johnson, are all playing at the same time and then I put all this stuff on top of it. My process is pretty experimental, that's part of it—trying to figure it out as I go along.

Jeff Parker - "Cliche"

You have your own home studio but is it equipped for a whole band?

My own studio is basically a place where I can make music by myself. I can't have a whole band really play in the same time in my own studio. I have Josh come over and play some things and (drummer) Jamire (Williams) come over and play drums on what Josh did and then (Nate) Walcott will come over and play trumpet on that. Then I take all my stuff and go over to Paul's house. He'll play bass on it, we'll mix it from there and then we'll stitch things together. With One session at his house in his studio, he has the capability to record everyone at the same time.

Do you feel like you would have been able to make The New Breed and Suite for Max Brown as they were had you still been living in Chicago? It seems like the circle of musicians who you've surrounded yourself with since moving to LA have influenced your sound in a big way. Of course, Chicago musicians are awesome, too!

That's a good question. I don't think I could have done The New Breed in Chicago. Had I made it with Chicago musicians, it would have sounded completely different. It was really dependent on Paul being so generous with his time, because it really took both albums dozens of hours in the studio to assemble this stuff. I didn't really know anyone in Chicago who was in the position to do that.

About four years separate the two records. Did it take that long in between because you labored over its density?

Yeah, I would say with the intermittent nature of being able to get together. I also released The New Breed the same year that Tortoise released The Catastrophist, so I had a whole year of touring with Tortoise when my own record came out. I couldn't really do much of anything.

On top of Suite for Max Brown, you also play on Paul Bryan's record, Cri$el Gems, which you mentioned earlier. Many of the same crew play on his record, plus he's developing a signature "sound."

Cri$el Gems

Paul's homing in on this thing in his studio but his process is 180 degrees different from mine. His [process] is closer to a "blowing date," where you show up, he has the tunes, we're just playing the tunes down and he records it. It's more like a jazz record. But Paul, Matt Mayhall, and Lee Pardini, they had a steady gig at this place in Los Angeles for about a year where they really honed those compositions.

I was flattered to be asked to co-produce with him and my participation in that was very hands-off, where he would ask me my opinions when prompted and I would tell him. But it was his project and he was very clear of what he was trying to get out of it.

You also play on Matt Mayhall's record, Fanatics, with Chris Speed which Paul Bryan produced. You have a lot going on.

That is a very cool album. It's so great to have Chris Speed out here now. That was a really cool record to make. He had sketches of compositions and most of it is just us being pretty wide open, improvising. We did the whole thing I think in two days.

Most of the Tortoise guys are out west now, too, right?

Johnny Herndon and I are in LA, John McEntire is in Portland. He was out here for a minute but he moved up to Portland, maybe a couple of years ago.

Speaking of Tortoise, The Catastrophist came on in 2016. Are you guys working on a new record?

We have plans to start recording something this summer and hopefully we can do it.

What are you working on now that you're all hunkered down?

I have been working on some production for Anteloper, which is Jaimie Branch and Jason Nazary. I'm loosely producing their next album. I'm kind of starting to come to life again. I'm practicing and starting to work on some new music here at home.

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