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2020 Ambient #8: Jeff Parker — Suite for Max Brown

Jeff Parker is perhaps best known as the guitarist in the influential art-rock band Tortoise, since the late 90s. Since graduating from Berklee College of Music, Parker has been an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and composer, and a giant in the Chicago jazz and experimental music scene. He’s worked with artists such as Bill Callahan (Smog) and Rob Mazurek, The Chicago Underground Duo/Trio/Quartet/Orchestra/Collective (depending on the number of musicians on each subsequent recording), and leads the band Isotope 217. Not to mention the seven records Jeff Parker has released under his own name, beginning with 2003’s Like-Coping.

Despite the abundance of work Parker has put out, and having a (admittedly, casual) relationship with Tortoise, I hadn’t really paid attention to Parker’s work until the release of The New Breed, in 2016, his first release with the Chicago label International Anthem. Named after a clothes shop Parker’s father ran in the 1970s, The New Breed is a richly woven tapestry of retrospective archival beat production and samples, over which Parker and his found family of musicians add (often improvised) instrumentation. Parker’s father, Ernie, passed away during the recording of the album, which makes it feel even more personal, and patrilineal — he also adorns the cover, smiling in front of his shop. Parker mines his personal vault of samples, using his guitar as an anchor while tracing his paternal lineage. Parker’s next effort, 2020’s Suite for Max Brown, is a companion piece to The New Breed, but this time dedicated to Parker’s mother, Maxine Brown.

The exploration of digital recording techniques and live improvisation on The New Breed could be considered tame compared to Suite for Max Brown, which blows the doors wide open. Max Brown flips the script, allowing Parker’s more hip-hop inspired tendencies to shine. Inspired by DJ’ing at clubs, and artists such as J Dilla and Madlib, Parker further embraces the challenges of cutting and chopping his own library of work, creating a patchwork quilt of sequenced sounds, and playing most of the instruments on the record himself. The opening piano chords and drums on ‘Build a Nest’ almost trick you into thinking this is going to be a straightforward jazz effort, before quickly switching into a simple, slow-rolling beat over which Parker’s daughter Ruby sings the lines “everyone moves/ like they’ve got some place to go/ build a nest and watch the world go by slow”. The track has a beautiful, 90s retro vibe but is also effortlessly cool. Second track ‘C’mon Now’ is a funky, sun-soaked Otis Redding sample, clocking in at 25 seconds — the switch into the driving, percussive-heavy (and aptly-named) ‘Fusion Swirl’, with its claps and disembodied whoops, is so unassuming, so unexpected. By the time you’re locked into the twisting bass rhythms it cuts halfway through the track, giving way to a curious, weaving electric guitar that has more in common with Parker's latest release, 2021's Forfolks. The first three tracks on Max Brown are so full of colour and texture, and move too quickly and fluidly to fix on just one mood or idea for too long, but are evident of the master arranger at work.

I wanted to write about this record simply because of how soothing and rich in detail it is. Max Brown is the sort of album I could never tire of: each song has so much to offer, and the production on this thing allows every plucked string, every clap and kick and rattle to ring true with purpose. The final track, a ten-and-a-half-minute odyssey simply titled ‘Max Brown’, is a final celebration of love and life. While the whole record is a fusion of electronic culture, old-school hip-hop and live improvisation, ‘Max Brown’ is the album’s most definitive statement. The opening section of the track sees Parker’s instantly recognisable guitar flirting around the piano atop a bed of clicks, before Natt Walcott’s trumpet and Johnson’s alto sax take turns passing melodies in the smoky spotlight. This song contains all the texture and tenderness of life — and, like life, you can choose to pay attention to every minute detail, and be rewarded with every listen, or you can allow it to wash over you.

‘After the Rain’ is a gorgeous interpretation of the John Coltrane original, a saccharine dedication to Parker’s mum. Coltrane was the love of his mother’s generation, and Parker’s guitar is performed so affectionately, alongside Josh Johnson’s electric piano and Jamire Williams’ drums, the track genuinely sparkles with gratitude and admiration of his mother. After the breakneck switches from the opener to ‘Fusion Swirl’, ‘After the Rain’ slows the pace, and allows the music — and the listener — to breathe and to reflect.

Max Brown, for me, is an album that encourages reflection — on the past, on lineage, and how they both affect the present. It asks you to appreciate the people in your life, the ups and downs that have brought you to this moment. Listening to this record during lockdown I felt encouraged to consider how the world had come to a standstill, the events and lack of action that led to millions of lives lost. But it also made me look inwards, to reflect upon my feelings of anger, anxiety — and guilt. Guilt for not appreciating my parents enough, the people around me, or the freedom to wonder the streets and parks without restraint. I’m also prone to feeling guilty of not doing or being enough — not posting on the blog regularly, not spending every hour writing or reading or making art. However, songs like ‘3 for L’, a not-quite-traditional slow swing tune, a conversation between Parker’s sunny guitar and backed by Jay Bellerose’ mechanical, crepuscular percussion, ask the listener to appreciate — and embrace — the cycle of day and night, the ups and downs, life and death.


Jeff Parker's latest solo release, Forfolks, was released via International Anthem & Nonesuch Records December 2021. International Anthem & Nonesuch Records released Suite for Max Brown January 14th, 2020.

Further Reading Steven Arryo reviews Suite for Max Brown for Pitchfork:

Marcus J. Moore on Suite for Max Brown for Bandcamp Daily:

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