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Saturday, September 12, 2020

Jeff Parker & The New Breed - Suite for Max Brown (International Anthem/Nonesuch, 2020) ****½

By Lee Rice Epstein

In 2016, Jeff Parker released two albums that probably expanded listeners’ preconceptions of what kind of artist he was: The New Breed, an ode to his father, and Slight Freedom, Parker’s first solo guitar album. With both, Parker stretched beyond what we’d heard with his trio, his work with Tortoise, and other collaborations he’d recorded with dozens of artists. What he delivered were two deeply passionate, rich and layered albums, celebrated by critics and beloved by listeners.

A guitarist like few others, Parker plays with a gorgeous tone and avant-garde sensibility that often finds him coming at projects from unexpected angles. And here comes Suite for Max Brown, credited to The New Breed, the band. It’s mostly a one-person show, but Parker uses the concept of a group to weave nearly a dozen collaborators—including, once again, his daughter Ruby Parker—into his tapestry: Paul Bryan, Josh Johnson, Katinka Kleijn, Rob Mazurek, Nate Walcott, Makaya McCraven, Jay Bellerose, and Jamire Williams each contribute to the whole, with Parker performing and shaping like a maestro. In the liner notes, Parker is credited with “drums, vocals, piano, electric piano, electric guitar, Korg MS20, sampling, editing, bass guitar, percussion, glockenspiel, sequencer, JP-08, midi strings, midi programming, pandeiro, [and] mbira.” But, what’s exceptional about Suite for Max Brown is how delicately and expertly all of these instruments are stacked together, centering Parker’s guitar with layers of counterbalanced rhythms and harmonies. Much like The New Breed, Suite for Max Brown is a loving reflection on family, this time Parker’s mother, who graces the album cover. Originals, like the opener “Build a Nest,” with Ruby Parker on vocals, highlight a fractal-like approach to composition, with numerous instruments echoing and hocketing. Later, towards the end of “Fusion Swirl,” Parker plays a solo with a slight restatement of the opener’s theme. It’s another tantalizing hint of how many looping motions throughout the entire album will bring a listener back to center.

Among the many excellent originals, Parker has two standout covers. The first is a lovely take on John Coltrane’s “After the Rain.” emerging from the storming 1-2 of “C’mon Now” and “Fusion Swirl.” It’s one of those classics that still inspires some amazing interpretations. Then comes, for me, one of the highlights of the album, a gnarly, churning take on Joe Henderson's "Black Narcissus.” Titled, appropriately, “Gnarciss,” it’s got this fun, inspired feel that’s become a standard feature of International Anthem albums, as the label continues to support a free-flowing vision that updates both sides of the jazz coin, straight and free. It also has the largest lineup of any track, a sextet with McCraven on drums, Bryan on bass, Kleijn on cello, and Johnson and Mazurek the two-person horn section, At two minutes, “Gnarciss” packs a mighty punch (don’t be shocked if a limited-edition 7” drops next record store day, and if it does, expect it to sell out in minutes).

Constructed from three more-or-less 10-minute sections, Suite for Max Brown flips through sonic Polaroids, 8mm reels, stacks of postcards, letters read and reread, lovingly creased along their fold lines, all interpreted through the dozens of instruments used to create its soundworld. Towards the end, McCraven returns for the Aftrobeat-laden “Go Away,” closing out the second section of the album. For the finale, Johnson, Bryan, Williams, and Walcott join Parker on the 10-minute “Max Brown.” Kicking off with percussive beats, keyboard, and a teasing solo from Parker, once the angular melody gets introduced, “Max Brown” lifts off. Johnson’s been up-and-coming in LA for several years. His playing is like the next generation of that Pi Recordings house sound; fans of Mahanthappa and Lehman will surely take note. In particular, check out his solo around minute five, buoyed by Williams’s expertly skewed backbeat, Bryan’s bass, and Parker’s keyboards. This is the kind of loose, lengthy track that will make listeners yearn for the return of live music. “Max Brown” settles into a groove near the end that rivals some of Parker’s work with Tortoise, amped up by the individual energy of these players. With Suite for Max Brown, Parker’s delivered on his unspoken promise of 2016, he’s taken us even higher. It doesn’t matter what comes next; for now, we’ve arrived.

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Stereo Tommy said...

I've been waiting for months for this record to start getting the attention it deserves. It's really, really fucking good.

Anonymous said...

Agreed, its excellent work. More goodness from the extended circle of musicians featured here can be found on other 20202 releases including
co-produced by Parker & Bryan
co-produced by Bryan & Parker