It’s only taken a couple decades, but the landscape of contemporary music is finally catching up with Jeff Parker. The Connecticut-born guitarist has been a staple of musical innovation in Chicago since the mid-’90s, when he became a regular player with Tortoise, whose blend of indie rock, jazz and cinematic sounds set a playful standard for post-rock. But for much of that time, Parker’s also been exploring musical sounds that have evaded tastemaker consciousness since at least the ’70s, particularly jazz fusion. As a member of Isotope 217 and Chicago Underground Duo/Trio/Quintet, Parker’s found new life in ideas once explored by Miles Davis and Mahavishnu Orchestra, sometimes synced up with IDM twitch, elsewhere given more space to breathe, but always delivered with a fresh approach and to often stunning results.
It’s taken some time—and is arguably well overdue—but jazz has newly found itself at the forefront of the most exciting contemporary music, thanks to a number of global scenes emerging with lineups of young innovators such as Kamaal Williams and Makaya McCraven. Parker, however, has remained constant in his prolific output of shape-shifting jazz, experimental and post-rock music, delivering one of his most profoundly affecting statements with 2016′s The New Breed, a tribute to his late father. Its new companion piece, Suite for Max Brown, is intended as a tribute to his mother, Maxine Brown, intended to be released while she’s still here to hear and appreciate it. And true to his lengthy career of finding inspiration in nontraditional forms of jazz, it showcases the breadth and beauty of his compositions, carrying a number of threads that tie back to much of his outstanding back catalog.
Parker packs a lot of ideas onto Suite for Max Brown, but they move quickly, never overstaying their welcome and sometimes arriving more as sketches than as extensive pieces. Tracks like “Lydian” and “C’mon Now” are more like interludes than proper songs, but they propel what sometimes feels more like a DJ mix than an album per se, which was, in part, Parker’s intent; in a press release he described having a moment of epiphany having once spun a Nobukazu Takemura track into John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and that tug-of-war between glitchy rhythms and transcendent instrumentals carries through many of the tracks here, such as the deeply grooving “Fusion Swirl” or the like-minded minimalism jam session of “Go Away.” The brief “Gnarciss” even feels like it could fit in comfortably on a Tortoise album or perhaps a Prefuse 73 joint.
Suite for Max Brown is often at its best when Parker and his collaborators—which include his band The New Breed, trumpeters Rob Mazurek and Nate Wolcott (Bright Eyes), and drummer Makaya McCraven—give the melodies and improvisations space to breathe. While “3 for L” is among the most traditional jazz pieces here, the ease and restraint of it provides a soothing counterpoint to the manic beat exercises elsewhere on the record. The fusion swirl of “After the Rain” is a heady brew of miasmal ambience, and the lengthy closer, “Max Brown,” makes the most of its real estate to provide varying movements of funk, soul and serenity. By the standards of today’s jazz, Parker is an old pro, but his mastery of the form shows that there are always brilliant new frontiers to explore.