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Jeff Parker
Mondays At The Enfield Tennis Academy Antonio Poscic , November 16th, 2022 09:08

A selection of live cuts find the Tortoise guitarist and AACM member in warm spirits, finds Antonio Poscic

Depending on one’s musical preferences, the name Jeff Parker is likely to elicit a disparate set of associations. Post-rock and indie fans will recognise him as the guitarist for Chicago group Tortoise, with whom he has been playing since their seminal 1998 release TNT. Free jazz and free improv heads will first think of his long-standing series of works with Rob Mazurek, Nate McBride, Akira Sakata, and other luminaries of the creative music scene. Meanwhile, his recent outings as leader of the New Breed ensemble and as a sideman to Makaya McCraven immersed him in the new Chicago sound – jazz inflected with samples and hip-hop tropes, spearheaded by the International Anthem label. Regardless of form, the voice of Parker’s guitar is unmistakable, full of melodic figures swirling in wobbly, hypnotic patterns.

Mondays at The Enfield Tennis Academy simultaneously fits none and all of these categories. The album features a selection of material that Parker and his quartet performed across several evenings and years at the ETA club in Los Angeles. Despite the improvised nature of the music, Mondays lands closest to the hip-hop, funk, and soul tendencies of 2016’s The New Breed or 2020’s Suite For Max Brown. At least in part, that’s thanks to his collaborators. Josh Johnson (alto saxophone, effects) and Jay Bellerose (drums) have both played with the New Breed in the past, while Anna Butterss (bass) shared the stage with Parker as part of McCraven’s group. In contrast to the usual free improvisation idiom and its tendency to meander between abstract figures and skronking freakouts, the four pieces here – each of them around twenty minutes long – are locked into steady, slowly shifting rhythms that give the music a funky, cosy feeling.

‘2019-07-08 I’ opens with the soft noise of glasses clinking and patrons chatting that feels designedly placed instead of coincidental, setting the mood for what’s to come. As the ambience wanes, the quartet start building the first of their many grooves. The opening few minutes are subtle and patient. We hear Bellerose gently brushing syncopations on his snares, Butterss plucking oblong bass lines, while Johnson and Parker establish a dialogue through gossamer guitar and saxophone licks. Soon enough, what was once a shy beat becomes motorik and begins its determined roll. Thick bass reverberations and drum fills flicker, fade, and reappear, leaving ample space for several exquisite solo spots from all four players. These extend into delicate melodies and feathery abstractions on ‘2019-07-08 II’, before ending up surrounded by tambourine-underlined funk. And in the midst of it all, Parker hits a ripping lead evocative of John Scofield’s style.

‘2019-05-19’ takes us back in time to find the group in a mellow mood. Shuffling rhythms, timid ambient textures, sustained tones, and harmonised saxophone phrases bring to life a bright American urban pastoral reminiscent of the works of Ernest Hood and inspire Parker to launch into a crunchy solo, his guitar roaring in the vein of John McLaughlin with The Mahavishnu Orchestra. Here, like elsewhere, solo showcases and collective grooves intertwine and flow naturally into each other. Without any distracting seams between the sections, the music becomes a gripping jam that never fails to keep attention.

Finally, ‘2021-04-28’ transports us to a post-pandemic world. Whether fuelled by a growing hunger to play live or having become more comfortable in a group setting, the quartet sound utterly energised as they open in medias res, rolling along a joyous dub riddim. As if getting caught in a moment of lamentation, the music dissipates into a minimalist version of itself. It becomes all subtle pulses, echoing saxophone yelps, and yearning bass bows, only to then ramp back up to that initial swinging plateau, complete with scraping guitar expressions. A lovely ending to a lovely, warm album.