Dedications: An Interview With Jeff Parker

Riding high in our top 100 albums of 2020 so far, Jeff Parker's Suite For Max Brown is a delight. He speaks to Patrick Clarke about the making of an extraordinary record, which was dedicated to his mother

All photos by Jim Newberry

Jeff Parker’s new album Suite For Max Brown (which placed yesterday at number five in tQ’s top 100 albums of 2020 so far), is beautiful. A mixture of sample-based instrumental hip hop, masterly improvisational jazz and astonishingly deft songwriting, taken as a whole it skips from style to style so smoothly that it defies easy categorisation, instead creating something entirely its own.

Parker, hitherto best known as one part of acclaimed Chicago band tortoise, first explored this far-reaching method of composition on 2016’s The New Breed, which was named in tribute to his father who owned an Afro-centric lifestyle store of the same name in Bridgeport, Connecticut and who passed away during the album’s recording. Regretting the fact that his father never saw the acclaim The New Breed met, Suite For Max Brown is named after his mother, who appears on the album’s cover photographed at the age of 19, with ‘The New Breed’ now referring to the close circle of musicians that accompany him.

On the album’s delightful opening track ‘Build A Nest’, Parker enlists his 18 year-old daughter, who also appeared on The New Breed, to sing, but there’s no obvious and over-reaching familial theme to the last two records. They are for his mother and father, but they’re not about them. “It’s not like ‘This major seventh sharp five chord reflects the complexity and layering of my mother’s angular personality and wry wit,” Parker chuckles over Skype from his home in Los Angeles. Rather they are the quite stunning realisation of a period of considerable creative drive from the musician, an ambition to create something entirely ‘his own’ after years of collaboration.

tQ: It’s been six pretty momentous months since you released Suite For Max Brown, how have they been for you?

Jeff Parker: I mean, crazy man! Thankfully I got in the meat of the touring before [the coronavirus] happened. I toured Europe in January for three weeks, then kind of had all of February off, then a few dates in the States in March. For the last two or three days of that tour the States were starting to close up. We were in New York for our next-to-last show, then we played in Miami, and then we came home and have been in quarantine ever since. So it was good to get that stuff in, and I’m thankful that all that stuff that allowed me to promote the record happened. I feel sorry for people who released things after that and weren’t able to have their albums get any promotion.

There must have been a strange atmosphere at those last shows?

JP: It definitely had the feeling of emergency. Shows on my tour were the last shows that probably anybody who was at any of my gigs went to. People definitely had a feeling of cloudiness, that they were about to be hunkered down for a while

Your last album The New Breed was dedicated to your father, and Suite For Max Brown was for your mother. You’ve also released this new LP as ‘Jeff Parker and The New Breed’. How do you view the relationship between the two records?

When I started to work on the new album I knew that I wanted to dedicate it to my mom because I wish that my father could have seen the warm reception to The New Breed, and I wanted to make something for my mom while she was still around. I guess The New Breed has become a project now, which is why I named the band after the album. It constitutes a technique that I use for creating that music. I don’t know how much of the backstory you know behind that album, but it was named for my father because he died while I was making the album.

And it was named after his shop?

Yeah, which I later found out was a really small chain of Afro-centric lifestyle shops.

Was the album intended to be called that before he died, or was it an alteration you made because of the circumstances?

I was making that album when my father got sick and eventually passed away. I told Scott McNiece from [my label] International Anthem, who has a very keen sense for those kinds of things, that I wanted to dedicate it to him. We started to think about artwork for the release and he was like ‘why don’t you see if you can find some old photographs of him?’ So I found these photographs, this one of him in front of the store, and then that started a dialogue between us about what to name it and came up with The New Breed.

Tell me more about the specific musical processes that define the ‘New Breed’ albums?

In my spare time I always make these beats with samples, just as an exercise more than anything, and I always wanted to find a way to blend that music with improvising. I had written this new music but when it was done I realised that I only had about 20 minutes! So in order to make a whole album I had to blend it with this older stuff that I had. At the time I didn’t even think that they were related, but when I put the older stuff in with the new music I had been working on everything started to really make a lot of sense.

There were literally 10 years between when I was working on this stuff and when I started to work on new music, so it’s a long time. I had a process and a concept but I didn’t really have any means to make that album in terms of dealing with music with samples which can be treacherous waters to wade in. A lot of people wouldn’t even touch it so I didn’t really have a way to release that music and it involved a lot of studio time and I didn’t really have access to all that stuff. Eventually I made The New Breed, people really dug it, and it became this kind of aesthetic of dealing with samples and loops, and doing things with a specific unit of musicians I’d come to work with. One is dedicated to dad, the other’s dedicated to mom, and it really made sense that one came out of the other one.

Do you think there’s sometimes confusion about the difference between an album being ‘for’ your mother and ‘about’ her?

Yeah, it’s me dedicating a work for my mother. It’s not like ‘This major seventh sharp five chord reflects the complexity and layering of my mother’s angular personality and wry wit!’

How’s your mum taken it?

She’s totally thrilled. She’s super into it. I have dedicated lots of music to people who are close to me, there’s a song named for my son on my last record, on my first album there’s a song for my daughter, a song for my ex-wife on an old album and a song for my current partner on an album.

What is it that makes you want to dedicate things to others so often?

These people mould you and they make you and affect you, it’s only natural for it to come out in the creative process for me. It’s a very intimate relationship you have when you’re in a group of musicians. I’m a pretty guarded person, I’m not that comfortable giving people that I don’t know very well directions. I keep a tight community of people around me.

I heard you say something quite interesting in January, “I do things to prove to myself that I can do them.” What do you think you’ve proved on this album and the last?

I was trying to prove to myself that I could arrange, compose and produce an album of my music pretty much all by myself. Probably before The New Breed I was always in bands. I played in Tortoise, I still play in Tortoise, but even the albums I put out under my own name were very collaborative. The people on them wrote as much music as I did, sometimes even more, but I was the person who organised everything so I put my name out. As I get older it’s not as easy for me to collaborate with other musicians.

Why not?

I feel like that process takes a really long time. I don’t know exactly why, but I know that I don’t really have any ‘excuse’ for my music. The New Breed and Suite For Max Brown, that’s my music, 100 per cent. The final decision on every note is made by me on all of those records, even if somebody else is playing I try to make records that I would like.

Have you succeeded?

I’m proud of them both for sure. I like all the records I’ve made. I’m very self-critical but I have to look at the ideas that are presented and distance myself.

Your daughter appeals on the album, singing on the first track ‘Build A Nest’. On the surface it ties neatly into the familial theme of it being an album dedicated to your mother, was there in fact any conceptual intent behind her appearance?

No, there’s no intent like that, it’s just me making stuff. We’re working on a thing right now. I’ve made recordings with her since she was 3 or 4 years old, it’s something we do. When I wanted to incorporate vocals into the thing, she’s really the only singer I’ve ever really worked with! [laughs] It just made a lot of sense. She’s been a part of me making my own music for her whole life. It wasn’t intentional, just really natural.

There’s a cover of John Coltrane’s ‘After The Rain’ and a re-work of Joe Henderson’s ‘Black Narcissus’ on the album, why those two tracks?

I mean they’re both two big influences on me. John Coltrane is somebody is somebody who’s specifically influenced a really wide, broad spectrum of artists in all kinds of disciplines. Joe Henderson as well but he seems to stay in a more jazz world. ‘After The Rain’ is just such a great song that kind of worked its way into the repertoire of the band when we were touring to support The New Breed, we kind of found a vibe with it. I wanted to record a solo guitar version of it but that wasn’t coming together, so it became easy to just do the band version of it.

The Joe Henderson thing, I had made a kind of sample, looped up the intro of his tune ‘Black Narcissus’ and edited and remade it. We went in the studio and we did a real time version of the sample-based arrangement that I had made, and when I was an artist in residence at this place called the Headlands Center For The Arts in California, I started to write more stuff on top of the arrangements and it kind of became this thing. I mean to be honest, I feel like I wrote more music on that [than I covered], but because of weird copyright laws and ownership stuff I just had to say it was a cover of his, even though it’s got a different melody and different chords.

Finally then, you’ve established The New Breed as an outlet for a certain process, what’s the future for this music going forwards?

Immediate plans? There’ll be more New Breed albums for sure. I feel like I could start working on some new music pretty soon… I have some ideas for it in my head, yeah, for sure.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I don’t know, it’s been a hard year, man! Especially here. I think people should stay positive, keep fighting the good fight. I feel like now we’re in a battle of good vs. evil. I think everybody in this country feels urgency to get us out of the shit that we’ve ended up in over here. Fuckin’ Trump, man. I mean, that dude needs to go away. That song, [Suite For Max Brown track ‘Go Away’] is about that energy.

Suite For Max Brown is out now on International Anthem. It’s at number 5 in tQ’s 100 best albums of 2020 so far, and you can find the full list here.

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