Whether he’s expanding minds in post-rock legends Tortoise, reimagining Sheryl Crow (yes, that Sheryl Crow!) with saxophonist Joshua Redman, or chopping up work on the spot with drummer Makaya McCraven, Jeff Parker has a natural feel for sounds that captivate. A significant force in the Chicago experimental and jazz scene, presently based out of California, his genre-defying work challenges listeners to think and feel beyond categories.
Parker is a supremely prolific sideman and studio collaborator, but he also happens to have several solo records under his belt too. Today we’re digging into his latest, last year’s Suite for Max Brown, an informal companion to his previous record, The New Breed, which was honored by London's Observer as the best jazz album of 2016.
On Suite for Max Brown, Parker blends post-Coltrane groove with programmed elements to create a gorgeously contemporary take on soul jazz. Moods and textures shift as flawlessly and continuously as Parker himself does between jazz and rock, funky and bouncy at one moment, somber and serious the next.
Jazz may not be known for studio trickery, but Parker’s background in experimental music, sequencing, and DJing gives him the unique skill set to animate his sonic visions. The casual listener would never know this album was pieced together in the manner that it was, but that’s the mark of Parker’s devotion to his craft, alongside expert help from longtime collaborator, producer/engineer Paul Bryan, who also contributed bass guitar.
We had the pleasure to chat with Parker and Bryan together about their experiences working on Suite for Max Brown, discussing everything from Parker’s go-to synths to Bryan’s mixing set-up and more.
Can you tell me about the studio where Suite for Max Brown was recorded?
Jeff Parker: It was recorded in a few different places. Some of it was recorded in my home studio workspace here in Altadena, which is just a converted garage. It's maybe 20 by 20 feet with probably an 8-foot ceiling. Some of it was recorded where I was a resident at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin County, and my studio space there was probably a 3000 square foot redwood barn, with 20 to 30-feet ceilings. The other place was at Paul's studio, and I'll let him explain that.
Paul Bryan: It's another home studio but I've had a lot of home studios and this one, when we moved here, I took as much of the house as I could. Similar to Jeff's place, but with bigger ceilings, maybe 12 feet. Over the years, Jeff and I have done more live, full-band stuff here.
Was everything recorded separately? Much of it does sound like live jazz.
PB: The original "Gnarciss" and "Go Away" sessions were live, but then Jeff worked his magic and it eventually became a hybrid. But the original tracking, of those two at least, I don't think there were any others...
JP: “Max Brown.”
PB: “Max Brown,” yeah. So these three, we initially did and they started in one place but by the time they were finished, it was a whole different animal. Those three tunes started out a bit more like The New Breed record, and then became something else.
JP: The process of me dealing with this music is an experimental process with a lot of trial and error. The main thing is that everything has to be as isolated as possible, in order for me to be able to fit the pieces of the music together. That's something, with jazz and improvised music in general, that's a very uncomfortable situation for a lot of musicians, to kind of deal with that. Usually, most jazz or improvised music relies on the musicians being in close proximity to one another and visual cues. Often everybody's in the same room, and there's bleed. At Paul's place, he's able to completely isolate everything, which was really important. At my place, I wouldn't have been able to do that if I wanted to, which was why I just tracked people at different times.
PB: It is a hard balance though. People that are just used to, or more comfortable with overdubbing, are more flexible about it. Jazz musicians are just so good at improvising together, it's part of the spirit of it, to be able to constantly be communicating with another person. Jeff's great in both worlds, and I definitely have gotten comfortable in both worlds, too. Recording-wise, I'm always trying to get both, especially with someone like Jeff who I know is gonna have such a unique process. It's super important to be able to not be stuck, although being stuck sometimes is a great artistic prod as well.
Jeff, while reading about your background as a DJ, I was struck by how you noticed the artistry of free, abstract jazz over a sequenced beat when you were moving into a Coltrane song. Can you tell me more about how you achieved that on the record and the gear you used to do so?
JP: All this stuff is informed by the different musical experiences that I've had. I'm going to use my last record, The New Breed, to explain this. There's a tune called "Jrifted," which is us improvising along with sequenced loops on a sequencer that I loaded into the software, Propellerhead's Reason. The sequences aren't percussive in nature, but they're on a grid. And when we improvise along with it, we were elastic with the time. So even if you had this sequenced order of events, it mixed with the improvising to make it sound abstract, and like the time was elastic. That's what I tried to achieve with that music. When we play live, I use a DAW, either Reason or Ableton Live, to trigger the samples so you can have the same effect sonically. I'm trying to make this music that's sequenced and made with machines, sound organic and feel like jazz, even though when you make it, it's not like that at all. But I want it to sound like that and have that feeling for the listener.
It really does feel so organic. I can't believe some of it wasn't recorded that way.
JP: Most of it wasn't. But it sounds like a band, playing with this sequenced thing underneath it. None of it was like that at all. There's not one song on Suite for Max Brown that has everybody playing at the same time on the performance.
Was there anything that was particularly challenging to capture or had to be done more unconventionally?
JP: I recorded my daughter Ruby’s vocals here at my place. I live really close, like really close, to AEA Microphones, and I was going over there a lot and bugging those guys, and they would lend me these mics. I bought one, and a pre-amp, but they would lend me these mics. It's an AEA R84, their version of this RCA vintage ribbon mic. I recorded Ruby's voice with that.
PB: I mean, Jeff Parker is unconventional. That's what's so fun about it! Every song was unconventional. It was really fun to get new tracks. Jeff would be like, "Oh man, check this out" and bring over a hard drive. It was like a fun musical jigsaw puzzle every time, how it's gonna come together. Then you hear it and in your mind think, "Oh, I know what to do with this." That's really something about Jeff, which is not often the case. Sometimes you have to really seek, when you're producing or mixing for people, you have to figure out what they're after. But Jeff and I have known each other and worked together so long that he brings something over and it's always like, "Oh yeah. I know what to do with this. This is gonna be fun." Part of that was him teaching me about his music, on The New Breed especially. He was really patient and showed me what he was looking for in various ways. In that way, it wasn't difficult. And there are certainly things that are super fun.
"Go Away" was hard for me to mix, a little bit. There was so much in it, and I gotta say this, just for the record, because nobody else saw this, but I saw it. Jeff’s double-tracked guitar that's on there, for all this talk of overdubbing and cut and paste, the double guitar playing that's on "Go Away," I watched Jeff do that in a pass on a Boomerang. That shit blew my mind. That's a really great thing that I don't think anyone's ever gonna know, because it sounds like someone overdubbing, but that was Jeff wanting to try something with his Boomerang pedal. So we routed the Boomerang into a different track so it could be treated like a separate guitar, but it was one take. That was one signal happening. And we just split it so we could treat it, and that was the pass. That's one of my favorite tracks on the record, too. That guitar.
JP: This was a fun record to make. Just trying to make freaky stuff and put it out into the world. Make it weird.
Speaking of weird, tell me about the synthesizers you use, the Korg MS20 and the JP-08, and what you like about them.
JP: I've had the Korg for probably 20 years at this point. It can sound a lot of different ways, and it's just a funky little instrument. It can sound synthy, it can take on the qualities of a reed instrument, and you can blend it with a lot of different other timbres. It's got great synth bass. I've had it a long time, so I feel like I know it pretty well, but also I don't know it at all. So whenever I use it, it's fresh to me, still.
The JP-08, that's one of those Roland boutique instruments, virtual analog, where everything's shrunk down, but this one is modeled after the Roland Jupiter 8, which was really expensive at the time, in the '80s when it was in its heyday. I guess it's most famously known on the Michael Jackson tune, "Beat It." That thing, that sound at the beginning, before the song starts? That's a Jupiter 8.
Can you talk a little bit about your sampler and MIDI controller?
JP: The sampler is actually my Boomerang. It's a sampling pedal. I have the second generation one, I think I bought it in 1999. But then I use the samplers in the DAWs, in Ableton Live or in Reason. The MIDI controller, it's whatever I have at my disposal. A lot of times I was using those Akai MPD24s, just a two-octave keyboard with eight pads. I haven't used a hardware sampler in probably ten years. I had an MPC1000 that I never really got quite the hang of, so I gave it to Makaya McCraven.
The record includes a Coltrane cover (“After the Rain”) and a song that incorporates elements of a Joe Henderson track ("Gnarciss"). What spoke to you about these songs?
JP: The Joe Henderson tune is based off his composition "Black Narcissus." I sampled the intro and made this beat composition out of it. It's a great tune, I've always loved it, and the recording of it is beautiful. The intro is made for producers to sample it and chop it up, so I did. When we recorded it, we just basically re-did, with live instrumentation, the sample-based version that I had made.
With "After the Rain," we started playing that when we were touring on the first album. I was working on a solo guitar version of it that wasn't really coming together, so I had an idea to have us record a version of it. It's such a beautiful song. Not symbolic in any way. But we also tracked everything separately. Josh Johnson and I recorded the melody and electric piano at the same time, but Paul's bass and Jamire's drums were both added after. I also made the decision to use a kind of FM-synthesizer sound, a DX7, to lighten it, kind of tongue-in-cheek. What if you take this cheesy keyboard sound and put it on this heavy Coltrane tune? It just makes it more ironic, I would say. And also fun.
Paul, can you share a bit more about the specifics of your mixing set-up for Suite For Max Brown?
PB: With a lot of the tracks I'd get from Jeff, I would run stuff through some of the EQs and preamps, just to pump up the levels a little bit and compress stuff lightly. I have a couple 1178s I like to use, the silver ones, a couple Distressors that always come in handy. When I'd hear a track and think, "Oh, this is gonna be cool if it's a little full" or all the things you can do with making things quieter or bigger with compression. On the horns, I use a lot of the Summit compressors, those just sound great on vocals and horns. They sound great for anything, those single-channel tube compressors. I like the weird dbx 160 on the snare drums. Those Neve Portico tape emulators, we used a lot. On the 2 buss, the Dramastic which is that kind of SSL-style compressor, that was on everything, and a Tube-Tech EQ on everything.
Was there anything you used the most?
PB: This is not exactly what you're asking, though maybe it is, but I got speakers about a year ago, Barefoot MM27s, and man, those helped me so much, just reference-wise. I was able to feel like what was leaving the studio sounded like it did inside the studio, which wasn't the case before.
When I'm doing stuff I've already recorded, I tend to use the same things because it's similarly recorded, so I can keep the channels open and I'm less likely to reach for stuff to try it. But when Jeff's sending me all these cool tracks, really cool guitar tracks and keyboards and piano and vocals, I ended up doing many more different things. Probably the most consistent pieces of gear I used was the 2 buss stuff, which was on everything. That compressor is a big part of it, and the EQs, the Tube-Tech EQ, and always use those Summits. They're always on something.
Listen below to hear Jeff Parker and Paul Bryan's work on Suite For Max Brown.