An Evening with Steve Gunn & Jeff Parker
Presented in partnership with Acme Records
Solo sets from these genre-bending virtuosos
Presented in partnership with Acme Records
Solo sets from these genre-bending virtuosos
Steve Gunn’s Way Out Weather, from 2014 was not only a career highlight for the artist himself, who had formerly travelled most often in more experimental and more improvisatory musical communities, but it was also an important milestone in the story of contemporary independent music of the rock and roll variety in the world at large. Unapologetically guitar-oriented, with an emphasis on finger-picking and pedal steel, country-and-folk-inflected but without being reductively so, full of reverence for the song as a form, Way Out Weather seemed, as the title suggests, both way out, as in turned on, as in certain great works past of the psychedelic period—Skip Spence, John Fahey, and Doug Sahm—but also way out, as in mapping a way out of rock and roll’s dead ends, its stylistic repetitions. It was a bit of a contemporary masterpiece, unexpected and rich.
And: perhaps most revelatory in retrospect was the singing.
On Way Out Weather, Gunn was discovering himself as a singer, and you could hear it happening. The melodies did similar things from song to song, the lyrics as much about texture and kinds of vowel sounds, like waves of semantic possibility. The words appeared amid relaxed instrumental breaks, expansive guitar flights, a hovering, a mood. For all of the beautiful instrumental writing, Gunn’s voice, with its faint evocations of Philly soul and classic country and western, part Marvin Gaye, part Willie Nelson, part Nick Drake, became a thing to delight in, even if unexpected.
After Way Out Weather, the artist headed off in different directions. While continuing to investigate improvised and instrumental music, in, e.g., his beloved Gunn-Truscinski Duo, he moved in the song-oriented albums toward an eighties and nineties post-punk sort of a sound, where The Feelies or early Sonic Youth or Television did not seem like outlandish comparisons. Eyes on the Lines (2016), most evidently, is simply a brash and uncompromising rock and roll record about relationships between electric guitar parts, it’s beautiful without being punctilious, lyrical and elevated without ever being pretentious or self-conscious. And The Unseen Is Between (2019) reversed course toward the acoustic guitar, and toward much more ambitious melodies. As with the prior two albums, Gunn seemed drawn to lines of verse in trimeter and tetrameter, three and four beats, and the lyrics were familiarly abstract, more about waves of meaning, allusive, and yet you could begin to see where he was going, what idea of songcraft was rising up like a morning flecked with clouds, in which the shadows dappled the landscape, in which a feeling, above all, washed over you.
And thus the beginning of a shined-up, mid-sixties pop apotheosis, a state of high songwriting accomplishment, on Gunn’s new album Other You. It’s a journey that can’t help but summon up Way Out Weather, the transformative ambition of that earlier record, its refreshing set of ideas about what was interesting about psychedelia, a love for the guitar as an instrument, but even more so here, on Other You, we have melody, timbral originality, a keen ear for production. Above all, the voice and lyrics take a new front seat on Other You, right where we can hear them. Gunn has allowed himself to be more apparent, like the Michael Stipe who suddenly appeared out of the murk on Document. There’s a person inhabiting these songs, a subjectivity, not just one of the best guitarists in contemporary music, not just a reporter with a winsome observational genius, here, a singer-songwriter, with a first-person voice, even if the songs seem rarely or only glancingly confessional. Now we have beautiful shimmering melodies, great melodies, and also that aching voice, at the tenor edge, and harmonies, singing up front.
Then which is the “other” promised by the album, might we ask? An artist who is restless to try new things, and to move confidently in the direction of new techniques, new ways of playing, evident especially in some bright new textural flavors, like Mary Lattimore’s harp on the instrumental “Sugar Kiss,” the backward guitar solo on the title track, the synthesizers that abound, the Wurlitzer electric piano that anchors the blue- eyed soul of “Reflection,” the waves of keyboards on the bittersweet “Ever Feel That Way,” with its faint traces of Tropicalia, the snare drums wandering far afield. Other You aspires to the highest accomplishments of songcraft, in melody, and in arrangement, including even a modernist palette, a contemporary buffet of sonic backdrops that deepens any preconceptions we might have about Gunn’s normally historical gaze.
Throughout, the presence of producer Rob Schnapf, whose well-known credits include Beck Hansen’s early recordings, and the work of Elliott Smith, is fully integrated into the whole of Other You, resulting not only in a sound-bed of instrumental washes that Gunn has not used before, but also in making sure the voices are in the front, that the singer is right where you can feel him, so that the songs can be understood compositionally for what they are, likewise the poetry. And we might speak also, especially, of the keys (and bass) of Justin Tripp, also an important player on Way Out Weather, whose arrangement ideas are an especial flavor on every track. But, most of all: this Steve Gunn, the one up front, is a really gifted singer, slinky, gentle, but with a brassy quality, beautiful, with a great falsetto, he’s not just a guitarist, nor a songwriter of compositions that rely on guitar, he’s a guy who can turn a line, a Fred Neil for the 2020s, masterful and moving and unpredictable and bittersweet, who makes the words last, and who makes hooks count, who can write a memorable chorus, the kind that causes you to want to return and listen again.
Once before, this Steve Gunn made a career-statement, in 2014, said something about what music could do, what its legacy was, what its purpose could be now. It’s really seldom that an artist gets to do that twice, certainly unlikely that it can happen so quickly after the last truly exceptional album, and yet Steve Gunn has done exactly that on Other You, made something new and memorable. You could imagine listening to Other You on a trans-continental rail journey, or while summiting a mountain range, or while going through an enormous stack of your grandparents’ snapshots, or while baking a cake that has no particular occasion, or while sitting out a pandemic, or while realizing, looking out that window, that it’s okay to set aside your regrets, in this beautiful, hovering now, and listen.
“I’m always looking for ways to be surprised,” says composer and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Parker as he explains the process, and the thinking, behind his new album, Suite for Max Brown, released via a new partnership between the Chicago–based label International Anthem and Nonesuch Records. “If I sit down at the piano or with my guitar, with staff paper and a pencil, I’m eventually going to fall into writing patterns, into things I already know. So, when I make music, that’s what I’m trying to get away from—the things that I know.”
Parker himself is known to many fans as the longtime guitarist for the Chicago–based quintet Tortoise, one of the most critically revered, sonically adventurous groups to emerge from the American indie scene of the early nineties. The band’s often hypnotic, largely instrumental sound eludes easy definition, drawing freely from rock, jazz, electronic, and avant-garde music, and it has garnered a large following over the course of nearly thirty years. Aside from recording and touring with Tortoise, Parker has worked as a side man with many jazz greats, including Nonesuch labelmate Joshua Redman on his 2005 Momentum album; as a studio collaborator with other composer-musicians, including Brian Blade, Meshell Ndegeocello, and fellow International Anthem artists Makaya McCraven and Rob Mazurek; and as a solo artist. Suite for Max Brown is informally a companion piece to The New Breed, Parker’s 2016 album on International Anthem, which London’s Observer honored as ‘the Best Jazz Album of the Year,’ the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times included on their ‘Best Albums of 2016’ lists; and recently, Aquarium Drunkard included it on their ‘Best Albums of the Decade’ 2010-2019 compendium. Observer said “no other musician in the modern era has moved so seamlessly between rock and jazz like Jeff Parker. As guitarist for Chicago post-rock icons Tortoise, he’s taken the group in new and challenging directions that have kept them at the forefront of pop creativity for the last twenty years. As of late, however, Parker has established himself as one of the most formidable solo talents in modern jazz.”
Though Parker collaborates with a coterie of musicians under the group name The New Breed, theirs is by no means a conventional “band” relationship. Parker is very much a solo artist on Suite for Max Brown. He constructs a digital bed of beats and samples; lays down tracks of his own on guitar, keyboards, bass, percussion, and occasionally voice; then invites his musician friends to play and improvise over his melodies. But unlike a traditional jazz session, Parker doesn’t assemble a full combo
in the studio for a day or two of live takes. His accompanists are often working alone with Parker, reacting to what Parker has provided them, and then Parker uses those individual parts to layer and assemble into his final tracks. The process may be relatively solitary and cerebral, but the results feel like in-the-moment jams—warm-hearted, human, alive. Suite for Max Brown brims with personality, boasting the rhythmic flow of hip hop and the soulful swing of jazz.
“In my own music I’ve always sought to deal with the intersection of improvisation and the digital era of making music, trying to merge these disparate elements into something cohesive,” Parker explains. “I became obsessed maybe ten or fifteen years ago with making music from samples. At first it was more an exercise in learning how to sample and edit audio. I was a big hip-hop fan all my life, but I never delved into the technical aspects of making that music. To keep myself busy, I started to sample music from my own library of recordings, to chop them up, make loops and beats. I would do it in my spare time. I could do it when I was on tour—in the van or on an airplane, at a soundcheck, whenever I had spare time I was working on this stuff. After a while, as you can imagine, I had hours and hours of samples I had made and I hadn’t really done anything with them
“So I made The New Breed based off these old sample-based compositions and mixed them with improvising,” he continues. “There was a lot of editing, a lot of post-production work that went into that. That’s in a nutshell how I make a lot of my music; it’s a combination of sampling, editing, retriggering audio, and recording it, moving it around and trying to make it into something cohesive—and make it
music that someone would enjoy listening to. With Max Brown, it’s evolved. I played a lot of the music myself. It’s me playing as many of the instruments as I could. I engineered most it myself at home or during a residency I did at the Headlands Center for the Arts [in Sausalito, California] about a year ago.”
His New Breed band-mates and fellow travelers on Max Brown include pianist-saxophonist Josh Johnson; bassist Paul Bryan, who co-produced and mixed the album with Parker; piccolo trumpet player Rob Mazurek, his frequent duo partner; trumpeter Nate Walcott, a veteran of Conor Oberst’s Bright Eyes; drummers Jamire Williams, Makaya McCraven, and Jay Bellerose, Parker’s Berklee School of Music classmate; cellist Katinka Klejin of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; and even his seventeen- year-old daughter Ruby Parker, a student at the Chicago High School of the Arts, who contributes vocals to opening track, “Build A Nest.”
Ruby’s presence at the start is fitting on multiple levels: it’s how Parker left us on The New Breed, with Ruby singing on that album’s closing track “Cliché,” and their ongoing, multi-generational collaboration is right in line with the familial themes that inspired this album’s title. “That’s my mother’s maiden name. Maxine Brown. Everybody calls her Max. I decided to call it Suite for Max Brown. The New Breed became a kind of tribute to my father because he passed away while I was making the album. The New Breed was a clothing store he owned when I was a kid, a store in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where I was born. I thought it would be nice this time to dedicate something to my mom while she’s still here to see it. I wish that my father could have been around to hear the tribute that I made for him. The picture
on the cover of Max Brown is of my mom when she was nineteen.”
There is a multi-generational vibe to the music too, as Parker balances his contemporary digital explorations with excursions into older jazz. Along with original compositions, Parker includes “Gnarciss,” an interpretation of Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus” and John Coltrane’s “After the Rain” (from his 1963 Impressions album). Parker recalls, “I was drawn to jazz music as a kid. That was the first music that really resonated with me once I got heavily into music. When I was nine or ten years old, I immediately gravitated to jazz because there were so many unexpected things. Jazz led me into improvising, which led me into experimenting in a general way, into an experimental process of making music.”
Coltrane is a touchstone in Parker’s musical evolution. In fact, Parker recalls, he inadvertently found himself on a new musical path one night about fifteen years ago when he was deejaying Coltrane at Danny’s Tavern in Chicago: “I used to deejay a lot when I lived in Chicago. This was before Serrato and people deejaying with computers. I had two records on two turntables and a mixer. I was spinning
records one night and for about ten minutes I was able to perfectly synch up a Nobukazu Takemura record with the first movement of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and it had this free jazz, abstract jazz thing going on with a sequenced beat underneath. It sounded so good. That’s what I’m trying to do with Max Brown. It’s got a sequenced beat and there are musicians improvising on top or beneath the
sequenced drum pattern. That’s what I was going for. Man vs machine. “It’s a lot of experimenting, a lot of trial and error,” he admits. “I like to pursue situations that take me outside myself, where the things I come up with are things I didn’t really know I could do. I always look at this process as patchwork quilting. You take this stuff and stitch it together until a tapestry forms.”