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Jeff Parker - The Relatives

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Artist: Jeff Parker

Album: The Relatives

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: May. 15, 2005

On a cursory listen, The Relatives sounds like some lost session from the late '60s or early '70s, a session recorded at the tipping point between the wilting of small-group acoustic jazz and the flowering of fusion. With its loose swing and a tight, well-rehearsed band playing a memorable set of tunes that draw on popular song forms, the album reminds one of a classic Blue Note date. Then Sam Barshershet’s spry Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer chords enter, pushing the music past the threshold of the '70s.

But what to do with Chad Taylor’s dry, insistent rhythms, and Jeff Parker’s snaking, overdubbed melody lines, or the panning wisps of ambient noise floating through “The Relative” and “Rang”? These are hallmarks of the '90s Chicago sound’s blend of rock minimalism, flowing jazz interaction and electronic sound-shaping. This quartet stitch all of these periods together in a sleek, slippery set of eight tunes. The Relatives is the image in a camera obscura, the quartet the lens and the last forty years of jazz, rock and electronica the light that they refract and mold.

No long solos appear on the album; the quartet instead focuses on the character of each composition. The compositions cover a grab-bag of styles, each one seen through the detached bird’s eye that past jazz musicians have used when interpreting popular styles. Marvin Gaye’s “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You” gets a loose-limbed work-out. Taylor and bassist Chris Lopes set up a sinewy swing while Parker and Barsheshet put together the piece’s harmonic jigsaw. Parker’s “Mannerisms” fills the album’s groove quota, Taylor and Lopes locking down a fleet, looping backbeat, making an airtight pocket for Parker to unwind his bubbling lines, the whole package sending one back to Chico Hamilton’s classic quintet with Gabor Szabo.

Lopes’ “Beanstalk” pads on a bossa nova bounce, with Lopes on overdubbed flute and a feathery bridge. But the piece looks at the style from two angles. Parker flutters all around the beat and Barsheshet feeds clipped hypnotic counterpoint, both actions that suggest the quartet is deconstructing the style.

Time, as well as styles, become elastic in this group’s hands. “Toy Boat” contrasts the 7/8 cubist funk of the verse with a swinging 6/8 in the chorus and solo passages. “The Relative,” written by Jeff Parker and Isotope 217 bassist Matthew Lux, stacked thick with fluctuating tempos, continually shifts the listener’s perspective. One can follow Taylor’s pulsing log drum or chattering tambourine, Parker’s knots of angular melody, Lopes’ chanting bass line, or simply get lost at their intersections.

On first listen, The Relatives’ lack of obvious dynamic peaks and valleys and its muddy recording - like it was made at the bottom of the Chicago River - contributes to an almost neutral abstraction, acting like an opaque curtain that hides the music from the listener. But the album title points out that such vagueness is the point, the quartet acknowledging the subjectivity of their trade. The listener’s background will color how they experience The Relatives, yet the album only reveals as much color as one scribbles between its subtly drawn lines.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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