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Jeff Parker - Like-Coping

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Artist: Jeff Parker

Album: Like-Coping

Label: Delmark

Review date: Aug. 4, 2003

Offshoots and Afterlife

Delmark’s recent release, Like-Coping, marks Chicago guitarist Jeff Parker’s first recording as a group leader. The album features Parker in a trio format alongside his long-time collaborators, bassist Chris Lopes and drummer Chad Taylor. Compared to his previous work with rock-oriented groups such as Tortoise and Isotope 217, as well as his associations with the progressive jazz-oriented Chicago Underground project and Tricolor, Like-Coping is a change of pace for Parker in that it is more rooted in the classic jazz tradition. Throughout the album Parker’s crisp, clean tone is reminiscent of earlier jazz greats such as Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell and Grant Green. Moreover, the majority of compositions on the album are recognizably within the classic jazz tradition, incorporating standard jazz voicings and often relying on recurring melodic statements that serve as launching points for variation and improvisation. However, as interesting as these similarities are, Parker’s departures are more so. For example, rather than highlighting virtuosity, solos on Like-Coping are invariably controlled and low-key. The trio focuses more on group cohesion, and the soloists typically allow the voices of the other members to be heard, at times even taking a back seat to them. Although the album does lag at points, Like-Coping is still extremely impressive. It is an important addition to Parker’s catalog in that it presents an under-documented component of his playing, as well as displaying a fascinating contemporary take on the classic guitar trio.

The theme of group cohesion runs throughout Like-Coping. Indeed, Parker touches upon it in the liner notes, writing: “I have always felt that music-making is a communal gesture. When an aggregation of musicians get together to create, particularly in a setting that deals with improvisation, the most compelling results, for me, are those that embrace the whole, rather than the sum of the parts.” The structure of the album drives home this point. Of the twelve original compositions included on the release, only five are attributed to Parker alone. The rest of the album is made up of three Lopes compositions, two Taylor compositions, and two free improvisations, which are credited to the entire group.

Tracks 1 through 4, taken together, form a microcosm of the entire album. They present the listener with compositions from each of the group’s members and conclude with a group improvisation. The album opens with a Taylor composition entitled “Miriam”. A calm, simple piece, “Miriam” is built on a long, languorous melody that Parker plays at the opening and closing of the song. In between the initial and concluding statements, Parker doesn’t solo, but rather plays the chords straightforwardly while Taylor and Lopes maintain an easeful tempo, letting the structure of the composition speak for itself. Taylor’s other composition, “Roundabout,” which closes the album, is also a relaxed and open-ended piece, featuring Taylor on classical guitar and Lopes on flute. Although Taylor’s two compositions are perhaps the least complex on the album, they are both highlights, in large part because of the peaceful mood they evoke and the space that they allow for the trio members to flourish as a unit.

The placid, understated nature of Taylor’s compositions is in direct contrast to the energetic feel of Lopes’ compositions. Track 2, “Like-Coping,” is representative of Lopes’ style. Driven by a concise, upbeat melody line, “Like-Coping” moves at a faster pace than “Miriam” and features extensive solos by Parker and Lopes. This is as close to a straight-ahead jazz piece as it gets. Lopes’ other compositions, “Pinecone” and “Plain Song” are similar in their dynamism. Lopes’ pieces are some of the most memorable on the album, and are the perfect venue for Parker to demonstrate his abilities as a jazz soloist.

Parker’s compositions differ from Taylor’s in that they typically involve more components, often incorporating themes written for both bass and guitar. Though there are lengthy solos on all of Parker’s tunes, they have a feeling of being more scripted than the Lopes and Taylor tunes. This is particularly evident on “Onyx”, a composition that Parker debuted with the Chicago Underground Orchestra in 1997. The track opens with a labyrinthine bass passage that culminates with Parker stating the song’s haunting central theme on guitar. Over the course of the next few minutes, Parker repeats the theme a number of times, while Lopes and Taylor play freely in the background, giving the tune a momentary circularity, similar to that found on Miles Davis’ masterful composition from the 1960’s, “Nefertitti.” The initial bass passage is then brought back one last time before the true improvising begins. Not all of Parker’s compositions are this highly structured. “Watsui” and “Cubes” rely more heavily on improvisation. However, Parker’s others, “Days Fly By (with Ruby)” and “Scrambler”, closely resemble “Onyx.”

The free group improvisations are probably the weakest tracks on the album. Although Parker achieves some very innovative sounds, and, quite interestingly, explores the possible affinities between the jazz guitar trio and contemporary electronic/noise music, these two tracks aren’t as gripping and do not fit well in the context of the rest of the album.

By Nick Sheets

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