Any review of Jeff Parker’s work usually begins with a mention of his eclectic and peripatetic credentials as everything from hard-bop virtuoso to indie rock hired-gun. (with Tortoise). Even if you weren’t aware of his wide and varied CV before placing The Relatives in your disc player, it is instantly apparent that Parker is a bandleader like few others. The jazz here owes as much to rock and soul as it does to bop or swing, but it isn’t really fusion: merely a contemporary version of a classic combo sound. This is straight-up jazz taken out of the museum and calibrated for maximum accessibility.
The first thing you notice about The Relatives is that despite the presence of four eminently qualified musicians, this is an extremely laid-back performance. No one is jockeying for position here: Parker has chosen four generous players, as eager to share the spotlight as to spotlight their own soloing. Accordingly, fully half of the eight tracks were written by Parker’s bandmates. Bassist and longtime Parker companion Chris Lopes provides three tracks, while drummer Chad Taylor contributes one. The set is rounded out by three Parker compositions as well as a cover of Marvin Gaye’s melancholy late-career highlight “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You”.
The set’s standout track is Parker’s own “The Relative”. Adapted from performance with Parker’s other combo, Isotope 217, it is built atop an almost-tribal bassline that slips and snakes through the track, subtly stretching throughout the course of the track. The other three instruments compose themselves around this bassline, which continues forward while the guitar and keyboard snatch brief phrases to ground their improvisation. The drumming is particularly interesting, with an intense African motif escalating in intensity throughout the movement.
The disc begins with Lopes’ only contribution, the romantic, almost haunting “Istanbul”. Atop a sleepy, almost samba influenced rhythm, Parker inserts a plaintive, lyrical melody line that brings to mind the similarly languid work of Miles Davis’ Latin phase. Keyboardist Sam Barsheshet barely seems to touch his keys, merely inserting a few phrases to counter Parker’s melody. Towards the end of the track Lopes pulls out a bow and the melancholy tone becomes downright ominous.
Next is “Mannerisms”, a Parker original which brings to mind the early days of rock and roll — in particular the rockabilly rhythm section utilized by Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. Parker’s melodies are particularly crisp. Lopes’ bassline seems to be running a scale throughout the entire song, with this loping progression serving as a basis for Barsheshet’s light-fingered punctuations. Throughout the disc Barsheshet utilizes his keys sparingly, choosing in most cases only to elaborate on melodies provided by Parker and Lopes.
Lopes’ first track, “Sea Change”, is dense and angular, with melody lines established through clipped repetition and low-key harmonies constructed to achieve a mordant intensity. In terms of atmosphere, the particular harmonic combinations remind me of nothing in current jazz so much as rock groups like Radiohead, who utilize studied repetition as a means of building mood more freely than much modern jazz, which eschews repetition in favor of lyrical elaboration.
The Gaye cover features Barsheshet’s organ to wonderful effect. While the affable swing of the rhythm section is somewhat at odds with the effect, Barsheshet and Parker’s dueting reflects the track’s wistful, doomed romanticism and studied regret. “Beanstalk”, another Lopes contribution, showcases the bassist’s flute playing. Lopes’ lays down his bass and cedes the bedrock of the track to Barsheshet, who burbles along while Parker and Lopes’ flute trade trilling phrases.
“Toy Boat”, with it’s methodical rock drumbeat and insistent Fender Rhodes, hearkens back to early fusion, allowing Barsheshet’s repetitive melodies to bolster Parker’s spare solos. Towards the end of the track Barsheshet abandons the repetition and joins Parker in a satisfying freeform harmonic duet. The album finishes with Parker’s “Rang”, which begins as an orthodox post-bop number before switching gears seven seconds in, charging towards a sinister drum freakout punctuated only by a scant two-note refrain played by Barsheshet. Eventually both Lopes and Parker get to play too, but they lead the track in a gentler direction, setting the course for a light-hearted but profound denouement. Considering how restrained the playing has been, the comparative intensity of “Rang” is a clarion, and a strong note on which to end the relatively short set.
The splendid humor that prevails throughout The Relatives is a testament to Parker’s instincts as a bandleader. These four musicians sound as if they really enjoy playing with each other. This is a wonderful disc, ranging freely through the fields of the last fifty years of jazz while keeping their feet planted firmly in the present.