January 25, 2005

Shortcuts - Jeff Parker

Over the past ten years, Chicago-based guitarist Jeff Parker has worked with artists from disparate sectors of the jazz world, moving between the mainstream and the avant-garde and fusion fringes. The breadth of his work as a sideman is audible on The Relatives, his second solo album and Thrill Jockey debut. The Relatives is an engaging pastiche of styles that feels frustratingly incomplete despite its accomplished musicianship.

On the opening track, "Istanbul," Parker's deft single-line improvisations are layered over a rich but repetitive beat, creating a languid tone that never strays far from its initial motif. Much of The Relatives follows a similar pattern. The pulsing rhythms provide an intricate texture, but the songs lack a dynamic compositional arc. The album is very successful at creating distinct moods, but this preoccupation with the larger tone hampers the potential for spontaneity. Individual solos are weighed down by the static groove, falling back into an earthy vamp just as they are on the verge of soaring.

This trend is especially frustrating because there are several moments when the group transcends the groove they've created, into improvisatory playing that has an assured life of its own. Parker's interpretation of Marvin Gaye's "When Did You Stop Loving Me? When Did I Stop Loving You?" has a constantly evolving energy, driven primarily by the exquisite interplay between Parker and keyboardist Sam Barsheshet. Their playing on this track is reminiscent of the classic collaborations between Wes Montgomery and Wynton Kelly.

The Relatives is more concerned with striking a laid-back ambiance than with fostering innovative interplay. It's an album that succeeds at encapsulating a series of moods, but fails to deliver those precious musical moments that surprise and move us.

—Eric Benson