Best Jazz Record of 2022
Mondays at the Enfield Tennis Academy
Reviewed by Henry Cherry
Four selections of sets from Jeff Parker’s Monday evening live performances with his quartet are the basis of his most recent release, Mondays at the Enfield Tennis Academy. There is no actual tennis involved. ETA is a small restaurant venue in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. The extended name is a nod to late writer David Foster Wallace. It’s that sort of place, oranges in a bowl on the bar, oysters on the half-shell, and Jeff Parker working his way through the situational complications of jazz in the digital era.
Parker’s previous work in Tortoise made him a paragon of indie-fried exploratory sounds that partnered him with avant guitarists like Nels Cline and Marc Ribot. Where Cline augmented his outré work with solo outings and insular but brilliant collaborations with Carla Bozulich, he really found his footing by joining the band Wilco. Ribot went deeper into the out sounds of free jazz before returning to the atmosphere with a series of soundtracks for silent movies. Parker’s trajectory has been equally eclectic, but somehow more earnestly jazz focused. He too has pushed into avant-garde, but even in his outré moments, Parker’s resilience to groove has granted a chordal accessibility to his music. It is from this investigative realm that Parker and company oscillate post-bop, post-punk, post-avant-garde into a circle of curving night music that’s immediately of the now, while dredging the aural inspirations of the assembled players. This is Jeff Parker’s IVtet.
Spread across a few years, each set is about 20 minutes long, give or take a couple of minutes. As such, they bring a uniquely accessible and united sound in the space of an album side. That’s no small feat, considering the electric vs. acoustic setup. Primarily, the music comes from 3 pre-pandemic sets, though the finale is from the spring of 2021. Still, these are songs of relief, and each set displays Parker’s IVtet’s ephemeral modulation while finding their sound at the time. The exploration set inn a live moment removes the blockage of everyday life, for both audience and players. Visions of lonely jazz guitars disperse as the saxophone and drums and upright join in. It’s a union flecked with digital loops and samples of the instruments at hand and those flecks make for a strong yet oscillating alloy.
Parker’s instrument here is the electric guitar. A good many listeners might dig deep into the trick bag of his jazz guitar predecessors, pinning Parker’s now on the past brilliance of Grant Green, while noting the influence of Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, or Emily Remler. But what Parker offers with his music is not a dominant guitar, even on recordings where it is just him and guitar. Instead, Parker logs a musical warmth that arrives first and foremost, before the listener notices what instrument delivers which notes. That’s a savagely difficult task when a player pairs up with acoustic instruments, as Parker does here. The guitar snakes through cords and amplification to keep up, and that can often present electrical distraction. That’s exactly what Miles Davis and Teo Macero were looking for on the electric band fusion workouts Davis made throughout the late 60s and early 70s. It is not, however, what Parker is sourcing here. Instead, Parker delivers something most other jazz guitarists do not, and I’m including Bill Frisell here, along with Cline and Ribot. Parker’s ability to make his electronic signal correspond directly to more acoustic tones, like the double bass, drums and saxophone is miraculous. It might be his most exemplary accomplishment, if not for his gift of making what would sound angular and distant in another player’s hands become intimate and supple in his own.
Whether you listen to Tortoise’s electro indie-dub groove, the sparse looping echolalia of Parker’s 2021 Forfolks, or the simmering investigatory futurism of 2004’s guitar duet with Scott Field Songs Songs Songs, it is always, tonally, Parker. You might say the same of any player for sure, but often enough musicians are artisanal and are resilient as accompanists but not as leaders. That’s why it this sounds so fresh and unified. Parker operates in the same studious channel of song that Coltrane and Ellington are so renowned for. Where he starts and where he eventually will end are never the point, career wise, song wise, or album wise. For Parker, it’s the procedural methodology of coming from a strange place and making that strangeness sound less so. That kind of music brings surprises, but can also offer alienation. Where outré players force that fire, where bop and post-bop adherents force the warmth, Parker brings them both along organically. Which brings us to the live sets of Mondays at Enfield Tennis Academy. This is probably Parker’s most hypnotic band for a guy who has gathered bands of note together as if that was his career. The sound doesn’t ask as much of the listener as did Songs Songs Songs, nor is it as singularly developed as Forfolks. Mondays has a sweeter bouquet than Parker’s work with Tortoise, while still touching on some of that band’s digital resolutions. The best way to say it is this: Parker’s IVtet is a band of jazz-minded explorers.
As a pianoless quartet, it might be assumed that Parker’s guitar-isms comp for the piano’s 88 keys. That would be a wrong assumption. Parker is horn, Parker is piano, Parker is guitar, but also, Parker is Monk, is Green, is Frissell, is Charles Lloyd. The IVtet fundamentally comprehends each of those notions. They stretch them out into the immediacy of each set with a charge that is charmingly hurried, but sometimes melodic fire. At the heart of their output is the meaningful coincidence of improvisatory jazz. They measure with music the extraordinary axe swings and soft burbling shifts. They are dynamic.
These four movements, then, are lively while also profoundly studious. Glasses clink, busboys clear tables in the background as the band displays their acknowledgements and sets the stage for the night. Those ancillary noises, rather than occlude the illusory sound of the performances, helps propel the listener into the band’s nebula.
Jeff Parker, “2019-7-08,” from Mondays at the Enfield Tennis Academy
Starting with the first set from 2019-7-08, the band creates a haunting tone for about 6 minutes. The drums shake quietly, the bass lopes in behind it while the saxophone and guitar wend a haze of premonitory themes. Then, Parker swings to the forefront. Jazz guitar can be a lethargic disgrace. This is not that. Parker’s tone loses nothing in a live setting, maybe even gathers some offloaded acoustic air from his partners. His dynamic shift from support, to solo, back to support is what to listen for. The band brings in snippets of loops and they settle in the background and rise back and decay with the live music. This bright, digitally manipulated replication of the band’s instruments is breathtaking in places, and almost forgotten in others, making it an equal part of Parker and co.’s musicality. At times the loops become organs, become trumpets, become incandescent baubles of harmonic chimes. They arrive and recede like flickering unknown lights on the horizon outside of Marfa, Texas. They are equal in their inscrutable delivery of comfort. When the IVtet brings in some more space and shuffles back down to the tinkling of glasses and tableware, that sound becomes an assistant to the music as much as the loops. Josh Johnson’s saxophone plays off those binary dithers as much as from the music of his group. That’s the rejoinder of this band. They can play with the audience, with themselves, and within their unit. Even, one imagines, with the sound of passing traffic out front. What better utility could a jazz band desire?
Rather than song titles, the music is identified by the date of the performance. That’s because these aren’t songs as much as movements. And though each movement is a piece of the moment they were created in, they live on, accompanied by the instrumental replication loops, the glass tinkles and the saxophone notes. They deliver a trance inducing jazz meditation.
The covalent charge of Anna Butterss’s upright bass, the nuanced faint of Jay Bellerose’s drumming, the shimmering delay in the loops provide more than rhythmic substructure to Parker’s guitar and Johnson’s sax. They glide. They brace and they sustain and they pace, yes. But the IVtet’s backline also dart across the sonic meadow, sometimes as snow covered blips, sometimes like the patter of rainfall, and sometimes, particularly on the middle two offerings, in the humidified skronk of the extemporaneous enablers. They provide cover. They push for more headroom. They pull the ergonomics of the band into different shapes and forms across each movement. They jam, reduce, wail and bolster.
Without Johnson’s connection to Parker on previous outings — he’s played on three earlier Parker recordings — this might not work. Because of their shared experience, Johnsons is savvy, and his alto is precocious rather than backward. He sounds the horn, no pun, and Parker recedes and attacks and blankets it with guitar. Their interplay is confoundingly virtuous.
It’s unlikely there will be a better jazz recording this year, even if some archivist uncovers a heretofore unknown reels featuring Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. That’s because the gauze of the IVtet is airy in places, and tightly wound in others without care of outside sounds. They’ve basted long enough in their collective influences. What has been exposed by the core of their improvisational luster on Mondays is the unique distinction of the IVtet’s internality. This one wins best of year.
Jeff Parker, “2021-04-08,” from Mondays at the Enfield Tennis Academy
Henry Cherry is Jazz Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Mr. Cherry is a photographer, writer and documentary filmmaker who lives in Hollywood. His work has appeared in Huck, PBS, OC Weekly, Los Angeles Review of Books, Artillery, and LA Weekly. A documentary film on master jazz musician Henry Grimes is in the works. For contact information go to his website: henrycherry.com