Friday, February 18, 2011

Jonathan Parker

Jonathan Parker Group (self produced)
* Only available as a download: Bandcamp
Jonathan Parker (alto sax)
Sean Higgins (piano and rhodes)
Curtis Ostle (bass)
Alex Ritz (drums)
Theo Croker (trumpet)
Lawrence Ku (guitar)
Andres Boiarsky (tenor sax)
Mindy Ruskovich (trombone)

Sensibility, buoyancy, soulfulness and refreshing. That's what you'll be saying after the first listen to "Clearyism", the opening track from the young talented new saxophonist, Jonathan Parker. It can also sum up the majority of his self released debut, The Jonathan Parker Group.

Jonathan Parker, a Washington D.C. native, spent his development years at Oberlin Conservatory. The experience was he gained in school with such mentor as Gary Bartz, Billy Hart, Marcus Belgrave and others is immense and it shows throughout his debut. But like so many of us it was his formative years that catapulted him to jazz. A chance encounter with an excellent Charlie Parker collection set Parker on the way to establishing his musical vision. After College he moved to Shanghai, not necessarily the first place you think of going when you are budding jazz musician.

But while he was there he spent a great deal of time shaping his craft with fellow Oberlin graduates. This probably turned out to be a blessing in disguise. There was no pressure the jazz meccas of NY, London, Chicago, San Francisco, Tokyo, Oslo etc., Parker could just play and experiment with sound and rhythm. The two year journey was capped off with a return to the U.S. and stronger outlook on his own music. But now the real journey begins as this young talent sets forth with an excellent debut and chance to mix things up across the country.

The beauty and freshness of "Clearyism" shoots out a you with all forms of joy. It's like a late night with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers or for a more contemporary comparison, One For All. His group are smokin' from the outset. You really can't escape this track and therefore you have to listen onwards. And what you get will surprise you and delight you.

Shifting gears slightly is "CO86" a more romantic and some might say "smooth" R&B filled midtempo piece. But you would be fooled to stay in such a static mode over "CO86", Parker's phrasing is fantastic and shows that he can shift from hard bop to modern romantic in seconds. His band are incredible as well, Sean Higgins, really shines here on keyboards. He adds an element of Roy Ayer's soul that envelopes the piece nicely.

His group again show this soulful side to themselves on "East Lorain" which Ostle and Ritz keep a melodic soulful groove around Parker's bold proclamations on sax. It's a piece that has a late night club atmosphere to it but you immediately hear the delicate compositional structure Parker has created and that's what is enlightening for me. "Jacqui" is an elegant blues based ballad that see the group expressing itself but remaining within the confines of composition. Lawrence Ku adds a Kenny Burrell element that this piece that I think gives it an understated beauty. Parker seems to gain a lot of strength from each musicians as the song moves along.

While I know there are a billion new artists out there and there are hundreds of established artists out there. Our choices as music fans are endless. For those of you looking for something new and refreshing--Jonathan Parker might be it. A great new talent who's got excellent compositional skills and a cool head when it comes to the musicians he's learned from and the one's he has surrounded himself with--The Jonathan Parker Group is a wonderful debut. A beautiful balance of hard bop sensibilities and modern romantic themes.

The Jonathan Parker Group is currently only available as a download from Bandcamp. Probably the best way to get it. And I would recommend most artists if you aren't on a label this is the best way to get your music out there. We loved Jonathan Parker's debut and hope you will too. Highly Recommended from your friends at JazzWrap.

JazzWrap also took time to speak (through email) to Mr. Parker about his journey and many other thoughts. It was a long conversation but I thought it best to bring it to you in its entirety.

The album is a wonderful blend of hard bop and soulful rhythms (particularly "Clearyisms" and "East Lorain"). What artists or albums inspired you when you were first starting out?

Well, I’d have to say the first artist who really piqued my interest in Jazz was Charlie Parker. I was about 14 when my first saxophone teacher moved out of town and she recommended that I take from another teacher close by. His name was Bill Mulligan and he had recently moved to town to play in the United States Navy “Commodores” Jazz Band based in DC. Shortly after I began studying with him he told me to check out a saxophonist named Charlie Parker. Of course at this time in my life I was more interested in listening to pop radio, but for Christmas that year, my mother got me The Essential Charlie Parker on Verve Records. 

Even then I really give the album a chance, but I think there was one time when I decided to give the CD some play in my Discman. A lot of what I heard I didn’t exactly like too much but there was one song that immediately grabbed me – Confirmation. I honestly had no idea what Bird was playing but just listening to him play gave me goose bumps. Eventually, I just got hooked on that entire album and began to discover all the bebop musicians Bird was associated with. I suppose that was the one album that “opened” my ears, so to speak, to jazz. From that time on, my high school CD collection grew at a voracious pace – and it certainly hasn’t slowed down one bit since then.

You've traveled a lot in the last few years and worked with a number of great musicians. Has the experience of performing with such great talent in both America and China influenced your music or your debut?

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have traveled and performed abroad for the last two years. The whole experience was extremely beneficial for my own playing for two reasons - in Shanghai although the music scene is relatively small, there many extremely talented players who I was able to play alongside and the decent amount of work afforded me the opportunity to really improve my craft and become a stronger all-around player. Shortly after moving to Shanghai in September 2008, I was offered a contract to perform at a jazz club in Beijing from October through the end of January. This was a serious gig – we played 3 or 4 sets a night, 6 nights a week. When you play that much, you’re forced to become a much more consistent player.

As for the musicians residing in Shanghai, they hail from many different countries: Columbia, Brazil, France, Australia, Mauritius, Japan, The United States, and of course China. While I was able to perform alongside most of the players in town, I really kept close to the players I knew from Oberlin Conservatory. There are currently 6 or so Oberlin graduates playing out there and we all had our own little clique. One group that I played with in Shanghai was led by Theo Croker, a trumpet player and Oberlin alum, and we were constantly playing original music. For awhile, we had a weekly Monday night gig at The House of Blues and Jazz and Theo and I would both bring in music we had been writing to play. This was a unique opportunity to test out new material.

Theo has a unique compositional style – one that isn’t too easily categorized. He’ll write a lot of different material in many different styles. It’s hard to say if his writing chops rubbed off on me – our styles are pretty different from one another. But it was nice to be in a group where several people were bringing in original work. It made our band have a much more eclectic sound – the group wasn’t just the voice of one person and the drastically different compositions from Theo and me I think ended up complimenting each other.

One other gig that I played constantly throughout my time in Shanghai was at The Cotton Club. They have a house band that’s been playing there for a long time now (at least 10 years). Led by Utah-born guitarist Greg Smith, the group plays music from the American Blues and R&B songbooks. The singer, Jacqui “Sugar Mama” Stanton, actually just recently left us but she was a musical legend. Having performed in Ike and Tina Turner’s band, among many others, you couldn’t get more authentic than Jacqui. She was an incredible singer and musician and I feel extremely privileged to have play next to her for as long I did. This band was (and still is!) incredibly tight and night after night they delivered great sets and Greg and Mama were just always giving 110% up there on stage. Playing with people on this sort of level night after night really does make you a stronger player. And even though we weren’t playing straight-ahead jazz, I learned plenty from being there - whether it was how to play a short and sweet solo on a Donnie Hathaway tune or really getting my blues chops down cold on a slow blues in Db.

Your band sounds incredibly tight and seems to have a lot of freedom. How long have you worked with them?

Most of my band mates I’ve known for quite some time now. Curtis Ostle, Alex Ritz, and Theo Croker all went to Oberlin while I was there. We all played in different groups with each other throughout our time at Oberlin and had already developed some sort of rapport so when we all ended up in Shanghai, it was only natural for us to link back togethe.

As for the other members, Sean Higgins is originally from Massachusetts and had worked in New York City with Winard Harper’s group for several years before moving to Shanghai. He is a terrific pianist and he’s coming out of a lot of the music that I’m really into, so he was a great fit for the piano chair. Andres Boiarsky is a phenomenal tenor player who only recently ended up in Shanghai. Originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Andres spent a long time playing in New York City and he worked a great deal with The Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band. I know he’s also done work separately with Slide Hampton, Claudio Roditi, and Dennis Mackrel – to name a few. I am very honored and thankful for Andres to have played on this record. And finally, Lawrence Ku is originally from Los Angeles and has been living in Shanghai for quite some time now. Aside from being a great guitarist, he’s also very involved in the music education scene in Shanghai and is the principal at the JZ School – an independent music school providing music instruction to Chinese and Expat children alike. I really enjoy Lawrence’s playing and thought he would be a perfect addition to four of the songs on the record.

What are your touring plans for this year?

Well that’s tough question… Unfortunately, moving to New York City meant giving up all the steady work I had in Shanghai and starting anew. I’ve been here about 5 months now and I feel like I’m only now beginning to really figure out how go about getting work. I’ve been fortunate to have linked up with fellow Oberlin alum, Andy Barnett who is currently living in New Haven, CT. and directing his own group – The Theodicy Jazz Collective. The Theodicy is a church group based out of The Episcopal Church of St. Paul and St. James that incorporates elements of jazz and contemporary R&B. We play regularly in New Haven, but this coming spring we’ll have a bunch of dates throughout New York City. I’ve also started to book shows featuring my own group throughout the city – we were just booked at Miles Café on May 3rd. Also since moving to New York, I’ve returned home to Alexandria, VA. several times to play one-offs with various groups around the DC area. I’m hoping sometime this summer to get my group a bunch of shows lined up throughout the greater DC Metropolitan Area. I recently haven’t had quite as much time to focus on touring because I am right now in the process of applying for graduate school. I plan on attending school this coming fall, but I’m not quite sure where I’m going to end up – as I write this, I’m on a train to Rochester, NY. to audition at The Eastman School of Music. But I’m trying to remain as close to NYC as possible for my next two years in school, so that I may still involve myself with the jazz scene here.

How would you describe your writing process?

For me, the piano is the main tool I use when composing although I do keep my saxophone handy as well. I try to always set aside a certain amount of time everyday to composition and general piano practice and whether I’m playing a standard or something more modern, the piano helps me find an idea to start tinkering with. It can be a certain chord progression or just a short melodic line, but once that kernel is discovered, I’ll spend a good deal of time extrapolating material from it. Sometimes the process is pretty fast – I penned Clearyisms within a day or two, but then it can also take quite awhile – Minimum Wage took almost two months to complete. I also try to simultaneously write the melody and chords at the piano. I believe that writing both the harmony and melody together will make a composition more cohesive. If wrote a chord progression first and then placed a melody on top of the chords, I’d be worried that the composition would be disjointed and just not sound natural. Harmony and melody are equally important in my mind and therefore deserve equal amounts of attention.

Have you been listening or reading anything that is pushing your creativity forward?

The great trumpeter Tom Harrell is one composer whose music I really enjoy. His music is at both times accessible and cerebral. If I had to recommend just one album of his, it’d have to be Sail Away - every composition on that record is impressive. I think it’s definitely too early to describe my own personal style when it comes to composition, but he’s a player who is doing something I’d like to try and emulate. In addition, I’ve recently been revisiting the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. These guys were masters at composition and arranging. I was just recently working on Prelude To A Kiss and Isfahan – these two songs are just simply beautiful.

And I suppose I should at least cite one alto player who I’m checking out. David Binney is a player who is probably not that well-known outside of jazz nerd circles, but he’s both a tremendous saxophonist with brilliant technique and a gifted composer who releases new work at a prolific pace. Binney is a guy with really eclectic tastes and influences and it should come as no surprise that his music is just as diverse. A couple of years ago he released an album entitled Cities And Desires, which I couldn’t stop listening to. On that record he collaborates with the tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and the results are a joy to listen to. I know he just released a new album called Graylen Epicenter, which I have heard a bit of and it’s definitely going to be the next CD I purchase. Compositionally, he has a very unique voice and although I feel as though I’m many years behind understanding what he’s doing compositionally, I find myself drawn to his music nonetheless. I hope that I can absorb some of what he’s doing and incorporate it into my own compositional language in the future.

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