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Album of the Week: Jeff Parker, 'Mondays at the Enfield Tennis Academy' and 'Eastside Romp'

Mikel Patrick Avery

Guitarist Jeff Parker relocated from Chicago to Los Angeles in 2013. It did not take him long to discover a larger creative music scene in his new home, one that has inspired some remarkable music as a solo artist. His run of albums for International Anthem has been impressive, but they’re also snapshots within a larger picture. His music sneaks big ideas into a potent distillate, shaped by someone who knows how to produce himself and find the best sound.

Mikel Patrick Avery

Parker has a beautiful tone on guitar that would make him a logical heir to Kenny Burrell if he wanted to be – but a stable profile in a routine setting has never been enough. He’s comfortable with distortion, dysphoria and diversity in sound, and his collaborative dance card stretches from Tortoise to Theo Croker. In recent years he’s joined forces with drummer-producer Makaya McCraven to make influential recordings that will be studied by generations of musicians.

Like McCraven, Parker has found a way to make social music in an age of isolation, to be a soloist and sound auteur in a time when musicians can and must master all things at once. Two newly released recordings, Mondays at Enfield Tennis Academy and Eastside Romp, reveal different approaches to process even as they both elevate music in the moment.

Mondays at Enfield Tennis Academy is a chronicle of Parker’s regular Monday-night residency at ETA, a cozy bar in L.A.’s Highland Park neighborhood, with a name pulled from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. In this small rectangular space with scarce room for a band, Parker and his quartet create music that could easily pass as a soundtrack – the perfect background vibe for bar chatter, pick-up lines, and a busy staff taking orders and rattling dishes.

But if you pay close attention, something amazing is happening in these four selections, each of which clocks in around 20 minutes. Four highly talented musicians – Parker, saxophonist Josh Johnson, bassist Anna Butterss and drummer Jay Bellerose – are constructing a singular resonance that unfolds incrementally.

Three of these players also took part in McCraven’s Universal Beings, so they’re comfortable in this creative space. They’re all aware of making a brew of pastiche from the hip-hop productions of J Dilla and Madlib. The band just happens to be creating the same effect while using their own performance as the thing itself.

Eremite Records recorded more than 10 hours of this process to create these four sides, and the tracks are named according to performance date, as though they are studio slates. Side A, “7/8/19 I,” is from the same night as Side B, “7/8/19 II.” Take one, then take two; the comparison ends there. They do not sound the same, and are not versions of a singular idea. They are two separate fissures that crack on their own improvisational faults.

Truthfully, these are likely the more flawless parts of a messy but interesting process. Tempos remain fairly consistent throughout, except for the last and most recent contribution, “4/28/21,” which breaks down into a slower Bellerose groove on brushes. Captured nearly two years after the first two tracks, there’s no discernible change; the process is still the process. The quartet remains highly engaged, listening among themselves to make a sound reminiscent of ‘70s-era Miles Davis but with newer effects at the ready. It’s full of swirling electronics, oscillating effects, and hypnotic grooves bordering on space funk. It’s music that could easily fall apart without a cohesive approach, but it holds together and even flourishes.

Eastside Romp, featuring bassist Eric Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits, is a six-year-old studio recording that could have been created yesterday, featuring a group that would be nearly impossible to tour at any length, given their busy schedules. Revis is the longtime bassist in the Branford Marsalis Quartet. Waits is the drummer in The Bandwagon, a foundational modern trio with pianist Jason Moran and bassist Tarus Mateen. Each is also a solo artist in his own right.

Revis and Waits have prior history in Tarbaby, with pianist Orrin Evans. Like that group’s Dance of the Evil Toys, a recent Clean Feed release with alto saxophonist Oliver Lake, this recording sat on the shelf for years awaiting release. It has been worth the wait: from the opening track, Marion Brown’s “Similar Limits,” all limits are off. The message is clear: anything can happen. “That Eastside Romp,” the title track, supports that idea with a spontaneous collective invention. It begins with nearly a minute of drums and bass before Parker first appears.

But this album also harbors moments of serenity and restfulness – from Parker’s “Wait,” a song that sounds like an extension of his early work with Brian Blade Fellowship, to Waits’ “Between Nothingness and Infinity,” whose slow aura is established by the clarity and beauty of Revis’ opening. Waits also contributes “A Room for VG,” with a spacious drum introduction making way for trio atmospherics and minimalist sounds. Revis’ “Drunkard Lullaby” takes a different approach: the composition, also featured on his 2017 recording Sing Me Some Cry, lets Parker unleash a torrent of noise over the locked but purposefully unsteady gait of bass and drums.

Between Parker’s trio and quartet dates, we have two recordings that no one was expecting and everyone deserves. There’s no need for an actual ETA; both albums contain music ready on arrival. And while Mondays at the Enfield Tennis Academy and Eastside Romp propose different models for musical engagement, they converge on a core truth about Jeff Parker. When you’re interrogating the output of a metamorphic creator, the only sure thing is surprise.

Josh Jackson is the associate general manager for programming and content at WRTI.