California Sounds: Jazz imprint Nonesuch explores L.A. with Jeff Parker and Sam Gendel

Multi-instrumentalist Jeff Parker.
(Jim Newberry)

Jeff Parker’s ‘Suite for Max Brown’ is the transplanted Chicagoan’s genre-jumping exploration of Los Angeles. Sam Gendel’s ‘Afro Blue’ previews his coming album of sonic construction and deconstruction of jazz standards.

Jeff Parker, “Suite for Max Brown” (International Anthem / Nonesuch) and Sam Gendel, “Afro Blue” video (Nonesuch)

Although best known for his work in Chicago as guitarist for Tortoise and as an integral hub of that city’s intense jazz scene, multi-instrumentalist Jeff Parker relocated to Los Angeles about seven years ago and eased his way into commercial work while exploring the city’s experimental jazz and beat scenes. Produced mostly in the garage studio of Parker’s Altadena home, “Suite for Max Brown” is his second album for Chicago imprint International Anthem and the first in that label’s new relationship with the lauded Nonesuch Records.

Though you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise, the “Max Brown” of the title isn’t the name of an obscure radical thinker or free-jazz bassist. Rather, Parker named the mostly instrumental album for his mother, Maxine Brown. And within the first few measures of the opening song, “Build a Nest,” he further connects generations through the voice of his daughter, Ruby Parker. Strands thus intertwined, the musician spends the rest of “Suite for Max Brown” building a transcendent set of pieces that occupy a vague terrain lit by jazz, experimental electronic music, instrumental hip-hop and genre-jumping avant-rock.

The record features an ensemble of musicians, including keyboard player Josh Johnson, percussionist Makaya McCraven, longtime collaborator Rob Mazurek and others, but “Suite for Max Brown” wasn’t recorded in a typical studio setting. Rather, Parker invited musicians to interact with recorded work he’d already constructed with editing software and built the record from the parts. In release notes, he described the process as “a combination of sampling, editing, retriggering audio, and recording it, moving it around and trying to make it into something cohesive.”

One immersive listen to “Suite for Max Brown” renders moot questions of process. Whether the expansive 10-minute eponymous closing song, the four- and five- minute composed works or the string of brief, graceful meditations that occupy the middle part of the record, Parker’s album ascends track by track with the majesty of a new-build high-rise transforming a skyline.

Parker’s not the only L.A.-based musician that the New York-based Nonesuch is pushing these days. In addition to Van Dyke Parks and Gaby Moreno’s recent "¡Spangled!,” saxophonist and alleged member of the mask-wearing duo Clown Core Gendel will make his label debut on March 13. Called “Satin Doll,” the album has been teased by the label as a “simultaneous synchronized sonic construction/deconstruction of jazz standards” and is named for the Duke Ellington song. A woozy, blissfully twisted album, on it Gendel takes on Miles Davis’ 1959 classic “Freddie Freeloader,” Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” and Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” among others.

Gendel, who has collaborated with artists including Perfume Genius, Ry Cooder, Sam Wilkes and Vampire Weekend, just released the first teaser from “Satin Doll.” A rendition of percussionist Mongo Santamaría’s 1959 conga-propelled classic “Afro Blue,” the track and Gendel-directed video move with a fuzzy, drenched-in-cough-syrup viscosity. As the song wends and morphs, airbrush illustrations of low-riders bounce across the frame and mysterious symbols strobe in the foreground, as if transmitting some secret message.