Teri Parker: In The Past
Teri Parker

On her debut album, Teri Parker offers a fresh and consistently rewarding take on the jazz piano quartet tradition. While it's not a reinvention of the form, In the Past certainly marks her as a composer of distinction whose music does much to individualize her. Each of the album's Parker-penned compositions impresses as a self-contained and fully realized entity; they're not simple riffs on long-standing genres, even if connections to established forms are evident.

One of the things that individualizes the Toronto-based pianist's material is compositional intricacy: each tune moves through multiple episodes, whether they be changes in tempo, style, or otherwise, though never so much that the essence of the piece gets lost in the process. She distinguishes each one by introducing unexpected details, such as hand claps that intermittently punctuate “Ghost of Time” or the unison piano-and-saxophone lines that lend the boppish “Oy, Regy!” a pronounced Tristano-esque flavour.

As a composer, Parker is much like she is as a player: poised, circumspect, and methodical. Whether supporting another or soloing herself, the pianist approaches her playing with deliberation, each note meaningful and each gesture related to the whole; the care with which she shapes and develops her solo in “On the Farm,” for instance, is a marvel to behold. As strong, alto saxophonist Allison Au, an acclaimed bandleader in her own right, shares with the leader a penchant for restraint while still bringing Parker's singing melodies to vivid life with exuberant voicings. Bassist Mark Godfrey and drummer Mack Longpre acquit themselves honourably, too, especially when they're tasked with executing Parker's oft-complex arrangements.

Named after the main character in Andre Alexis's Giller Award-winning novel Fifteen Dogs, “Majnoun” eases the listener into the album with understated grace. Elegant pianisms by the leader are joined in turn by Godfrey's subtle double bass expressions, Longpre's cymbal colourations, and Au's sultry sax musings, the music building gradually until it flowers into an almost Latin-tinged ballad. Here as elsewhere, imaginative musical turns are taken, with in this case Godfrey eventually echoing in his own playing the labyrinthine piano patterns Parker deploys as a foundation throughout the piece.

Tricky, stop-start rhythms and a plinking piano accent form an ear-catching backdrop to Au's fluid lead at the start of “Summer City,” after which the group settles into a smoother and breezier attack before returning to the jerky feel of the opening. Representative of the material's mutable design, “Taurus Blues” segues from one distinct rhythm episode to another, with Longpre in particular challenged by Parker's writing to shift gears and playing styles throughout without losing the music's flow. In keeping with its title, “On the Farm” exudes a relaxed vibe that evokes the carefree splendour of a summer afternoon in the countryside.

As solidly connected to the acoustic jazz quartet tradition as In The Past might be, Parker departs from it in inspired ways during the album's second half. Her electric piano playing both burnishes “Alexandria” with a modern sheen and enhances the ballad's mysterious character, and the later “Chromo” sees her flirt with jazz-rock in blending Rhodes playing with Godfrey on electric bass. A slightly heavier and rock-influenced side of the band emerges during “In the Future,” whereas the evocative vignette “Strange Dreams” hints that Parker could have a side-career as a soundtrack composer were she so inclined.

This is an album that's not only thoroughly satisfying and marked by variety and surprise; it's also one long in the making. Laid down over two days in July 2016, In The Past was recorded four years after the band formed, an extended period that suggests the group had ample opportunity to woodshed the tunes before entering the studio. It's also, not incidentally, an album of which Parker can be deservedly proud.

October 2017