Jeff Parker: Slight Freedom

Jeff Parker's been a full member of Tortoise since 1998's TNT, and his electric guitar playing has been an integral part of the group's sound ever since. Yet because Tortoise has tended to emphasize ensemble playing and keep soloing to a minimum, his first solo effort, Slight Freedom, is invaluable for presenting an in-depth and unfiltered portrait of the guitarist. Of course, his playing's been heard in multiple group contexts and alongside a vast number of fellow musicians, from Isotope 217 and the multiple versions of Rob Mazurek's Chicago Underground outfit to projects involving Kevin Drumm, Scott Fields, and Scott Amendola. Even so, Slight Freedom is the first time Parker's been featured alone, and the result is so endearing one can't help but wonder why it took so long.

Recorded in Hollywood and co-produced with Michael Ehlers, Slight Freedom is a solo album in the truest sense, Parker captured live and using nothing more than a guitar and a modest array of effects and samplers. With four tracks weighing in at thirty-seven minutes, the release ideally lends itself to a vinyl presentation, especially when the four split neatly down the middle. The selections are an inspired bunch, too, with Parker pairing his own title composition with pieces by Frank Ocean, Billy Strayhorn, and Chad Taylor.

A strong scene-setter, the twelve-minute title cut inaugurates the set with an effects-generated backdrop of stutter-funk against which Parker is free to dryly muse and pontificate without restraint. Even at this early juncture on the album, he does the unexpected in letting the material gradually mutate into a floating ambient reverie over which a number of possible directions are tentatively explored, Parker opting for textural shadings in place of a formally shaped solo. Urban elements—traffic noise, a police siren, the beep of a delivery truck backing up, etc.—introduce “Super Rich Kids,” after which Parker unleashes a jaunty, bossa nova-tinged riff on Ocean's original, the mood and feel light and breezy.

Tackling a piece he first recorded with percussionist Taylor and bassist Chris Lopes on the 2012 album Bright Light in Winter, Parker introduces “Mainz” sans background detail before establishing its swinging theme as an ostinato base and then riffing on top with freewheeling, jazz-tinged expressions; replicating somewhat the trajectory of the title track, “Mainz” similarly shape-shifts into a sustained drone for its closing section. The album's loveliest moment arrives at its end with an atmosphere-heavy rendering of “Lush Life,” though that should come as no surprise to anyone acquainted with Strayhorn's poignant ballad. Awash in tremolo, Parker initially circles around the melody before embracing it head-on with delicate voicings, the guitarist wisely deciding not to get in the way of the song's stirring, time-honoured melodies.

There's an intimate and home-made feel to the recording that adds to its appeal without lessening the impact of Parker's playing and what he's accomplished using modest means. Abetted by real-time processing and, on one track, field recordings, the guitarist allows the listener to hear him with fresh ears and acquire an enhanced appreciation for his musicianship and intelligence. Despite the understated tone of the album, one consistent with Parker's playing elsewhere, Slight Freedom does leave a lasting mark.

December 2016