Jazz musicians move into and out of Chicago all the time, but the exit last November of guitarist Jeff Parker carried quite a sting.
Parker had lived and worked here for more than two decades, essentially launching his career in Chicago and becoming one of the city's most versatile and admired musicians. Equally at home playing experimental jazz with saxophonist Fred Anderson, straight-ahead swing with the Chicago Jazz Ensemble and various cross-genre sounds with Isotope 217, Chicago Underground Orchestra and Tortoise, among others, Parker had built constituencies in many quarters.
Yet through it all there was no mistaking the particular DNA of Parker's guitar work, which stood out for its economy and eloquence. Preferring to play a few carefully chosen notes rather than an avalanche of them, punctuating his solos with plenty of space and bringing obvious deliberation to carefully sculpted phrases, Parker sounded like no other guitarist in town – or practically anywhere else, for that matter.
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So Parker's return for a two night engagement at Constellation, where he'll be leading his trio, comes as welcome news for anyone who admired the succinct beauty and deep, soulful tone of his playing. It also raises the question: Why did he leave in the first place?
"My partner, Lee Anne Schmitt, she's a filmmaker and teaches at CalArts, and that's mostly it," says Parker, who had been commuting between Chicago and Los Angeles for couple of years.
"Also, I just kind of felt like it was time for a change. I love the community here – I just felt like I needed to branch out."
Parker is quick to add, however, that he still spends much of his time on the road and thus hasn't yet forged a place for himself in L.A. jazz. That only intensifies what he misses about the Chicago scene, where he launched his career after graduating from the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1990.
"Like a lot of musicians I saw (Chicago) as a kind of transitory place that I would kind of hang out in and clear my head before I moved to New York," recalls Parker.
"But I just never moved to New York. … Chicago was really kind of the best place for me to come at the time, because I feel like I really found my musical identity out here. I think it was a combination of a vibrant community that was really receptive to creative music and also that it's pretty far-removed from the mainstream music industry. So it has more of a grassroots, hands-on involvement in the music industry, like local record labels."
Indeed, through most of its century-long jazz history Chicago has nurtured iconoclasts, eccentrics and other free thinkers whose individuality have placed them at the forefront of the art form. From New Orleans expats such as Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong in the 1920s to Von Freeman in the 1940s and thereafter to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in the 1960s to the present, Chicago has been a laboratory for new ideas in music.
A singular musician of Parker's idiosyncratic gifts was bound to flourish here, and many ensembles benefited from his contributions. The decades he spent here, plus the more recent time away, have given him insight into the particular character of musical Chicago, he says.
"There's just a really open-minded, diverse music community here, from the AACM and then my Tortoise and Thrill Jockey records and playing with Fred Anderson – I mean, I could go on and on," says Parker.
"Not that diverse communities of musicians don't exist everywhere. But in Chicago, it's such a real thing – it's got the Chicago stamp (or) personality. Chicago is such a working town. Musicians here, they work – it's about doing things on the job.
"Whereas in other communities, especially with creative music, people tend to focus on certain projects. ... Here it's more about the work environment and gigging and performing."
For his engagement this weekend, Parker will be leading his long-running, periodically performing trio with bassist Chris Lopes and drummer Chad Taylor. Parker goes back years with both musicians: He was a freshman at Berklee with Lopes in 1985 and met Taylor shortly after arriving in Chicago. The three musicians started out together at what amounted to "the rhythm section of a very early version of (Rob Mazurek's) Chicago Underground" ensembles, says Parker. But Parker considers the group to have cohered as a bona fide trio with its debut recording, "Like-Coping" (2003).
Though the trio works just periodically, having played a west coast tour last spring, it now functions as a kind of repository of a large original repertory built over a substantial period of time.
"We compose the material, and everything is based off of how we interpret the songs," says Parker. "It's not like we write the songs in order to get into improvising. It's definitely the other way around. The songs dictate the way that we interpret them."
What a pleasure to have Parker back here leading a band, even if only for a weekend.
Also worth hearing
Charles McPherson: The eminent saxophonist kicks off the second week of the annual "August is Charlie Parker Month" festivities at the Jazz Showcase. Few peers evoke the heat and brilliance of Parker's work more faithfully than McPherson. 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court; $20-$35; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com