The Relatives – Jeff Parker
Thrill Jockey 129
In the days of old, rock groups would stick it out for a decade or more before letting their members do much of significance on their own. Tortoise has always been the most post-modern of bands, though, so it's fitting that they've taken a different tack. Even as they continue constructing their puzzles, they give listeners plenty of chances to appreciate the individual pieces. And, as in the case of Jeff Parker's new CD, sometimes the appeal of the offshoots rivals that of the parent organization's efforts.
Given that Parker may be the most notable (and noticeable) player in Tortoise's current lineup, his jazz leanings are not surprising. What's surprising about The Relatives, though, is how successfully it evokes the feeling of jazz/rock circa 1969, the era of albums such as Emergency! or Infinite Search which were so long on ideas and energy that the vinyl struggled to contain them. Parker’s dry guitar tone and the old school drum kit of Chad Taylor (who, despite now living in New York, apparently is continuing his quest to be the drummer on every album recorded in Chicago) lean more towards jazz than rock, but in that they also evoke the days before McLaughlin became Mahavishnu, Hancock became a Headhunter, and the jazzers stormed the marketplace and got what they wanted but lost what they had.
The one questionable step might be the cover of Marvin Gaye's "When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You." It's nice to find one of the normally too-hip-for-the-room Thrill Jockey types making an accessibility bid, but Parker's supporting riffs aren't integrated well with the lead instruments, and the net effect is smooth jazz gone rough. Elsewhere, though, the roughness is a strength — while Tortoise's grit often resembles the "demonstration dirt" of the vacuum cleaner salesman from Zappa's Perfect Stranger, The Relatives is thick in real dirt, particularly from Chris Lopes’s acoustic bass and Sam Barsheshet’s Rhodes and Wurlitzer. Even the semi-easy-listening "Beanstalk" reminds one of the days when the inoffensive Herbie Mann let the freshest, rawest young guitarists (Larry Coryell, Sonny Sharrock, Duane Allman) sneak onto his albums.
Tortoise's CDs tend to subordinate playing to composition and production. Parker's disc has a few Tortoise-esque sonic experiments (perhaps partly because John McEntire is on board as engineer) and doesn't skimp on the compositions, but it lets playing take the spotlight. Not a mere side project, The Relatives pumps more life into the jazz/rock hybrid than most have managed in the new millennium.