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‘Pythagorean Dream’ by Rhys Chatham and ‘The New Breed’ by Jeff Parker Reviews
New albums from veteran guitarists offer hypnotic nuance or subdued funk.
Rhys Chatham ENLARGE
Rhys Chatham Photo: Roland Owsnitzki
By Martin Johnson
June 20, 2016 5:28 p.m. ET
On their new recordings, veteran guitarists Rhys Chatham and Jeff Parker are heading in opposite directions, but both make compelling music. Both men have a foot in important niches of rock. Mr. Chatham, who is 63 years old, created some of the dark, reverberant work that inspired some of the most important downtown New York rock bands of the ’80s, such as Sonic Youth and Swans. Since 1997, Mr. Parker, who is 49, has been a member of Tortoise, the influential, Chicago-based, mostly instrumental rock band, and he has been an integral member of that city’s current jazz and experimental music scene. On “Pythagorean Dream” (Foom), Mr. Chatham returns to his roots, employing the minimal style of composers Terry Riley and Tony Conrad to create a hypnotic work full of nuance. By contrast, Mr. Parker’s “The New Breed” (International Anthem) shows him working in a subdued but funky style.
Although Mr. Chatham also plays flute and trumpet, he has become nearly synonymous with the electric guitar. His composition “Guitar Trio,” which was released in 1977, featured three guitars, each with special tunings, along with electric bass and drums. After relocating to Paris in 1988, he began creating works with unique sonic heft. His 1989 piece “An Angel Moves Too Fast to See” featured 100 guitarists, and the French capital commissioned his 2005 work “A Crimson Grail,” which featured 400 guitars and was created to take advantage of the natural reverberations in the basilica at Sacré-Coeur.
By contrast, “Pythogorean Dream” is almost shocking in its subtlety. Mr. Chatham plays guitar, flute and trumpet on the album, which is divided into two sections, each about 19 minutes long. The first segment focuses on his guitar, the second on flute. The echoes, overtones and artful repetitions of his guitar are reminiscent of the work of early minimalist composers. Chatham’s flute provides a more tranquil sound. The music has a distinctly New York feel to it. The dark, guitar-based resonance from the first part feels like the alleyways of downtown in the more foreboding ’70s and ’80s, while the serene second part evokes images of the well-groomed riverfront areas of lower Manhattan today. In some ways, “Pythagorean Dream” shows how minimalism has developed since its early days, 50 years ago, when it was ascetic and almost deliberately cold; it sounded like nothing else on the scene. Mr. Chatham’s music, though rigorous, has warmth to it, and the connections to other music are easy to hear.
Jeff Parker ENLARGE
Jeff Parker Photo: Lee Anne Schmitt
Mr. Parker straddles the blurry boundaries between rock and jazz. Besides his work with Tortoise, he leads a trio of his own and has participated in Rob Mazurek’s Chicago Underground projects. Mr. Parker’s new recording showcases a different side of his work. On “The New Breed,” the guitarist, who recently relocated to Los Angeles from Chicago, explores the subdued funk and hip-hop that young West Coast bands like the Internet and many groups on the Los Angeles BrainFeeder roster are reviving.
Parker’s relocation sparked the project. During the move, he found some sampled beat experiments that he had done several years before. He revisited them and began to build a band to play alongside the samples. The group features bassist Paul Bryan, saxophonist Josh Johnson and drummer Jamire Williams. As is the case with Tortoise and his jazz groups, Mr. Parker’s guitar work is nuanced and complex, and the music spans an impressive amount of musical territory with deep and varied grooves.
Like the Robert Glasper Experiment, another group that adapts contemporary pop structures and techniques into their music, Mr. Parker’s band never lets the samples overtake the drive and energy of the ensemble. “Executive Life,” the first track, recalls the early jazz funk of the ’70s, and it is highlighted by short innovative solos. The ringing tones of Mr. Parker’s guitar lead two of the album’s most compelling pieces, “Here Comes Ezra” and “Jrifted,” and his solo at the start of the latter is the recording’s signature moment. The only misstep is the vocals—by his daughter, Ruby Parker—in the final track, “Cliché,” where the music falls dangerously close to its title.
Messrs. Parker and Chatham are both deep into their careers, but they have found interesting new ground in genres of instrumental music that deserve more attention.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.