I don’t select a Best New Artist every year like they do at the Grammies, but if I were to do that, Matt Parker would have easily taken the prize in 2013 for his standout debut album Worlds Put Together. The tenor sax maestro strikes me as a Joe Lovano with the gumption of Rahsaan Roland Kirk or Eric Dolphy, a fun combination of qualities that is so mindful of the jazz saxophone’s soulful past while giving in to impulse, an oft-forgotten tenant of what jazz is about, too.
For Present Time (February 12, 2016 by Bynk Records), Parker puts his horn into even sharper focus by paring down his band to just the rhythm section of Alan Hampton (bass) and Reggie Quinerly (drums). It means that every note blown by Parker carries a heavier load and the revelation of Present Time is that he can not only handle it, he shines brighter as the spotlight gets hotter.
Part of the secret to delivering when there’s no one there behind him handling the chord changes is being more personable in the delivery. Parker doesn’t fuss over whether he’s leaving behind too many notes or too few, as long as they carry out the right passion. No where can that be more evident than on blues numbers like “Noah’s Arc” and here he conjures up Coleman Hawkins in a particularly gruff mood. Contrast that with the cheerfulness of “Present Time,” a throwback melody played over Quinerly’s modern, almost drum ‘n’ bass beat that vacillates between 7/8 and 7/4.
Parker is fond of stretching out toward avant-garde while maintaining a connection to tradition, as “New Horizons” makes clear. His wailing notes on soprano sax with an improvising Quinerly beside him is mindful of Coltrane/Ali’s Interstellar Space except that Parker is too melodically inclined to let it get that far outside. Halfway in he ushers in a new figure with Hampton, and pours out fills of trills with Hampton pulling out the bow. He goes without any accompaniment at all for “The Gong,” making exhortations first on soprano and then tenor sax (sounding as brawny as a baritone) punctuated by strikes to a gong. On his final note, he blows through both horns in a nod to Kirk.
Parker showcases his facility for playing alongside a vocalist on a handful of songs performed with Emily Braden. Most of her performances are wordless, assuming a co-lead part that supplements Parker, but for the standard “I’m Confession’ (That I Love You)” she sings the lyrics while Parker goes into Lester Young mode. He proves to be a fine accompanist behind Braden, acting almost as a harmonizing voice, and amps up the energy level a notch for his solo turn.
The only other non-original is a Charles Mingus composition that has never been fully recorded. “Song To Keki” is a pretty reading of Mingus’ melody, but when he enters the solo portion he flies off into orbit, returning still feelin’ jaunty and improvising like no one in particular.
The days when a teenaged Parker was just getting started playing in New Orleans are alluded to in the second line pulse of “Sixteen,” with Jerome Jennings (Sonny Rollins, Christian McBride) adding tambourine. Parker cuts loose on tenor in a funky aside that surely would have filled up his saxophone case on a French Quarter street corner. It’s a nice and tidy wrap up of the whole album.
Present Time confirms the resourcefulness and playfulness of Matt Parker’s saxophone that’s so engaging and so lively. These are qualities that shine through whether he’s playing in an orchestra, sextet or this trio. Show me someone who says jazz is no fun to listen to and I’ll show them Matt Parker.