Shell Game

Tortoise and Isotope 217 bring out two different sides of guitarist Jeff Parker.

Except for a brief flirtation with the trombone, Parker stayed true to the guitar through his high-school days, and even though his experiences at Berklee were less satisfying than he had hoped, he was determined to make his living with his ax. Fortunately, he says, "I met some people who told me that the Chicago scene was cool. And since I was like, 'I can't move to New York,' I figured I'd try Chicago instead."

Good move. Although Chicago trailed New York in terms of jazz prominence (in large part because many of the most prominent jazz labels and publications are based in NYC), it has a bracing tradition of producing artists who not only push the edge of the envelope, but tear right through it. Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), whose founders include Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, arose in the Sixties, providing support to players with an allergy to the status quo. The group is still going strong to this day, as Parker well knows: He's an AACM participant thanks to his role in Ernest Dawkins's New Horizons Ensemble, with whom Parker has cut four platters.

Chicago's jazz subculture back in 1991, when Parker entered into it, was "really raw," he enthuses. "To me, it seemed more in tune with the music, and more honest in a way. People were playing music because that's what they had to do, and not for any other reason. It was more from the street."

That doesn't mean, however, that audiences there are as eager to take risks as musicians are. "It's not like they're closed off," Parker says. "I just find that regular people who listen to music are the same everywhere. I don't think it's a regional thing. It's more the circumstances that artists have to deal with in their everyday lives.

"Overall, I guess I'd say that people don't seem really receptive to change. If you give them something that they've never really heard before, it seems that a lot of them don't really know how to react. They're always trying to bring it into something familiar."

Tortoise exists on the opposite side of the spectrum; the act's one constant has been restlessness. This characteristic appealed to Parker, who first played with the group as a sideman on "Cliff Dweller Society," the B-side of an obscure single, and subsequently sat in during a number of live shows. Some of his jazz peers looked askance at this connection, but they were in the minority. "There are definitely lines drawn between the two different scenes, jazz and rock," he says. "But there's probably more interaction between them in Chicago than in a lot of other places. Some of the guys into jazz or improvised music will check out rock shows, and rock guys will check out jazz stuff. So it's more of a community in that sense."

By 1995, Parker was firmly entrenched in Tortoise's world. He shared a loft with many of the musicians in the band and played with them in spin-off groups such as Uptighty, a funk act. He also enjoyed dueting with John Herndon, and these sessions eventually led to the birth of Isotope and Parker's addition to Tortoise's lineup. To Parker, the disparate styles of the last two groups allow him to exercise very different musical muscles.

"With Isotope, we might have an eight-bar motif and then we'll play on that part for, like, twenty minutes," he says. "But with Tortoise, we just go out there and play these songs. There are bits that are improvised, but it's nothing like Isotope.

"It's just another way of looking at things. I mean, it's weird, but before playing with Tortoise, I could never understand the concept of concert musicians, classical musicians, who just go up there and perform other people's work. I would be like, man, how could somebody do that? But now I understand. Tortoise comes from more of a punk-rock background, but in a way, it's the same idea. And now when I go out there and play these parts, I really get into it. I'd never done anything like that in my life, and it's awesome for me."

On the current Tortoise/Istope 217 tour, Parker is jumping between one extreme and the other, and each night journalists and a growing cult of followers are judging whether he does it well. But despite this pressure, he still believes that his long-ago decision not to take the well-traveled road to New York was the right one for him. "There are a lot of distractions right now," he concedes, "but I love what we're doing. We're trying to stay on track--and so far, we have."

Tortoise, with Isotope 217. 8 p.m. Thursday, May 28, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $12, 830-2525 or 329-6353.

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