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Shell Game

Jeff Parker, guitarist for Tortoise and Isotope 217, has never much liked conforming to expectations.

"I went to school in Boston, at the Berklee School of Music," he says. "I was in the jazz scene there--and the thing for a young jazz musician from Berklee to do was to go to New York. But I was really put off by that whole thing. Berklee was producing all these musicians who sounded exactly alike. I felt like I was part of a big factory, and I thought the way the institutions of jazz and college worked together was the exact opposite of where the music came from and where it should go."

In other words, Parker wanted to find a place where music-making was less formulaic and more challenging than it was in the City That Never Sleeps--and he found it. He settled in Chicago in 1991, and since then he's gotten a chance to sit in with an astonishing array of talent, including Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors, Joshua Redman, Roy Hargrove and practically anyone alive whose last name is Marsalis. In addition, he has performed as part of such acclaimed combos as the Chicago Underground Orchestra and New Horizons Ensemble. But he's received considerably more attention for his association with Tortoise, a quasi-experimental rock outfit, and Isotope 217, a fusion act that just happens to include Tortoise's John Herndon and Dan Bitney. And because Tortoise, in particular, excites a great deal of passion among cultural arbiters, who tend to view the group as either overhyped and pretentious or the last best hope of the alternative nation, Parker finds himself in the odd position of being both an outsider looking in and an insider looking out.

"I try not to get caught up in all that," Parker insists. "But it's kind of impossible to just ignore it, because, you know, it's so heavy these days. I mean, the hardest thing is to just stay focused."

If the two most recent recordings by Parker's most prominent combos are any indication, he's doing just fine in that regard. Tortoise's third full-length, TNT, which was issued earlier this year on the Thrill Jockey imprint, is an instrumental extravaganza that takes the sonic adventurousness at the heart of the group's previous discs (1994's Tortoise and 1996's Millions Now Living Will Never Die) to new creative heights. With the exception of bassist Dave Pajo, the members of the sextet (Douglas McCombs, John McEntire, Herndon, Bitney and Parker) are all multi-instrumentalists, and they use their eclectic skills with subtlety and intelligence. "I Set My Face to the Hillside" evokes both Ennio Morricone and Martin Denny; "TNT" mates a jazzy progression with an ambient soundscape to stunning effect; "Ten-Day Interval" makes minimalism accessible to the common man; and "Almost Always Is Nearly Enough" finds a way to incorporate a rickety synthesized drum track and lap steel in the same space. In one sense, the album's title is misleading: The music on TNT isn't overtly explosive. But listen closely to these sneaky, discerning tunes, and before long, your preconceptions will be blown apart.

Isotope 217's bow, The Unstable Molecule, is less scattershot: Parker describes the collective's musical touchstone as "the stuff that Miles Davis was doing in the Seventies," and the reference makes perfect sense. The lead track, "Kryptonite Smokes the Red Line," is punctuated by the mellow tone of a cornet played by Rob Mazurek. But the track also vibrates with the sound of Tortoise contributor Sara P. Smith's trombone, the walking bass of Matt Lux, the intriguing percussion of Herndon and Bitney, and Parker's scratchy guitar. Offerings such as "Beneath the Undertow," "La Jetee" and "Prince Namor" employ these elements with elegance and drama, while the soulful "Phonometrics" finds the musicians cutting loose, exchanging solos (Parker's brief turn is ear-opening) and otherwise having the kind of good time that doubters insist is beyond them.

Indeed, the criticism most frequently leveled against the folks in the Tortoise collective is that they are remote, distant--the equivalent of scientists in white lab coats and rubber gloves pouring their sounds from one sterile test tube to the other. Because adjectives such as "gutbucket" seem wholly inappropriate when applied to either Tortoise or Isotope 217, these gibes don't completely come out of the blue. But Parker still finds them frustrating.

"Man, we've heard that a million times before," he says. "It seems like everyone wants everything to be so obvious, and that's too bad. Because to me, what was compelling when I first heard Tortoise was that it was really subtle. People could interpret it in whatever way they wished to. But when something isn't plain, not right in their face, a lot of people don't really know what to do with it.

"It's crazy," he adds, "because we're all really passionate about what we're doing."

Parker's love of music was cultivated in Hampton, Virginia, where his family moved after his birth in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Although neither of his parents played an instrument, their stereo pumped out a steady flow of classic sounds: the jazz of Art Blakey and Horace Silver, the R&B of Earth, Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder, the rock of the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. Young Jeff began taking piano lessons when he was eight, but practicing his scales struck him as less than entertaining. So he turned to his sister's guitar and was immediately smitten. "It was an old one that was just laying around the house," he remembers. "And when I picked it up, it felt more natural to me than the piano. I think it's because I'm left-handed, and the guitar just lends itself to that, since most of the activity is with the left hand. My mother and father saw that and signed me up to take guitar lessons instead of piano lessons."

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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