Private Playlist: Jeff Parker is busy studying music in hibernation mode

Jeff Parker with the ill-fated Howlin’ Wolf album. Credit: Jeff Parker.

Private Playlist is a listening session with Southern California’s most notable musical figures in their private creative environments. Guitarist Jeff Parker’s career began with Chicago’s legendary Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). He rose to national prominence in the ‘90s during his tenure with “post-rock” ensembles such as Tortoise and Isotope 217. Since then, his studio credits have been as expansive and eclectic as his playing, including records by Andrew Bird, Meshell Ndegeocello, Rob Mazurek, Joshua Redman, the Aluminum Group, and more. In January of 2020, he released Suite for Max Brown with his ensemble, The New Breed.

I feel like a lot of artists that I talk to are having motivational struggles, kinda blocked, and I'm the same. But I feel like I'm in a pretty studious period, which has me listening to a lot of music. And hopefully I'll reflect that in my own music once the smoke clears and I feel like I'm able to create some things again.


Arthur Russell's music has tremendous ambience in everything he does. As soon as it comes on, it puts you in this space. It's really beautiful, but also haunting and introspective, even when it's very extroverted. What attracts me to his work is the honesty and the humanity in it. I chose the song "Make 1, 2," which I think is kind of amazing.


There have been a lot of tributes to musicians and artists who are passing away at this time.

Of the musicians who have passed recently, bassist Henry Grimes had a profound influence on me. He was a brilliant and prolific player on the New York jazz scene from the late '50s up until probably the early '70s. He was playing with everybody and playing brilliantly. Then he disappeared for about 30 years. Nobody knew where he was, although there were rumors. Then he resurfaced and was active in the creative music community up until he died.

In tribute to him. I started to revisit a lot of the records that he was on. One of my favorites is this album recorded with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, School Days. It was recorded live in New York in 1963. They're playing the music of Thelonius Monk, and he just sounds amazing. It has a big sound, and he drives the band and plays these amazing solos. It's just a treasure. Beautiful and inspiring to hear.


I was tapped to rearrange some music from the great producer and arranger, Charles Stepney. He was a house producer for Chess Records, but was probably best known for his work with Earth, Wind and Fire. There are two very different albums that he produced, Electric Wolf (also known as The Howlin’ Wolf Album) and Muddy Waters’ Electric Mud. The British Invasion was in full swing, and countless bands like Cream and the Rolling Stones were appropriating the sound of American blues and citing these guys as big influences. And Chess, the record label, had the idea to make some of that money by having these pioneers make psychedelic albums. The Howlin' Wolf album ended up not selling because of the way they promoted it: the print on the cover says, "This is Howlin' Wolf's new album. He doesn't like it. He didn't like his electric guitar at first either." They thought that would make people want to buy his record, y'know, but ... they didn't. But the record is amazing, man.

The folklore story that I heard is that, after the session, guitar player Pete Cosey went up to Howlin' Wolf and said, "You know, I came up listening to your music, and it's great to be on this session with you." And I guess Howlin' Wolf looked at him and said, "I think you need to take all them wah-wah pedals and s**t, and throw them in the river on your way to the barbershop."


Another album I've been checking out is Do It Baby by the Miracles. They were fronted by Smokey Robinson until he left the band and went solo. But they kept going and made this really great album. So it's got this pop aesthetic: a whole orchestra, monophonic synthesizer, electric piano, acoustic piano, double bass, electric bass, three guitar players … a big, grandiose, amazing production. And to listen to this sound, the way this music washes over you, all the colors, and then these pop tunes that modulate in really unexpected ways. It's incredibly impressive and ambitious music.

Check out KCRW’s other Private Playlists:

Inara George shares tips for raising music-literate kids during quarantine
Chris Cohen shares Algerian synth funk, avant jazz, and more far-out sounds
Hand Habits’ Meg Duffy offers an earthy soundtrack for the homebound
Mia Doi Todd recommends space-age sounds and Brazilian tunes
Neon Indian shares music for your inner monologue
Thundercat on the importance of albums as a journey
Dorian Wood is walking a tightrope and trying not to look down