Born: March 9, 1979 Primary Instrument: Sax, tenor
Matt Parker isn’t eccentric or reclusive—far from it, he’s super-friendly and down to earth—and his work isn’t primitive or obscure. But there’s still something of the outsider artist in the 33-year-old tenor saxophonist. A Fort Lauderdale native who is now part of Brooklyn’s inspired jazz scene, he is largely self-taught and self-directed. On his striking debut album, Worlds Put Together, he lives up to the title by connecting the stylistic dots between Lester Young and Rahsaan Roland Kirk—a magical feat considering he never listened to Kirk until people who heard the album brought up his name.
Parker didn’t set out to make an album that, quite simply, sounds like no other—stormy at one extreme, with agreeably disorienting sonic effects, and playful at the other, at one point floating a circus melody straight out of Kurt Weill. And how many jazz artists these days prize brevity? With the exception of one 10-minute adventure, the tunes on Worlds are all under five minutes, with three under four and one clocking in at 1:29.
“I actually wanted all of the songs to be under three minutes, like old 78s,” said Parker. “78s are the most fascinating thing. You put on this heavy disc, you lower the needle and you get two and a half minutes of enjoyment. You can actually feel the grooves. It’s brilliant.”
In the best way, Worlds Put Together is the sum of its parts. Each of the songs is meant to evoke a scene from an imaginary movie—one with equal parts action and atmosphere and a cast including dancer Jimmy “Taps” Sutherland, Danish drummer Mikkel Hess (in whose pop band, Hess Is More, Parker plays), and a group of chattering children.
The story opens threateningly with “Eye of Rico,” inspired by Hurricane Andrew. Charged by raspy, unison saxes evocative of polyphonic Kirk (Julio Monterrey, Parker’s longtime musical collaborator, plays alto), the song creates conflict by playing 4/4 and 3/4 time signatures off each other. After pianist Jesse Elder (with whom Parker plays in the vaudeville act, the Candy Shop Boys) creates an uneasy calm with his romantically tinged solo, guitarist Josh Mease opens up the skies with his electric lines.
Perhaps hearing Lester Young’s version of “I Can’t Get Started” in his head (Prez is, in fact, one of his heroes), Parker segues into the tender “I Can’t Help It.” But he and the band quickly head out to the dark, swirling sea, on “Lists,” a feature for drummer Reggie Quinerly. On “Up and Down,” featuring Parker, the leader indulges in his snake-charming sound on soprano. His arrangement on “WPT” reflects his love of Tom Waits: “He’s not afraid to have every instrument play the same melody.”
And then there’s the classic chase scene staged on “Full Sun,” a tune inspired by Benny Golson and Curtis Fuller. “I knew from the start that this song wasn’t going to be under four minutes,” said Parker. “It was a matter of, let’s just go, let’s just play, and allow everyone to be themselves.”
Growing up in Fort Lauderdale, Parker was exposed to little jazz. But his father played Leon Redbone so much, his mother developed an intense hatred of the old-timey standards specialist. During a drive to Indiana, she threw the Redbone tape her husband had been playing nonstop out the window—only to have him buy a new one at the next gas station. “My sister and I laughed so hard,” said Matt.
As a kid, Matt longed to play drums, but that instrument was taken in the school band, as was trumpet, so he ended up with the alto saxophone. He familiarized himself with it by obsessively taking it apart and putting it back together. “Once I got a sound out of it, I was hooked,” he said. Though he struggled as a music student, frustrating teachers, he developed his own system of playing, using the things that worked and discarding the things that didn’t.
The first jazz concert he attended was by Maynard Ferguson. The trumpet great, in whose big band Parker would play for two years, left a deep impression on him—less with his patented stratospheric notes than his lyrical playing. At 14, Parker made his club debut playing with local saxophone legend Jimmy Cavallo, a Louis Prima–style rock and R&B stylist, and was soon playing regularly on a scene presided over by hardcore jazz notables Ira Sullivan, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Richie Cole, and Melton Mustafa. The players of Parker’s generation who were making a noise in the area included the Strickland twins, saxophonist Marcus and drummer E.J.
Parker put together an offbeat quartet of his own featuring a clarinetist, trumpeter, and trombonist and immediately began writing for it, undeterred by his lack of training (at 17, he did study with noted Miami educators and saxophonists Gary Campbell and Gary Keller). “It was like, you two play in B- flat, I play in G, the clarinet plays a low E. It was the weirdest sound, but I didn’t know that at the time.”
In 1997, during a school trip to New Orleans, Parker abandoned his class to look for local musicians to play with. In the French Quarter, an unlikely group took him under its wing: Two Joes and a Bob, the youngest member of whom was their 68-year-old clarinetist. The owner of the Gazebo Cafe on Decatur Street offered Parker a summer job playing with the trio. Parker stayed for the summer playing six days a week, eight to 10 hours a day, learning tunes as he sweated it out.
After deciding to stay in New Orleans, he heard from the band director at Miami Dade Community College that the prestigious New World School of the Arts in Miami was in need of a tenor saxophonist. Would Parker, who was playing tenor by then, be interested in attending the school for his senior year? Parker decided it was an offer he’d be foolish to refuse. To satisfy residency rules, he became the only senior to have his own apartment in downtown Miami, sharing it with a ballet dancer and a drummer.
In 1999, Parker successfully auditioned at the New School in New York and soon said goodbye to Florida. “Being in New York, it was like, oh my God, there were so many talented musicians,” he said.
His band on Worlds Put Together includes a remarkable contingent of players who are leaders in their own right, three of them from Houston: Quinerly, on whose acclaimed album, Music Inspired by Freedmantown, Parker was featured; Mease, whose new singer-songwriter album, Lapland, follows his heralded Wilderness; and bassist Alan Hampton, who in addition to accompanying the likes of Gretchen Parlato, Sufjan Stevens, and Andrew Bird has made his mark as a singer-songwriter with the highly praised The Moving Sidewalk. (He co-produced Worlds with Parker.)
It’s a band that navigates Parker’s classic-cum-modern style exceptionally well. “I always had a connection to the avant aspect of expression,” said Parker. “My problem was when people said I sounded like I listened to Kirk, or Wayne Shorter, I felt like what I had been doing was invalidated. The first time I heard Wayne, I was afraid people would think I was imitating him. I felt like I had to play differently, so I went back to Lester and Ben Webster and Dexter Gordon. It was a while before I felt confident enough to go back being myself.”
He is, however, equally himself on standards. He included “Darn That Dream” on the album as a tribute to Ferguson, with whom he played more than 400 shows. “Almost every day, Maynard would warm up with this song,” he said. “He loved ballads and the lower range of his instrument, which he made sound like a baritone horn. I’d stand in the hallway and listen, enamored of it. I still hear him playing it.” That Parker makes the song such a personal statement tells us he was, and still is, listening in all the right ways.