Chris Parrello + Things I Wonder
Nearly a full century into the music’s recorded history, the answer to the question “What is jazz?” continues to change. Artists are as likely to reject the label as they are to self-identify as “jazz” with a personal definition of that word. Guitarist and composer Chris Parrello concedes that his debut with band Things I Wonder is “probably a jazz record.” It is a jazz record that has absorbed international characters and other stylistic influences – a reflection of Parrello’s native New York City.
Hailing from Manhattan’s East Village, Parrello believes there is “an inevitable bond, a deeply-held commonality, between those of us who have had the random fortune of being born and raised in New York City. It’s inevitable that we are in some way formed by the hustle and bustle, and we are able to stand firm despite its pull, while around us the continuous flow of transplants splash down to take their best shot. I think that the city moves more slowly for the native. For me, New York is not an idea, it’s a home.”
Things I Wonder finds Parrello surrounded by musicians who have chosen to call New York home as well. Australian vocalist Karlie Bruce shines throughout the record, serving a multitude of roles, from multitracked wordless choir (“Anymore”) to second horn (“Choices”) to smoldering singer-songwriter. “Broken Shell,” “Undone” and “My War” feature Bruce’s original lyrics to Parrello’s songs. Cellist Rubin Kodheli, from Albania, and bassist Kevin Thomas, from Las Vegas, join with Parrello’s guitar to form a resonant wooden base for the record. Drummer Aviv Cohen, from Israel, ably supports them. Californian (via Boston) Ian Young’s tenor and soprano saxophones alternately glide over the band and forcefully dig into them. Parrello speaks highly of his bandmates. “As I’ve grown with this band, I certainly composed with the specific players in mind. The album was built around them.”
As a guitarist, Parrello is equally comfortable on acoustic and electric, with big sounds and beautiful touch on both instruments. Often eschewing freedom in favor of dutifully keeping to the composed material, Parrello drives the band with his own dynamic, rhythmic energy, with unapologetically guitar-friendly chord voicing functioning as the harmonic axis of the tunes. His composition mirrors his playing: echoes of diverse guitar heroes, from George Benson to Jimmy Page to João Bosco, sit well among the vast range of stylistic references that Parrello seamlessly merges. Indeed, each piece on the album evokes some well-worn musical device with a slight twist, as filtered through Parrello’s mind. The composer’s love for music theory – be it jazz harmony, chorale writing, or “post-tonal transformations” – strongly informs his craft, creating a unified compositional voice. “When one studies counterpoint, one learns rules that we internalize and help us to select the best ideas we have. As I’ve become more comfortable with these ideas I’ve found myself applying them in ways I’d not expected, and they’ve taught me to care for the treatment of a melodic line, of the arc of a song, and the arc of a record.”
It is this careful attention to the arc of a record, and the arc of an ensemble, that characterizes Things I Wonder as an album and as a band. “I wanted to make something that has some longevity for the listener; music that might stay with somebody,” Parrello says. “I feel so lucky to have these beautiful players, amazing people, on my team. I think we’ve been able to communicate something really special.”