Review (NYOP Edition): Jason Parker Quartet – “Five Leaves Left: A Tribute to Nick Drake”

NYOP Edition:  Review of Jason Parker Quartet‘s Five Leaves Left: A Tribute to Nick Drake.

The NYOP Review Series highlights albums set to Name Your Own Price by the artists with the goal of making price no obstacle to discovering their music.


Jason Parker Quartet – Five Leaves Left: A Tribute to Nick Drake

The late Nick Drake had a short but profound career, recording three folk-rock albums of sublime beauty and massive sadness.  None of that music was particularly complex, but the melodies were vivid, the rhythms uncomplicated, and the emotional depth in which Drake gave voice to them made for some spectacular moments.  However, that simplicity had to have been something of an obstacle for trumpet man Jason Parker, an admitted fan of Nick Drake, as he attempted to reconstruct the tunes into something a jazz quartet could sink their teeth into.

Your album personnel: Jason Parker (trumpet & flugelhorn), Josh Rawlings (piano), Evan Flory-Barnes (bass), D’Vonne Lewis (drums), and guests: Michele Khazak (vocals) and Cynthia Mullis (tenor sax & flute).

On this album, Parker performs the songs of Drake’s original album Five Leaves Left in their entirety and in the same album order as the original.  The challenges Jason Parker faced in tackling the Nick Drake songbook and arranging it for a jazz outfit were two-fold.

Because much of Drake’s simplicity allowed his music to focus its emotional impact, it would be safe to assume that Parker would encounter the balancing act of honoring the emotion-simplicity ratio of Drake’s music and honoring his own music vision as well as that of his bandmates.  He accomplishes this by not getting chained to Drake’s sadness, instead drawing out from each song the emotion that spoke to him musically.

The best example of this can be found in two songs: “Cello Song” and “Man In a Shed.”  Parker flips “Cello Song” on its head, taking Drake’s sonic brooding and transforming it into an upbeat tune.  After Flory-Barnes opens things up with some arco on the bass, Parker and Mullis kick back and blow, trumpet and sax taking turns shouting up to the sky.  Lewis establishes a snappy bounce, while Rawlings adds shading where it needs it.  Parker’s treatment of the melody is pretty damn identical to the original, but the emotional shift he incorporates into the song makes this the best example of Parker taking ownership of the Drake songbook, rather than just parroting the notes.  On “Man In a Shed,” Parker doubles down on Drake’s stab at buoyancy by turning the song into a celebratory jig, an invitation to laughter, and not settling for Drake’s mere allusion to contentment.

The other substantial challenge Parker faced on this album falls more squarely into the lap of vocalist Michele Khazak.  Drake had a signature velvety voice that sounded genuinely hopeful, but preeminently melancholy.  For listeners who strongly embrace the Drake songbook, it can be tough to accept any voice other than Drake’s singing those words.  On songs like “Time Has Told Me,” where Khazak keeps the Drake original on a tight leash, it’s not a particularly successful outcome.  However, when Khazak breaks from the original, like on “Way To Blue,” she absolutely shines.  Khazak turns away from the latent torpor in Drake’s voice and instead ignites her own burgeoning strength.  The quartet uses her spark as a springboard into a performance with more fight and fire than the original even realized, perhaps, it possessed.  It’s arguably the strongest moment on the album, with Khazak leading the charge.

The album is split about in half between vocal and instrumental tracks, with the latter consistently stronger, but with the former providing the more memorable moments.

Album ends with a duo performance of “Saturday Sun” with Parker on flugel and Rawlings on piano.  They lend it all the subtlety and barely repressed weariness of the Drake original.  It’s probably the best way to have ended a Nick Drake tribute album… subdued, simple, and evocative.

Personal Admission of Substantial Bias:  I am a huge Nick Drake fan.  His music made a serious connection with me back in the day, and its strength hasn’t waned.  I don’t want to hear anyone fucking with his music or, more revelevant to me personally, my memory of his music.  So this was a prickly obstacle to overcome.  Also, when I first heard Parker’s tribute album nearly a year ago, unfortunately, it coincided with a Nick Drake listening binge that I was going through at the time, so there’s no doubt that colored my initial impression of the album.  I keep revisiting Parker’s Five Leaves Left every couple months.  I find myself liking it more, accepting it more on its own terms.  That includes Khazak’s vocals in her “role” as the Nick Drake fill-in.  It’s why I hesitate to fully articulate some of the strong feelings I have about this recording… because I’m able to measure the change in my opinion of the album in comparison to the change in my biases.  I suppose the fact that I keep revisiting this album is evidence enough that there’s something happening here that should inspire everyone to take the time to listen.  Worth noting, also, that I just “revisited” this album four times in a row today.  Give it a chance.  I’d be interested to hear an opinion of this album from someone(s) who isn’t a Nick Drake fan.

Released in March 2011. The album is Self-Produced. Jazz from the Seattle, WA scene.

Available on Parker’s bandcamp page, priced at Name Your Own Price (NYOP).

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