Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Chris Parello & Things I Wonder @ The Lily Pad, Cambridge, MA 2/11/11 - Concert Review & Interview

Chris Parello had my night teed up perfectly to get a good concert review out of me. It took me a half-hour to get a cab from my girlfriend's apartment near Pleasant Street to the Lily Pad in Cambridge. The bar where I met Chris before the show was rackety and so congested that the waiter had to kick us out of our table and make us finish the interview virtually on top of a party of six. The bar across the street, where I killed another hour before the set watching the Celtics lose to Dallas for the second inexplicably frustrating time, served me a skunked Rolling Rock and smelled like parents. Lucky for Parello and his band, Things I Wonder, all I wanted to do at 10:15 on that Friday night was sit in a small, quiet, uncluttered room and watch a scholarly guitar virtuoso quietly and unobtrusively serenade a crowd to beatific, shared silence.

Even luckier for the (in-this-case) quartet, the performance did more than it needed to do to live up to the new album's standard as they masterfully filled any thin space technology might have written into the record. Parello's immaculately versatile guitar was pristine at its jazziest and downright prurient at its bluesiest; in fact, if the record failed to pull at my understanding of his pigeon-hole (jazz), Parello's live set proved him all-encompassing. He and the band played several rock/pop-oriented tunes in the vein of "My War" that detonated any birdhouse they might be stuffed in before the roof could be nailed down. Most of these songs, Parello said, are from the prolific band's newly recorded and upcoming EP.

The new songs, more noticeably but not more so than the "old" ones, balanced the shamelessly--perhaps shamefully, depending on which side of the Common you attend school--hip atmosphere at the Lily Pad. Despite the intimidating, snot-covered beanies and scrutinous, thick-framed eyes just a few feet away the band captivated the small but appreciative crowd with enough poise to support Parello's ambitious compositions.

When I congratulated Chris after the show, he shook his head and said, "I don't know, I didn't feel quite myself today." Tough crowd.


Mike: So you grew up in New York?

Chris: Yeah.

MF: How did you start playing music, and how did you meet and hook up with these musicians from all over the world?

CP: Um, I mean, I guess I started when I was like 12 or 13. And I guess initially, I mean, I love Guns 'n' Roses, you know. I played a lot of rock'n'roll, played a lot of Jimi Hendrix sort of vibe. And I was lucky to, early on...I mean, I gigged a lot. Playing, not jazz music, but a lot of like, punk music. I played a lot around the city, I guess, up until I went off to college. New York was a little bit different at that point in time. We actually could have like 75 16-year-olds in a bar, you know. So, I played a lot doing that. Then I went to Oberlin Conservatory where I studied jazz. And I guess upon coming back, I mean, in New York you're just gonna meet people from all over the place. It was no so much a preconceived idea of saying, 'OK, it's going to be this and that.' But it just kind of fell into place, and I guess if you're in the city, that may well happen.

MF: It's clear that the songs on the record are written by a guitarist, from a guitarist's point of view. How much were you considering the full band when you were composing the songs?

CP: I think it varies. I guess when I was a little bit younger, some of the music I wrote was less on the guitar. And I think that that was ultimately, sometimes, frustrating because maybe, let's say, I got a nice trio gig. And here I am, you know, I consider myself a composer, and a lot of the stuff I wrote was maybe for a bigger group. And I'll be like, okay, I can't actually play this music. So I think it got to a point where I was like, 'OK, I want to write music that, given any circumstance, I can at least say, "This is my song".' So like, even if the stuff grew out and got bigger, a lot of the more melodic stuff tends to be in those guitar parts. So I think, I don't know, I mean, as I grew with these players, it would be more so like, 'OK, I'm really hearing (drummer) Aviv doing this,' or I'm really hearing the end product more. But there's definitely a decent amount of 'OK, here we are with the guitar, and then this is where it's going to be' or 'This might work really well here broken down with just the cello'. But I do think that some of the songs on the record that are more built-up still are fun to play in broken-down circumstances.

MF: Do you feel like, as a composer composing on guitar, you pick up on the unique intricacies of guitar that a non-guitar-oriented composer might miss?

CP: I mean, I don't know if I'd say that. I mean, I think that the guitar is the guitar, the piano is the piano. Something interesting with a lot of the new stuff that I've been writing has actually all been in a different tuning. I like the guitar, but at the same point in time, a lot of the guitar voicings have felt a little stale for me. I do like to be surprised when I hear the guitar, and certainly when you're in a new tuning, everything can sound really fresh. And, you know, I studied a good deal, so it's nice to actually not really know what you're doing. Like if you're writing in the new tunings, you know, to improvise over them, it's kind of a dangerous little zone. So I do think that, like, it's very guitaristic music, but I think it gives you guitaristic insight.

MF: How much of the songs are scripted, how much is improvised?

CP: A lot of the music on the record is pretty composed. I think that the sections which sound improvised, are, and the ones which sound composed are composed. But I think that as we're playing the stuff more, we get freer with it. And as I'm playing the stuff more with people who know it better, I can then vary more. It's not like I need to direct people or direct the music as much, I can be a little bit less bandleader and little bit more guitar player. I guess it can grow like that. I guess I do feel like I like things that are kind of concise these days, and as much as I love improvising and I've done a lot of that, for me right now, the concise song is kind of what resonates most. So that's where my head's been at. But at the same point in time, the more we've been playing this stuff, and feeling it kind of stretch a little bit, you can see a lot of possibilities.

MF: So "My War" would be the song to whet your taste buds for concision.

CP: Yeah, I mean, to me they're all relatively concise in what they're trying to too. I mean, it's a pop tune, in a sense. But, I mean, it's voice-led. And for me, like, again, I did study a lot of counterpoint, and for me, the treatment of harmony and the nature of the, you know, care for the voices, I think that that's...a common thread throughout the writing, that there is a care for the voice leading. And that's certainly true in that tune as well.

MF: Was it a conscious thing to write a pop tune?

CP: No. I guess...I'm really into the idea of writing music that I want to listen to, these days. And I like a lot of different kinds of music. And so, I think that's kind of how that manifests. And I do think some of the news stuff, whether it's instrumental or with vocals with words, probably falls a little more into the rockier zone, though not less composed. Just because that's a little bit more what I've been listening to lately, maybe. The bottom line is just trying to make something that feels like a song, and feels energetic, and feels good. So I do think that, like, it serves its role within the record, you know. It finds it's arrival point, and that was conscious. But yeah, it's just another tune.

MF: What're your influences right now, and what made you start playing?

CP: Well I guess, I mean, I'll always love music. But, like, I love playing tennis. I love sports. I remember I would always find it really frustrating when I'd play these tennis tournaments and I'd lose to like, some kid who was born on a clay court in France. And I was in the city, I couldn't really practice. And I think, because I loved music, I picked up the guitar and it was like, this is something I can practice all day. And I loved the process of studying and improving on it. Jimi Hendrix was a really big one, and as I played more jazz, as far as the guitar, I loved, you know Benson...early Benson was a really big thing for me. But as far as the music in general, I went through a pretty serious Coltrane devotional phase. It hit me pretty hard when I was about 19, 20. I mean, that was kind of when it was like, jazz time. Certainly I loved Steve Reich, and I studied a lot of modern classical music. But, I mean, Beethoven, Coltrane, Reich, I'd say, as far as composers, as far as staples that continue to blow me out of my mind, that's pretty much it right there. I guess, more recently, I've found myself mayble, like, going, not going back, but like, I feel like there was a lot of stuff where people would say, like with Radiohead or something, like, 'Oh, you must be really into that', and I hadn't really checked out that much stuff. But since that point in time, I feel like I've gone back, since I've played more pop music and rock music, you know, from a jazz place, I've checked out more Thom Yorke, more Buckley, and you know, stuff like that, and find songs that I find inspiring in that realm. Yeah, I mean, Elliot Smith...you know, I love harmony, and I love a pretty song when I want something that's, you know, moving. As much as I like certain modern jazz music, there's not been a lot of records that I've put on which have made me feel deeply emotional.

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