JACK SILLERY is a creative writer of short stories and has done extensive research for publication on Phil Ochs. He is a student of rock 'n' roll music and he is a devoted fan of all things relating to the BYRDS and corresponds with Roger McGuinn regularly!
Stephen Parker -"One Step Closer to the Blue"
A Review by Jack Sillery
Stephen Parker’s latest cd “One Step Closer To Blue,” is redolent of the classic times when producing an album was an art form. I continue to use the word “album,” I suppose out of fondness for the time periods: Mid 1960’s through the early 1970’s.
Parker’s new music is not the kind that one would preview and then merely download a few songs. It is a cd that builds up momentum with every track. It is interesting that the “album” is able to do this while being clearly an eclectic mix of artful music. Like a major novel divided into say Book I, Book II etc. Parker produces his new music into a three part musical story that represents one great album.
Part I opens with rhythmic hypnotic conga playing (Hector Rosado) reminiscent of Santana. “Mistral Wind” (Mistral - check out this French derived word meaning: a dry cold northern wind that bears down in squalls) true to its title is a driving rocking song that demands the immediate attention of the listener. A classic guitar riff explodes and then intertwines with a wicked Jack Bruce-like bass line (imagined by Kenny Davis) then joined by a vintage Hammond B3 surge. All the while drummer Dave Mohn lays down a massively powerful drum rhythm that compels us to batten down the hatches and let the song bluster and rage. Song two, “Broken Mended Fences,” sweeps out like the aftermath of the storm. The music is gentler with piano flourishes and sweet steel guitar (Joe Triglia) playing to generate an overall tender sound. Parker’s vocals are warm and sympathetic to lyrics speaking of a relationship that is hanging in the balance. Stephen’s confident intonations clearly reveal the singer’s understanding that things could go either way. The words “Broken & Mended” imply the very contrasts that exist in this song.
Track III “Carry The One (Love)” ups the pace with irresistible rhythm guitars and searing lap steel guitar. Again Parker sings of a lover that needs some chiding. Despite the strength and sincerity of Parker’s proclamations one is not convinced nor led to believe that this love is not perilously hanging in the balance by a thread.
“Cupid’s Broken Arrow” kicks off Part Two of Parker’s album with mood changes and jazzy Steely Dan inspired sounds. Soothing guitar work by Tom Kozic combines with a vamping fender rhodes piano played by Jim McGee, and a solid rhythm section (with Jim McGee on bass and Dave Mohn on drums) hold all elements of the music in a tight, yet spirited pronouncement. Parker shifts his singing into softer tones that supply the perfect touches to an amazingly well produced and arranged song.
“Box Of Stars” continues this jazz journey into a tango soundscape with lovely flute and saxophone performances by the masterful Nelson Hill that lead Dave Antonow into a nylon string guitar solo that enhances and solidifies the feel the band is working on. Parker’s vocals evoke the gorgeous imagery of the California sky as nightfall gives way to the stunning “Box Of Stars.” “Hey Love” remains in this jazzy vein with the flute and piano by Eric Mintel functioning in perfect harmony. Parker ups the ante singing with more intensity as he speaks to a love that is doomed … seen here already coming apart at the seams.
“Circadian Rhythms” begins with a sax movement (Nelson Hill) right out of Coltrane, followed by piano notes (Eric Mintel) that sparkle with a brightness that seems to encourage the sax to move on to higher heights. The “Circadian” or what is essentially a 24 hour period is perhaps Parker’s way of stating how much can happen in that time frame. His examples are mostly drawn from nature and he laments that much of these spectacular occurrences remain unseen and unappreciated by preoccupied mankind.
“Alyki” features an exquisite samba exchange of vocals between Parker and Corinne Mammana further exploring this jazz excursion. The gracefulness of Parker’s singing offset by the alluring female duet accompaniment leaves the listener hoping that we’ll see more of this in the future. The band (Larry Branca on congas and flute, Dave Antonow on upright bass and nylon string guitar) provides minimalist accompaniment, plays in perfect time and is never distracting, showcasing the vocals which are placed up front, right where they belong. Finishing off Part Two of Parker’s recording, Stephen lightens up the tenor of the music with the mellow, festive island sounds of “I’ll Give You The Sun.” The band loosens up some here as does Parker with his singing. A combination of piano and an acoustic guitar solo form the center-piece of the song, while the flutist calls us to escape to the warmth of the Caribbean. Parker adds humor by reminding us not to forget your “Coconut Cream” while he “Gives Us The Sun.”
Part III of the disc opens with what might be Parker’s pen ultimate song, “Train Don’t Run.” On this song the sax gives way to deep and mournful organ playing provided by Gary Staple. Meanwhile Joe Triglia performs a vintage lap steel guitar solo which is followed by an equally satisfying sax run. The organ underscores, along with the piano pieces, the strength of this incredibly original song. This time, Parker sings with a bit of a bite, and as he evokes the lines: “I’ve got a pocketful of stones/I can throw at your window,” the chiming tones of a 12-string Rickenbacker echoes and ends the song on a majestic note.
Next “No Man’s Land” takes us into a rootsy reading filled with dobros, accordions, and lyrics that are sung as if Parker were sitting on the front porch of a General Store that borders the “Cimarron” river.
“Unicorns” with its Miles Davis muted trumpet sound and accompanying organ touches, takes us further into the depths of Part III. Parker’s reference to the fabled “Unicorn” is an atavistic glimpse of thoughts that question: “Were we lovers before we were ever born?” A daring notion that equals the warmth and affection of the band’s deeply compassionate performance.
Finally, Parker leaves us with “A Walking Prayer,” a song that reminds one of something one might have heard in a stunning soundtrack for an Academy Award winning film. Yet, it’s original and immediately becomes a classic. The piano playing by Gary Staples is so rich and moving, one might have thought the late Cuban genius, Ruben Gonzalez were at the keys. Parker brings an end to this amazing song and project as if he’s speaking to his listeners: “If you keep walking, I’ll meet you there.”
So if you are frustrated with half-baked cds that can hardly be referred to as albums, listen to this music, which is truly a labor of love.This is an album that is a musical journey of eclectic melodies and moods that rewards us with having experienced the true art of music. Parker challenged himself and his musicians to produce the finest music within themselves. For the rest of us, the challenge is to reach out and recognize this and appreciate their wonderful creation.