Next Score View the next score

    Newer music

    Saxophonist Jonah Parzen-Johnson tells stories in sound

    A baritone saxophone player who tours as a solo act, accompanied only by the shimmer, buzz, and purr of a bespoke analog-synthesizer rig: not a job description for which young musicians are groomed. But if anyone could claim to have been trained more or less expressly for such a vocation, it might be Jonah Parzen-Johnson, who’s celebrating the release of his second LP, “Remember When Things Were Better Tomorrow,” with a tour that hits the Lily Pad in Cambridge on Tuesday night.

    Born and raised in Chicago, Parzen-Johnson, 27, was washed into that city’s cultural and artistic tides at an early age. At 8, he began saxophone studies with Matana Roberts, herself a fledgling firebrand involved with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), one of the country’s most vital and durable social and musical institutions.

    “I remember very clearly walking up to her studio when another kid was finishing his lesson, and we were still learning things like how to put a saxophone together,” Parzen-Johnson says by telephone from a tour stop in Asheville, N.C. “She said something to him about ‘keep working on expanding your use of half notes and whole notes in solos.’ And then she turned to me and said, ‘That’s improvisation — we’ll get to that soon.” I remember thinking, Oooh, improvisation.


    When Parzen-Johnson was 14, his high school jazz band director exhorted students to attend a concert by the Art Ensemble of Chicago: a prominent AACM product, and a pivotal avant-garde jazz group known for its use of unconventional sounds, space, and theatricality. The concert, at Chicago’s historic Mandel Hall, would be a “happening,” the band director assured his players.

    Get The Weekender in your inbox:
    The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
    Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

    “He was, like, ‘Anybody who cares about this music is going to be there, which means that all of you should be there,’ ” Parzen-Johnson says. “So I went to see that, and that was like a huge influential moment for me to see that band play.”

    Around the same time, Parzen-Johnson started to work with Mwata Bowden, an accomplished saxophonist who then was the AACM chairman. “He was the one who helped me to understand the vocabulary of creative music, and what it meant to be an improvising, creative, and all-encompassing musician,” Parzen-Johnson says. “He’s also the one who taught me to circular-breathe on a more functional level,” he adds, referring to a technique saxophonists use to play continuously by inhaling and exhaling simultaneously.

    “I grew up around a community of musicians who were a little older than me and a lot better than me,” he says, “and that pushed me to work really hard. One thing they used to do a lot of was go to jam sessions, and they used to take me along.” Fred Anderson, the venerated saxophonist who until his death in 2010 ran the Velvet Lounge, a crucial South Side venue, admitted underage players to attend and observe, Parzen-Johnson says.

    Unique, perhaps, to Chicago’s milieu was the expectation that any performer could hold a crowd’s attention alone. “Especially around the AACM, it’s a given that you’re expected to be able to play a solo set,” Parzen-Johnson says, noting that it was a membership requirement. Looking again to Roberts, who by then had based her burgeoning career in New York, he took inspiration from watching the creative freedom his former teacher found in working without a net.


    But the flash of insight that set Parzen-Johnson onto his own path came after he had moved to New York. Observing the scene, one common detail rubbed him wrong.

    “You see it all the time: The audience is seated, the band walks on the stage, everyone shuffles their music a little bit, everything’s set up – and then the leader turns around and says something to the band, and everybody in the band laughs, and then they turn around to play,” he says. “Being in the audience, I always wanted to know, what did you just say? Why are we all in this room together, but split into two teams already?”

    The task, he says, was to figure out how he could play challenging experimental music with an audience, but forge the kind of direct connection he felt in other musical genres. “One thing you could do was to take away the band that you could tell the joke to,” he says. “I started thinking about playing solo again, and thinking about ways to make it about not just presenting this music that was influential and inspiring to me as a teenager growing up in Chicago, but also using it as a tool to force myself to have an inclusive performance.”

    The catalyst came when Parzen-Johnson saw videos on YouTube of Neil Young performing in 1971 at Massey Hall in Toronto. “This was like a whole different way of playing solo,” he recalls. “The way he just sort of stream-of-consciousness shares this information with everybody was incredibly inspiring.”

    Parzen-Johnson determined that he, too, would be a storyteller of a sort, and, working in trendsetting venues around New York (he lives in Brooklyn), developed the idiom he now calls “lo-fi experimental folk music.” That homespun label suits his rustic, hymn-like melodies, which he enfolds at times with pedal-activated synthesizer lines that can shadow or illuminate, and enhances by singing wordlessly through his horn while playing: a technique he adopted from Colin Stetson, an influential peer who plays solo, but also performs in bands such as Arcade Fire and Bon Iver.


    Like Stetson, Parzen-Johnson is no hermit; he cofounded Zongo Junction, a Brooklyn-based psychedelic-Afrobeat band that will tour this summer to support its forthcoming third album, “Big Sir.” (As yet, no Boston show has been secured). But on his own, the saxophonist is a road warrior, having logged more than 20,000 miles since releasing his debut LP, “Michiana,” in 2012.

    “I definitely started playing solo because I knew I could toss all my stuff in the car and hit the road, and that was a big inspiration for me,” he says. “I’ve always focused on keeping my setup travel-friendly.” He plays a mix of jazz spaces, rock clubs, galleries, and house concerts. Having made friends from coast to coast, he always has someone to crash with, shoring up the bottom line of what might otherwise prove an esoteric venture.

    “There was this big hard-core, lo-fi touring movement in the early ’90s, DIY touring, and then it all sort of disappeared,” Parzen-Johnson says. “I think a lot of people miss that period now. And because of that, there’s all these people — especially in smaller towns in the Midwest — who are working really hard to make it possible to do that. People in places like Toledo or Louisville or Cleveland or Detroit, they’re just incredibly generous and supportive of touring acts.”


    With Twins of El Dorado

    At: Lily Pad, Cambridge, Tuesday at 8 p.m.

    Tickets: $10. 617-955-7729,

    Steve Smith can be reached at steven
    . Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.