by Luke Stewart
The baritone saxophone is often thought of as the clunky, unwieldy member of the saxophone family. In the jazz band it holds down the bottom of the frequency range, serving as a go-between amid the horn section and the rhythm section. As a soloist’s instrument in small ensembles, its legacy has been pioneered and expanded by many, from Harry Carney to Gerry Mulligan to Hamiett Bluiett to Jason Marshall. Few, however, have sought to truly present the instrument out in front, baritone alone. The recent rise in popularity and acclaim for saxophonists such as Colin Stetson might be paving the way for an audience ready to hear the extended sonic possibilities of the hefty horn. For baritone saxophonist Jonah Parzen-Johnson, however, his goal is to let the music of his solo baritone project elicit familiar feelings among the audience.
Parzen-Johnson, who will headline a series of experimental solo sets at the Dunes on Thursday, is a native of Chicago. During his study at the AACM school, specifically the mentorship of Mwata Bowen and Matana Roberts, he was encouraged at an early stage in his development to work on playing solo. He was also encouraged to listen to and study some of the influential organization’s greats, such as Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell. Yet, in AACM fashion, Parzen-Johnson’s goal was never to be a copycat. He was influenced by his mentors to find his own voice through musical and self-exploration.
Grappling with his own aesthetic approach, he set out to find a way to write tunes for solo baritone saxophone which conjure feelings of nostalgia and fondness while being balanced musically. He found his muse in the town of Michiana, a Lake Michigan beach town on the border of Indiana and Michigan. Though he never lived in Michiana, a great deal of his childhood was spent along its quaint shores. It is from this perspective that he has composed a set of songs which capture the feeling of being in a familiar place. This week, he released his debut album, entitled Michiana.
Getting there was a process, though. In finding his solo voice, things “started with Frank Sinatra,” he remarked. “I was trying to find a non-baritone saxophone influence…. I wanted to find low voices that sang high.” It was this concept that lead him to Old Bue Eyes, and then to folk legend Neil Young. Out of these influences he has been able to craft a set of tunes that reach deep into the soul, without alienating.
Solo music is not always the easiest to swallow from the audience’s standpoint. He performs in a number of other ensembles, and from his work with Afrobeat band Zongo Junction, especially, he is acquainted with the simple pleasures of danceable, immediately accessible music. But Jonah Parzen-Johnson feels that “people have the power to explore music, more so than they give themselves credit for.” His job as a solo artist, he feels, is to strive for musical balance. This gives the audience something to take away from the performance, something deeply memorable.
Jonah Parzen-Johnson performs at 8 p.m. on Thursday at the Dunes, along with guitarist Ross Edwards of the band Father Figures and local D.C. saxophone great Brian Settles. There osma $10 cover charge. More information is available here. (Note that although it is being held at the Dunes, this is not a CapitalBop-sponsored event, and it is not part of the D.C. Jazz Loft series.)