Jonah Parzen-Johnson asks questions, listens to the answers
Jonah Parzen-Johnson doesn’t look like a storyteller when he steps onstage. With a baritone saxophone at his mouth and a rack of pedals at his feet, you might wonder how he’ll split the difference between jazz and noise. But the tunes he blows have a strong narrative quality. They drink as deeply from the well of Appalachian folk music as they do from the reservoir of transcendent free jazz exemplified by Albert Ayler and the Art Ensemble Of Chicago.
“I think of the saxophone as stepping forward and being the singer of the project,” he says from his home in Brooklyn. The analog synthesizer tones that bubble up around his melodies recall a time when electronic sounds signaled the promise of a better future. And they’re all made in real time. “Nothing is prerecorded,” he assures. “It’s all analog sound, and it’s all being generated on the spot.”
When Parzen-Johnson stops playing, he starts talking about listening and understanding. At a recent Chicago gig celebrating the release of his third album, I Try To Remember Where I Come From (Clean Feed), he spoke about an epiphany that complicated his love for Neil Young.
“He calls the country out about what America does wrong,” he says. “Sometimes you have to say directly what’s going on.” But after Parzen-Johnson noticed that Young’s recent songs didn’t change a lot of minds, he realized, “Maybe it’s about only asking questions.”
So that’s what Parzen-Johnson does when he takes his one-man show on the road; on- and offstage, he asks questions and listens to what people say. “I feel like getting out in the country and trying to listen is good practice for me,” he says. “Because I think it’s never really a good idea to tell other people what they think.”