PIANIST AND COMPOSER Phil Parnell is a musician who has found success both in the Big Easy and on the road. Over the years he has shared the stage with countless artists, from Bo Diddly and the Meters’ George Porter, Jr. to, more recently, the electronic avant-garde artist Matthew Herbert and neo-soul singer Jamie Lidell.
Parnell studied with Ellis Marsalis as a teenager, and he attended Boston’s Berklee College of Music in the ‘70s. On his return to New Orleans, Parnell performed in venues ranging from jazz clubs and concert halls to more unconventional venues.
This Sunday, October 10, Parnell will bring his PP3 trio to Maxie’s, and he will also perform Thursday, October 14 at Delilah’s on Cayuga (formerly The WildFire Lounge). We caught up with Parnell just before the beginning of his tour.
IP: You’ve toured with electronic musicians Matthew Herbert and more avant garde artists, but from what I’ve listened to of Blue, the more experimental aspects seem to supplement, rather than dominate or structure, more straight ahead sounding jazz. Did you purposely keep those aspects more in check?
Phil Parnell: I like to say that the electronic aspect enhances and fattens the overall audio picture, giving the straight-ahead aspect a richer and more interesting accompaniment. PP3 is about finding the right balance between old school and new school, between acoustic and electronic and between noise and silence/space.
IP: And I was listening to an earlier release, “Closer Than You Think,” which is much more blippy — and can be pretty poppy in places. How much of what you record is live and how much is put together afterwards?
Parnell: It varies depending on the track. ‘Closer’ was done mostly with samples and a lot of post production, but the vocals were chopped up from a full take and I often get people to just play along with a track and get comfortable and give them freedom to express themselves. Then later I pick the best bits and arrange them where I want them.
IP: I was listening to this album you put out with Lillian Bouté — who I take to be John’s sister? It strikes me that you feel comfortable in a lot of musical scenarios, but you seem to work especially well with vocalists. How do those settings differ from instrumental-only settings?
Parnell: Yes, John is the youngest of ten Boutté siblings. They are two of many, many vocalists I have worked with over the years. The challenge of accompanying any lead instrument in a band, whether it be vocalist or any other instrument, even the drum solo, is to make them sound great and give them space to shine, to complement them without getting in their way.
IP: I know you’ve toured with Jamie Lidell. How has that experience been?
Parnell: Right now I am on tour with PP3, aka the 3-tet, aka the triple ripple! Leaving New Orleans now and on our way to Virginia, then New York. I was touring with Jamie in 2008 to 2009 and it was a fantastic experience. He is such a creative person and a really soulful singer. I was constantly surprised at the new things he would do and how the songs would always be morphing into a new flavor or idea and always growing. We opened for Elton John for about 15 concerts. That was an incredible experience watching a couple of hundred people set up for two days for a two-hour show.
IP: Though you’ve worked in other formats, you seem comfortable in the trio. I’m thinking of both Funky Feet and Dear Jo, released more than ten years ago. Would you tell me what the trio affords you the opportunity to do?
Parnell: Working with the same guys (especially these guys) for years is a blessing. It gives us the freedom to take any musical direction and we know how to interact and complement each other. We can choose our own repertoire and experiment with the treatment of the songs and we can present our own music and messages from within that format.
IP: How did you get together this group for Blue?
Parnell: This is our second trio CD as PP3. We met in Denmark on tour with Lillian Boutte. We still tour with her and with the Matthew Herbert Big Band and often back up guest artists who come to Denmark. We have just recorded Rick Trolsen (trombone) and Roderick Paulin (sax) in New Orleans for the next CD, so it will be PP3 plus guests. We will do a few vocal songs as well.