Picture sax player Ricky Parrell bobbing and weaving on his bike throughout the boulevard-width streets right outside Washington DC. When it’s time for a breather he locks up his bike. The key he uses? It’s become fodder for his jazzy imagination.
Inspired by the significant keys he’s owned and loved, this DMV (DC/Maryland/Virginia)-based musician is on the precipice of releasing “Keys to My Life” with the most special musical guests of all: his father and his sister. Also on this energetic and syncopated adventure are trumpeters Randy Brecker (who naturally kills it here) and Justin Stanton of Snarky Puppy fame who plays right and tight.
The track “My Bike Lock” is a tri-part offering with sunny horns and a compelling rhythm starting things off, followed by a break of silence awaiting a deep-feeling solo from Brecker. The song takes a hairpin turn back to its catchy beat before the sax blows wide and full and the whole thing stirs together without inhibition, horns laughing all the way to its conclusion. Compare and contrast with “Mom and Dad’s” (a reference to Parrell’s key to his parents’ home), a silky waltz a la ronde where the harmonies between the saxes is stunning and sweet.
How were you able to get with such esteemed company as Mr. Brecker and Justin Stanton of Snarky Puppy for your first album?
Like most other opportunities in the music business it came down to timing and luck. Justin and I were in school together at the University of North Texas and have been friends since his meteoric rise to success with Snarky Puppy. My recording session fell during a time that Snarky was not touring and Justin was really interested in being part of my project, and I couldn’t be more grateful. Mr. Brecker is a different story. He just happened to be in town playing a guest artist concert with the Airmen of Note the night before my session. Through a friend I got his email address and asked him if he wouldn’t mind sticking around for an extra day and I attached a couple demos. He really liked my tunes and said he would be happy to play on the album!
What’s the inspiration behind this CD and how do the tracks reflect the various “keys” to your life?
The inspiration came from a podcast interview with the great writer Cheryl Strayed, who wrote the book “Wild.”
She said, and I’m paraphrasing, “If I made you take out your key chain and then write the story of every key, you will have written something very interesting and something very telling about your life.”
I found this concept to be a powerful source of story and emotion. I adapted it to fit a musician’s perspective. I initially chose four keys on my keychain and decided to write four songs, each about a respective key and what that key represented.
The four keys I chose were: WORK, MOM AND DAD’S, HOME, and MY BIKE LOCK. From this launch pad a flow of creativity came pouring out of me like I have never felt before. All the years of studying music, performing, playing, and practicing coalesced into ideas and forms. Every key represented feelings and emotions that expressed themselves in various musical styles ranging from a jazz waltz, reggae, funk, bebop and beyond.
When did you start writing these songs?
About a year and a half ago. I basically wrote them in a six-month time period. My wife had just given birth to our second child and surprisingly, there was a lot of quiet time in the evenings that I would dedicate an hour or two for writing and refining the music. You can’t be really loud around a newborn, so I did most of the writing straight from my head onto manuscript paper.
Is there a melodic cohesiveness throughout or are you able to show a variety of sounds here?
Each key evoked such powerful emotions and memories that every song sounds completely different. “Mom and Dad’s” expressed itself as a jazz waltz. “Home” goes back-and-forth between a reggae tune and almost West Coast a la Dr. Dre hip-hop beat. One listener did mention that there is a theme (a minor third melodic line) that appears frequently. I never realized this until we played all the tunes live. Then I was like “huh, that is weirdly unintentional!”
Why did the sax call to you?
My Dad, who I am proud to feature on the album with me, is a fantastic saxophone player and very well respected in the Washington DC area. He spent 34 years in the United States Army Band in Washington DC and I always grew up hearing saxophone in the house. I guess I followed in his footsteps.
How did your experience with military bands inspire you to go into a jazz direction?
The military bands in Washington, DC are home to some of the greatest jazz ensembles on the planet. That’s why Mr. Brecker was appearing with the Airmen of Note. The talent pool in DC is so deep because of the number of musicians in military bands. You have players from all over the country – really all over the world – who audition for these positions. I’m just lucky to have won a gig with one of them!
What’s the biggest challenge as a sax player today?
Relevance. Most of the music we play is a niche market for very selective listeners. So either you have to be the best, or you have to do something different and original yet appealing enough to be relevant. It’s a real balance and I see many young players struggling with this.
What is the DC/Virginia scene like?
There’s a vibrant jazz scene in the DC Maryland and Virginia area. The DMV as we call it! You can go out any night of the week in the city and hear great musicians playing. There are also free concerts almost every night during the summer of world-class musicians on the National Mall and surrounding areas. There’s a lot of work as a jazz musician as well, if you want to get in the private gig circuit. With all the politicians in DC, there are plenty of parties and occasions for live music.
Best small clubs in the DC/VA area?
Some of the best small clubs to see great music are on U Street. You can walk down the street on most any given night and pop your head into half a dozen places with live jazz going on!
What will release date look like, where will you perform, will you tour?
The release date for the album, on all digital platforms, will be August 23, 2019. I will be hosting a release party at Jammin’ Java in Vienna VA at 7 PM on August 25. Tickets have been going fast and I’ve seen a lot of interest in the event.
This venue holds a place in my heart because I’ve been playing gigs there since I was in high school. It was important for me to do the release at a local venue that meant something to me personally! Justin Stanton is going to come down for the album release and we are going to play the entire album!
Favorite thing about the sax?
I think it is the closest instrument to the human voice. It has the flexibility and technicality of an upper woodwind, but the power of a brass instrument.
Favorite thing about a small ensemble?
Communication and interaction. Nothing hones your musicianship like playing in a small group with fantastic musicians.
Most rewarding part of producing this album?
I was able to feature of my Dad (sax) and my sister (trumpet) on the album. It was really important for me to have my family and friends involved from start to finish in every aspect of the project.
What is your favorite track?
That’s not fair, I love them all!! I did an arrangement of a song by Canadian songwriter Patrick Watson called “Man Like You” it’s traditionally sung by a man, but I wrote it for female voice. The song encapsulates all the feelings I felt while writing the entire album. Emily Wellington has one of the most pure and beautiful tone qualities I have ever heard in a singer. It features Randy Brecker and Justin Stanton as well and I really love the way the arrangement came out.
Thank you so much Debbie!! I’m really proud of this album and I hope people will embrace it. The response has been amazing so far and I can’t wait until it is released publicly!
For more information, visit www.rickyparrell.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission from Ricky Parrell.
© Debbie Burke 2019