• courtesy of the artist
  • Jonah Parzen-Johnson

Saxophonist and Chicago native Jonah Parzen-Johnson calls his work “lo-fi experimental folk music for solo baritone saxophone and analog synthesizer,” a classification that has met my resistance since I first encountered it. Isn’t it enough to say he makes music for saxophone and synthesizer? As heard on his album Remember When Things Were Better Tomorrow (Primary), he writes engrossing, accessible melodies that do indeed convey a folky simplicity and directness, but using a variety of extended techniques and interactive synthesizer programs of his own design, those melodic phrases fan out and mutate in countless ways—sometimes decidedly abstract, sometimes florid and tuneful—as he improvises on each composition. At times the electronics create a cognitive dissonance that irritates me—I’d rather bask solely in the warm beauty of Parzen-Johnson’s plush baritone tone—but elsewhere the synthesizer adds complexity and depth to what he’s playing.

Today’s 12 O’Clock Track is “If You Can’t Sleep, Just Shut Your Eyes,” one of the more austere selections from the album (as well as the one that deserves the “folk” tag a bit more, due to the melodic similarities to “Amazing Grace”) Once the pulsating synth tones kick in, swaddling Parzen-Johnson’s astringent long tones and upper-register cries, the performance deftly stakes its own territory. The Brooklyn-based musician performs in support of the new recording at Elastic on Thursday evening.