As an expatriate Australian who has shown that she can succeed on the competitive New York jazz scene, alto and baritone saxophonist Lisa Parrott has been based there for the last two decades, working with a range of prominent bands.
In 2016, Parrott won the annual DownBeat Critics Poll in the ‘Rising Star’ category for baritone saxophone, after the last few years of being in the critics polls. Performance credits include such notable musicians as Dave Brubeck, Nancy Wilson, Diane Schuur, Johnny Mandel, Skitch Henderson and the New York Pops, Gregory and Maurice Hines, Cindy Blackman, Gunther Schuller, Marty Ehrlich, Jason Linder’s Big Band, Joel Harrison’s large ensemble, the Artie Shaw Orchestra, Jimmy Heath’s Big Band and the Diva Jazz Orchestra where she played the baritone sax/ bass clarinet chair from 1998-2015. Other current side person projects include Cameron Brown and Dannie’s Calypso, Cynthia Hilts Lyric Fury, Kenny Wessel Quartet, bassist Carl Thompson and the Brian Woodruff Sextet. Lisa was featured alongside her sister, bassist Nicki Parrott, at the 2002 Tribute to Mary Lou Williams Festival at the Kennedy Center. Lisa’s playing has been featured on over 30 albums as a leader and side person.
Lisa’s new project, ‘Round Tripper’ features bassist Chris Lightcap, Matt Wilson on drums, and fellow Australian musicians Carl Dewhurst on guitar and Nadje Noordhuis on trumpet. The band had its formal start in a Brooklyn recording studio in May 2014 where the debut CD ‘Round Tripper’ was recorded, leading to its release in Feb 2015 to great reviews, including 4 stars in Downbeat and JazzTimes, and a 4.5 star review on allaboutjazz.com.
“It’s a sound with a backbone, with a soul, with verve and resilience: a quartet dynamic born of a perfect confluence of disparate personalities gelling toward a common goal—getting to the idea. 4.5 stars.”
– Dan McClenaghan, allaboutjazz.com
Round Tripper (Australian edition) headlined at the 2014 Wangaratta International Jazz Festival, the Sydney International Womens Jazz Festival. The ensemble’s beginnings can be traced back to PLK trio that Lisa co-founded with bassist Chris Lightcap in 1996. They have performed together at venues and festivals across the US (What is Jazz, TriC Jazz Fest) and Germany (Kassel International Jazz Fest) and jazz clubs in Europe. After playing with Noordhuis and Wessel in other ensembles for 12 years, they were a natural fit to expand on the strength of the core trio. Each member of Round Tripper leads their own groups and Parrott regularly appears with them.
Lisa grew up in Australia and learned clarinet and piano from an early age. In her teens, she switched to saxophone, and went on to study in the Sydney Conservatorium’s jazz course under master woodwind player, Don Burrows. She soon established herself as a significant player, contributing to the music of Jackie Orsczacky, James Morrison, Ten Part Invention, Lloyd Swanton’s The Catholics and Paul Grabowsky, and played original music with the harmolodic, electric jazz group, Nude.
As a composer, Parrott’s music draws on diverse influences ranging from traditional, modern and harmolodic jazz, Eastern European folk and classical music, to African and Indian traditional music. She started composing and performing in the late 1980’s, heavily influenced by Ornette Coleman’s concept of harmolodics. Having studied and performed over 50 Coleman compositions to explore the relationship between parallel melodies being played or improvised at the same time, Parrott also started exploring Indian ragas, West African music and traditional Bulgarian dance rhythms. This strengthened her ability to both compose and improvise freely in non-traditional time signatures, and further deepened her explorations into melody, rhythm and their intertwining. After studying in New York with composer/improviser Steve Coleman, Parrott started focusing on the logical and symmetrical aspects of melody and rhythm and her compositions started featuring more advanced polyrhythms and using Bartok-inspired melodic symmetries. Rhythmic layering is a tool Parrott liberally employs to achieve interlocking rhythmic grooves that still feel natural and relaxed, having been rooted in traditional folk music rhythms, even if those rhythms are from places far away from each other. In the composition ‘Gargoyle’, Parrott borrows from a traditional 7/4 Bulgarian dance rhythm (3+2+2) composing a 5 bar melody, layered with a West African style guitar melody in 5/8 that is a 14 bar phrase and thus creates an unusual sense of balance.
Performances of Parrott’s compositions over 25 years include the Kennedy Center and TriC Jazzfest in Cleveland, festivals in Australia, Europe and many jazz clubs worldwide. She has also arranged her original compositions for jazz big band and these arrangements have been performed at festivals in Italy and Germany. Parrott has recorded her own compositions on four albums and Allison Miller has also performed and recorded her own arrangement of Parrott’s ‘Six Nettes’ on two of her own recordings.
Lisa’s Story: The Australian Years
Born in Newcastle, Australia, 100 miles north of Sydney, Lisa started studying classical clarinet and piano from the age of seven. As a teenager, she started playing saxophone and fell in love with jazz after being given a Sidney Bechet tape by a neighbour who played a double bass with 3 strings. He explained “You can’t hear the E string anyway”. He helped setup her sister Nicki Parrott’s first double bass.
In 1985, the band ‘Blues By Five’ was formed after attending the Pan Pacific Jazz Camp, with Lisa on tenor and soprano sax, drummer Andrew Dickeson, Lisa’s sister Nicki on bass, Adrian Mears on trombone and John Foreman on piano, and later Adam Ponting on piano. Lisa was the oldest at 17, John was 12, but this group played gigs at pubs and clubs around Newcastle. They also performed at the Manly Jazz Carnival in 1987. This performance was nationally broadcast on the ABC TV show ‘The Don Burrows Collection’.
In 1988 they all moved to Sydney and Lisa studied under Don Burrows at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, graduating with distinction. Don also placed Lisa on the baritone sax chair in the big band, starting her life-long, love-hate (it’s heavy..) affair with the big horn. Lisa had also discovered and fallen in love with the soulful, swinging playing of alto saxophonist Bernie McGann and she attended every gig he played for the first year she moved to Sydney, averaging three gigs a week back then. She still credits Bernie’s sound and style along with Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic concept, as her biggest influences. Other Sydney influences included Sandy Evans, Tony Buck and Mark Simmonds whose band the Freeboppers with Greg Sheehan on drums, Steve Elphick on bass, Clais Pearce on viola and Mike Bukovsky on trumpet were doing gigs during this period.
While at the Con, Lisa met bassist Cameron Undy and he played her Ornette Coleman’s album ‘Song X’. That was the moment where everything clicked and she fell deeply love with ‘the music’. Everything since this point has been filtered through her exploration of harmolodics and it resulted in a deeper love and appreciation of music.
Cameron and Lisa (now on alto primarily) spent many hours practicing together – scales, playing freeform, standards, originals and Ornette tunes, all with an ear to harmolodics. They started playing duet gigs (4 hours!) at a wine bar in Glebe, then trio gigs with Adam Ponting on piano. Their sign off tune was ‘Semblence’ from Keith Jarrett’s album ‘Facing You’. Lisa and Cameron also played many trio gigs with different drummers. Lisa in this period also played with Cameron and his sister, guitarist Fiona Undy, performing primarily Cameron and Fiona’s originals.
In 1990, Lisa and Cameron formed the band ‘Happy Tribe’ playing electric harmolodic music. Original tunes came from Cameron and Lisa as well as Ornette’s Prime Time band recordings such as ‘In All Languages’ and ‘Virgin Beauty’. It was a 6 piece band with Carl Dewhurst & Scott Leishman on guitars, Robbie Avenaim and Oren Ambarchi on drums, Lisa on alto and Cameron on electric bass. Later Jason Cooney was added on tenor and ? on electric bass and tuba. They played various venues to enthusiastic crowds including the Harbourside Brassiere.
In 1991 Lisa formed an acoustic band with her sister Nicki on bass called Melody Rhythm Art Ensemble. With Jason Cooney on tenor sax, Scott Leishman on guitar and Robbie Avenaim on drums, they played harmolodics at numerous gigs around Sydney.
In 1992, Lisa started playing baritone sax with famed funk bassist/vocalist Jackie Orszacksky’s Hungarian Rap Sadists. It was a 10 piece band with a 12 piece male chorus who sat at a large table drinking and eating and spontaneously bursting into traditional Hungarian folk songs over the top of the massive groove.
Soon after this, Lisa formed a new Melody Rhythm Ensemble (with a slight name change). With Jackie Orszacksky on electric bass, the legendary Louis Burdett on drums and Scott Leishman on guitar, this group performed to large crowds at the Harbourside Brassiere with people lapping up the intensity of the music.
This band affirmed Lisa’s reputation as an innovative bandleader and she was also an in demand freelancer on alto, soprano and baritone saxophone around the Sydney scene, playing in John Pochee’s Ten Part Invention, Lloyd Swanton’s The Catholics, James Morrison’s Big Band, Mara Kiek Quartet and Paul Grabowsky’s Australia Art Orchestra (1995). She was nominated for the Mo Award’s Best Female Jazz Performer in 1991 and 1992.
In 1993, Lisa left for New York City after receiving a grant from the Australia Council for the Arts to have private lessons with MacArthur Fellowship recipient, innovator, composer and alto saxophonist, Steve Coleman. While in New York, she collaborated with some visiting fellow Australian musicians to record.
From the liner notes to NUDE ‘Side of Clues’ written by Cameron Undy:
‘NUDE was born from a chance meeting by four Sydney musicians in New York City. We were all well acquainted with one another from previous bands. Lisa, Carl and I had formed the band Happy Tribe in 1990 in which we played the tunes ‘Dancing Laughing’ and ‘Happy Tribe’. Louis and Lisa played as part of Melody Rhythm Ensemble in ’92 from which the tune ‘Tardy’ originated.
So in September 1993 we found ourselves hanging out in the East Village and really wanting to play. The idea struck Lisa to go into a studio and record whatever came to us at the time. We got in touch with John Price at The Playroom and booked a three hour rehearsal and a four hour recording the following night.
In rehearsal we came up with the tunes ‘Hell’s Kitchen’, ‘One For Sco’ and Louis’ spontaneous invention, ‘As If Though, Yeah’. Carl and Lisa had been playing ‘34th Street Witch Hunt’ busking on the streets, and ‘Side of Clues’ is an experiment by Lisa in rhythmic symmetry. The following night’s session was laid back. We played and pretty much let the tape roll. The music was spontaneous and inspired, we all left feeling high and happy.
During the session we joked about calling ourselves NYDU (New York Down Under) from which Louis derived NUDE. Earlier this year (’94) we started gigging in Sydney under the name NUDE and have since decided to release the recording here presented as NUDE ‘Side of Clues’.
– Cameron Undy
After Lisa’s return to Sydney in December 1993, NUDE, a stylistically adaptable band, had residencies around Sydney at the Strawberry Hills Hotel (avant jazz), the Sandringham Hotel (indie rock pub) and a techno dance club on Oxford St. The repertoire included harmolodic tunes in odd time signatures but Louis would change his grooves to suit the crowd and venue. NUDE did 2 road tours, in 1994 south to Canberra, Wangaratta Jazz Festival and Melbourne and north in 1995 to Newcastle, Bellingen, Byron Bay and the Byron Jazz and Blues Festival.
Lisa placed 3rd in the 1994 Australian Jazz Saxophone Competition at Wangaratta. In August of 1995, left Australia permanently to base herself in New York City.