Guitarist Shane Parish (formerly Perlowin) was a teenager when he informed a relative that his goal in life was “to explore music.”
“I was listening to lots of thrash metal, and he informed me that I was exploring a very narrow path,” Parish says with a smile. “That stayed with me — like, yeah, I should branch out and continue to branch out without limitations on style or genre.”
And that he did. His group, the jazz/progressive-rock instrumental duo Ahleuchatistas, has made waves in avant-garde circles in America and Europe. Earlier this year, Parish released impressionistic duet albums with trumpeter Jacob Wick and percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani; put out a totally improvised solo album, Odei; and traveled to Spain and Italy with his duo, supporting their project Blind Thorns — all the while holding down a steady Friday-night jazz gig at Zambra Tapas in Asheville, and teaching a roster of up to 25 students. He also steps out with an eclectic (if slightly more traditional) jazz quartet, with Matt Richmond on vibes, Mike Holstein on bass, and Justin Watt on drums.
Parish’s guitar odyssey began in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, when he was 14. “It became an escape for me, growing up,” he says. (Expecting his first child in December with his wife, artist Courtney Chappell, Parish recently changed his last name from Perlowin to honor the lifesaving childhood influence of his grandmother, Martha Parish, whom he calls “my greatest source of attunement and inspiration.”)
“I was into free music before I knew what free music was,” he remarks. “That goes back to late-’60s British psychedelic music from Pink Floyd, merging pop with experimental music. Psychedelic rock, progressive rock, led me into getting a John Coltrane CD, and it just expanded from there.”
The guitarist found inspiration from saxophonists such as Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, composers including Ennio Morricone, and pianists Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, and Glenn Gould.
“I’m not really limited to guitarists, but more and more I like [gypsy-jazz guitarist] Django Reinhardt, for example. There are guitaristic things that horn players can’t do, so I definitely have gotten more grounded in my own instrument, and more aware of how other players look at it.”
Parish and his wife moved to Asheville in 2001. He found a home stage at the iconic, now-defunct Vincent’s Ear on Lexington Avenue, and later BoBo Gallery. “Vincent’s Ear was the first place that I felt like I had really strong support for what I was doing in creative music,” says Parish. “[It was] just unconditional — like, ‘We respect where you’re coming from, and this can be your workshop.’ Their support was crucial to where I’m at now with music. At the time there was more going on in some of the spaces and alleys downtown, because they weren’t occupied and people could rent space.”
Rallying around ideas of social and musical unrest, Parish co-founded Ahleuchatistas in 2002. The group’s second album, The Same and the Other, was reissued on punk-jazz saxophonist John Zorn’s Tzadik Records in 2008. “That record was very much like disruption for the sake of jarring people out of their sense of apathy,” the guitarist admits. “Pretty much every idea on there could have been milked for a whole song. But instead, it was about giving something and then taking it away to create discomfort.
“It’s still important to me,” he continues. “But I’m also interested in elevating people and creating goodness. But that was the philosophy for sure — disturb the spectacle.”
Drummer Ryan Oslance replaced Sean Dail in 2008, and Ahleuchatistas played on. “There’s nothing that can replace performing every night on a tour for a band’s cohesion,” says Parish. “You have to develop that with your performing, failing and recovering — not really failing … but you have to figure things out.”
Parish is a uniquely adventurous collaborator, playing concerts and doing albums completely improvised, sometimes with musicians he hardly knows. “Leaving home all of the tricks from whatever styles of music you happen to play, and playing a more non-idiomatic improv music … getting into that space where there’s no groove necessarily, and no tonal center — that is an amazing way for people to communicate,” he says.
However, while listening back in the control room, Parish labors over which parts to keep. “If I edit something like that, I think, ‘What do I want to listen to over and over?’ — and it’s usually not the really frenetic kind of linear free playing. I like it live, but on a recording it really doesn’t translate as much into repeated listens, so I’ll settle on the more soundscape-driven, repetitive, sustained-tension kind of atmosphere. I go with what’s evoking a feeling.”
Parish attended UNCA soon after moving to Asheville, took several music classes, and earned a Philosophy degree. He was introduced to the book Effortless Mastery, written by pianist Kenny Werner, but it wasn’t until a dozen or so years later that the meaning sunk in. “That was some real useful insight,” he says. “Enjoying what you do, and kind of removing your ego from the equation, and not torturing yourself about where you’re lacking, or comparing yourself to other people.
“Part of trying to constantly expand outward is that you’re not deepening what you have at your core, the song you play the most. … I just started realizing that I really like to play the song ‘Stardust’ on my jazz gigs, instead of being like, ‘Oh boy, “Stardust” again.’ I just like to play that song, and it gets deeper and richer as I play it, so why not just carry that song with me throughout my life?
“In jazz, there’s always a way to expand on a song. My music has that kind of looseness to it — even if it’s really composed, you can interpret it in a way that gives you the energy of a fresh performance.”