When Aaron Parks first appeared with Terence Blanchard, the then-19-year old pianist with wild hair and rumpled clothing made him indistinguishable from many of the young jazz fans who came to see Blanchard's return from the world of Spike Lee film scores. Looks can be deceiving though as Parks would later become a key contributor to Blanchard's phenomenal sextet, Flow. Parks is now the third member of that unit to go out on his own, and Invisible Cinema is, by far, the best solo debut of the three.
While guitarist Lionel Loueke played with his musical identity on Gilfema (ObliqSound, 2005), and Kendrick Scott seemed determined to throw everything but the kitchen sink into The Source (World Culture Music, 2007), Parks plays it simple, leading a quartet that understands Parks' breathtaking sense of nuance. It helps that the musicians have an understanding developed over several projects: Parks and guitarist Mike Moreno played on The Source, and Parks appeared on Moreno's own solo debut Between the Lines (World Culture Music, 2007); Parks and drummer Eric Harland backstopped Matt Penman on his 2007 release Catch of the Day (Fresh Sound, 2007). Harland and Penman have spent the last few years building foundations for the always-superb SFJazz Collective. As such, the group dynamic on Cinema is sensational, which comes as no surprise.
On the opener "Travelers," it's hard to tell whether Parks is responding to Harland and Penman or vice versa, but Harland's steely groove and Parks' elegant phrases encourage the listener to come along for the ride. The trio is great together, but Moreno's entrance on the suite-like "Peaceful Warrior" really coalesces the date, creating a sound reminiscent of the original Pat Metheny Group. "Karma" could easily be mistaken for an outtake from American Garage with Moreno and Parks displaying the same mesmerizing chemistry that Metheny had shared with Lyle Mays.
Even when the group rocks out on the driving "Nemesis," the overall reserve never wanes; Parks' well-designed phrasing contrasts Harland's muscular beat and Moreno's stinging guitar. The same effect is achieved on the deliciously bluesy "Roadside Distraction." The variable heat that Moreno commands adds a zest to Cinema that couldn't have been achieved by a simple trio, even with rhythm devils like Harland and Penman. Harland brings the drama but never overpowers, even when he makes raging war behind Parks' outstanding redux of "Harvesting Dance," first heard on Blanchard's Flow (Blue Note, 2005). Penman maintains a slick floor throughout Cinema, taking time to break out for a satisfying solo on "Karma."
Thankfully, Parks doesn't try to impress the world with his instrumental versatility. When he does go beyond the piano, it's only to add the barest amount of texture, or, in the case of "Into the Labyrinth," one of two exquisite solo pieces, to stretch a great final chord a little bit further. Still, the echoing glockenspiel on "Nemesis" shows a devilish side to his process. Aaron Parks, who entered college at age 15, learned his lessons well during his time with Terence Blanchard. As his graduate thesis, Invisible Cinema is an unarguable triumph.
Track Listing: Travelers; Peaceful Warrior; Nemesis; Riddle me This; Into the Labyrinth; Karma; Roadside Distraction; Harvesting Dance; Praise; Afterglow.
Personnel: Aaron Parks: piano, mellotron (3), glockenspiel (3), keyboards (3, 5, 6, 8); Mike Moreno: guitar (2-4, 6-9), Matt Penman: bass (1-4, 6-9); Eric Harland: drums (1-4, 6-9).