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Aaron Parks: Structured Freedom

By Published: August 18, 2008
AAJ: You talked about the shared language. There's a moment at the beginning of "Peaceful Warrior" when I had to look at the CD case to see if you were playing keyboards on the track, because you and Mike were so in sync that it sounded like you created a new instrument.

AP: Without a doubt. That's one of the things that I was really going for. The piano and guitar in unison really does create that third instrument when it's done right. That's exactly what I was going for. We spent a lot of time in the mix with Dave Darlington, who's a great engineer. We spent a lot of time with the piano and guitar. We wanted to make sure that neither one was sticking out too much in front. We wanted them to unify into one sound. I'm really glad that that comes across.

AAJ: When you're playing with a piano and guitar at the same time, how do stay out of each other's way? That's a lot of fingers.

AP: It certainly has the potential to be an absolute train wreck. The thing about Mike is that he picks his places to comp very carefully, and he's much more about colors than he is about adding tons and tons of crazy harmonic language. So that leaves a lot of room open for me to take some more liberties with those things. When he comps, it's usually a lot more about single-note ideas and colors. For me, that's great.

There's a certain thing about the Wayne Shorter quartet for example. Even when Wayne's not taking his solo, he's still often playing during [pianist] Danilo [Perez]'s solos, and he's comping on the saxophone in a very bizarre way that not many people I've heard have done. That's a similar idea with the guitar, using it more as a single-note instrument. And then also we have the potential to have a lot more harmony as well, because he's got an incredible harmonic vocabulary and richness. His voice is very strong with that as well. That's how we avoid that problem.

AAJ: What was the experience of recording this album? How much did you bring to the studio? How much evolved there, and how surprised were you by some of the results?

AP: I brought a lot into the studio. I had a lot of things that I thought were going to be sure things. There were some things that I wanted to record and that we tried and they didn't even work. Like the first track—the track that I thought was going to be the first thing on the album—didn't even make the record. So certain things definitely came out differently than I had planned, but that makes things interesting, you know?

I had a lot of stuff planned, but the musicians that I was so fortunate to work with, they just bring so much of their own individuality that unexpected things happen. The version of "Travelers" that starts the record—we didn't even know that the mics were on. We were just playing around, trying to get comfortable with the song, and Eric just started playing, and I joined in and Matt joined in. It ended up being the first track on the record, and we just happened to have the mics on. They happened to be recording it. There are a lot of things that just evolved naturally and spontaneously like that.

Aaron Parks / Terence BlanchardAAJ: Can we talk about how you got your start and about your early life in music?

AP: Sure. I started playing the piano when I was 10. Just sort of fooling around, making noise, trying to mimic the sounds of a thunderstorm. I did that for a little while, and then I think my parents got tired of me making such a complete and total racket without any sense of order at all, so they suggested that I take some piano lessons.

I was really fortunate to have teachers who asked me what I wanted to learn. They didn't try to get me on some structured regimen of classical piano repertoire or learning to read music, all those things. I learned to play by ear first, and my teachers in Seattle were about, "What do you want to figure out how to do and how can we help you do it?"

AAJ: What did you want to figure out? How did you know what you wanted to figure out?

AP: I was just trying to figure out what to do with my left hand. I was listening to a lot of Gene Harris, then McCoy Tyner, then Keith Jarrett, and I wanted to figure out how to get the effects that these people were getting in their music. I didn't want to transcribe them or play exactly like them, but I wanted to become as expressive. My piano teachers would show me different things that I could do with my left hand, and music theory, things that I was confused about. Sometimes I would bring in a piece of music that I was stumped on because I couldn't read very well. I would slowly work through it with them until I could figure out how to play it more or less by ear after watching them play it a bunch of times.

AAJ: When did you decide to narrow your focus and really pursue music?

Aaron Parks / Mike MorenoAP: I would say at about 14 or so. I started this early entrance program at the University of Washington when I was 13. I was going to college then, intending to triple major in math, computer science and music. I think at around 14 or so, I did a summer workshop in Port Townsend and Joanne Brackeen was a teacher there. She told me I should figure out a way to come to New York. I had never even really thought about that idea before, but all of a sudden that gave me a goal. I started to redirect my energy. Rather than computers and math, I started to think more and more about music.

Eventually I transferred to Manhattan School of Music when I was 16. I studied with Kenny Barron there, which was really great. Outside of the school, I studied with Fred Hersch. I think that once the music bug bites, once you reach those states of flow when you forget the outside world, when you're just there in the moment—that's the thing that gets you. That was the hook for me.

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