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Aaron Parks: Structured Freedom

By Published: August 18, 2008
AAJ: How did you make the step into the larger jazz world, working with Terence Blanchard and people like that?

AP: When I was studying with Kenny Barron, the story I hear is that Terence was looking for a pianist when Ed Simon was getting ready to leave the band and he asked Kenny for a recommendation and Kenny recommended me. I went and did an audition. It was a very funny audition.

What it was supposed to be, I had heard, was that I was going to the studio to just hang out. [Terrence] had a thing on XM Radio where it was supposed to be him, Reuben Rogers on bass, Eric Harland on drums and Chick Corea on piano. I was just going to hang out with Terence and talk to him about music. But I get to the studio, and Terence says, "I just found out that Chick isn't coming, so do you want to do this radio broadcast thing with us?" [laughs]

I was 18, still at Manhattan School of Music. I had just come down from school to do this thing. I didn't even have time to get nervous. Wynton Marsalis was moderating and he was asking me questions about what I thought about improvisation and I was like, "Whoa, what is going on?" At the end of the whole thing, Terence said, "So, do you want to join the band?" So I guess that's how it happens.

AAJ: Oh yeah, I'm sure that's how it happens for everyone.

AP: Right. [laughs]

AAJ: You've just revealed the secret.

AP: Exactly. That's exactly how it always goes down. [laughs]

AAJ: All you aspiring musicians, listen up. What would you say you took from your time playing with Terence? What still shows up in your music now?

Aaron Parks / Terence BlanchardAP: One of the main things that I learned from him was how important it is to hire musicians that you trust and to let them do what they do. That was the thing that was most amazing about his band. He never really told us so much how to play. He'd give us these basic ideas for the songs, but then he'd let us do our thing and try and fail and sometimes succeed. That allowed for so much blossoming and growing together. The band would sound amazing and sometimes sound terrible, because we'd all be trying different things. We weren't afraid, because he let us take those chances, which not a lot of band leaders do.

It really made me feel like that's the way to do it. That's what this music is about. If we're playing improvised music, it needs to have that openness. Even as much structure as you can build into a piece, you need to have the chance to go completely off the page.

AAJ: How do you reconcile that with having a vision of how a particular album is going to sound, or what you're trying to achieve with a tune? How do you balance that freedom and structure?

AP: It's a tough balance at times. If I've got a piece where I want a specific drum idea—a lot of times it's influenced by another track I've found that has a drum groove that conveys a feeling or has a certain type of momentum—I'll play something like that for Eric to get him to see where I'm coming from. And then I'll see what his own version is. He might stay very close to it, or he might take it and completely explode it apart and find something new.

You bring your idea, but you can't be too attached to it. You've got to hire the musicians that you trust. I bring these things to Eric and he comes up with things that are better than I ever could have thought of if I'd just told him exactly what to play.

Even for myself, I write these songs and structure all these things, sometimes to the last tiny little detail, for my piano part. But once I figure all those things out, I really try to distance myself from it as much as possible and pretend like I'm playing it like it's someone else's music, and I try to explore all the possibilities around the thing that I structured.

AAJ: Is it a case of needing the structure initially to be able to let go of it eventually?

AP: Absolutely. I'm a big proponent of freedom within form. Having a certain amount of structure that is set, but knowing that you can break away from it at any time, and also knowing that it's right there to return to.

AAJ: What's coming up next for you? Are you getting a chance to tour with this band in support of this album?

AP: I am. There's going to be some stuff going on on the West Coast in October, and in New Orleans and Memphis and some other places. Those dates I'll have on my MySpace page pretty soon. In September, we'll be at the Jazz Standard [in New York] on the 10th and the 11th, which is going to be the official CD release party. On September 19th and 20th, I'll be doing gigs at Smalls [New York] with a band co-led by myself and Kurt Rosenwinkel, with an unfortunate acronym. Kurt Rosenwinkel and Aaron Parks turns into KRAP.

AAJ: It's hard not to like that.

AP: Yeah, it's pretty catchy. So I'll be doing that with Matt Penman and Kendrick Scott on drums. Sort of like the unofficial launch. And then hopefully more will come.

Selected Discography

Aaron Parks, Invisible Cinema (Blue Note, 2008)

Terence Blanchard, A Tale of God's Will (Blue Note, 2007)

Mike Moreno, Between The Lines (World Culture Music, 2007)

Matt Penman, Catch of the Day (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2007)

Terence Blanchard, Flow (Blue Note, 2005)

Terence Blanchard, Bounce (Blue Note, 2003)

Photo Credit

Courtesy of AAJ Visual Arts Gallery

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