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Aaron Parks: Finding the Way to Little Big

Jiaowei Hu By

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"Always beginning. Often perplexed. Drawn to beauty and to the absurd. I play piano, write songs, and take pictures of doors with my phone. A bit odd." So is the pianist's own account on his website, written in a few scribbled sentences. About a decade ago, Aaron Parks created much of a stir through his debut album Invisible Cinema (Blue Note Records, 2008). In the cover image, the then new star was standing right before a closing door. Ten years later, the door is wide open. As he is touring around the world with his personally-customized four-piece band Little Big, this open door constantly welcomes people in and leads them onto endless passages and twisting corridors, into the pianist's jazz labyrinth.

All About Jazz: You once intended to triple-pursue math, computer science and music degrees. Did the science dreams leave certain impacts on your musical logic?

Aaron Parks: I think they did. One of the things that impacted me at a very young age was I had a math teacher when I was growing up a little north of Seattle. He introduced me to the Fibonacci Number Sequence. He showed me the way these numbers relate to the golden ratio, how all of that shows up in nature, and how the Greeks used it for proportions and their ideals for beauty. I was fascinated with those numbers and the way they show up in the natural world.

There were definitely times when I used those particular numbers consciously in some of my music. I moved out of that phase, and now am not trying to do quite as specifically. But I think one of the things that started to happen for me by spending a lot of time with math and science, was starting to find beauty in those structures, seeing the beauty in symmetry and asymmetry and the way those things can be combined.

That definitely has had an impact on my personality. I'm always seeking balance, and some kind of imperfect reflection and symmetry in my compositions. When something happens, I need the balancing action to be in there. I always want those balancing impulses, but I don't want it to be "perfectly balanced." "Imperfect Symmetry" is the thing that I'm always looking for in music. I think a lot of that does come from spending some time in those different fields.

AAJ: In your music, it's like flowing through one passage after another, which are built in concrete structures. It's really fascinating.

AP: Thanks! For me, regarding the structure: again, balance is the key. The rational and the structures play an important role, absolutely. But it doesn't mean anything to me unless you balance it with the intuitive. So I'm always trying to balance. If I've got a lot of heady stuff, I'd want a lot of heart and the body, to make you wanna dance as well.

AAJ: It was sort of in an untraditional way that you deal with the relationship of composition and improvisation. The movements were like ABCDE and just going on.

AP: Well, I think it is like that to some degree. I love traditional forms as well. I love many different forms. What I'm very interested in, especially in a band like Little Big, is making it a little bit more blurry. It's not as clear as "here is the solo, [and] there is the composition." But for me that doesn't mean it needs to be purely cerebral. I don't want to write a lot of music that's difficult for it's own sake, although sometimes things end up in odd time signatures, which aren't the easiest for people to feel at first. But by surrendering into a certain type of flow, eventually you'd fall into that.

What I'm more interested in is, trying to create almost a state of hypnosis, or just a state of flow, where you just feel inside of a song. One thing that I've noticed with this band live is that a lot of times when we finish our improvisations, people are unsure where to clap. They are like... (a few hesitant claps) "I think there is a solo but I don't..." That's something I've started some of the time, even announcing on the microphone, like "I just want to let you guys know that I recognize that it's difficult to tell where to clap. And that's a bit by design. So, you guys don't need to do any of that stuff, to put your hands together after the 'solo.' You're off the hook. It's about the song, about the whole narrative flow. You can take all that energy, of course if you like it, you can give us all the energy at the end, you know. But there's no need to sorta be the 'jazz robot.'"

The point of—especially with this band—in the way that I try to play in general, is [that] I want my improvisation to feel very melodic. And I also try to write compositions where the way that the melodic rhythm is phrased [and] feels more like it's improvised, rather than notes on the page. I try to make the phrasing of the rhythm, even when it's very specific, I wanna make it flow the way it would flow if I was talking. Sometimes it takes a lot of rigorous architecture to make it feel natural.

AAJ: Let's move on to the album Find the Way. What's the way?

AP: Well, let's see. What is the way? I can't... maybe Billy Hart knows the way. The story behind that album, is really actually the heart of that record, the heart of that band. It comes because of Ben Street, the bassist on that record. Ben Street is a very dear friend of mine. He's like almost 20 years older than me, and he took on like sort of an older brother and a mentor figure to me. Some years ago, he suggested that I tried to get a chance to play with Billy Hart while he was still around.

AAJ: Who is, again, like 40 years older?

AP: Older than me, yeah. So we're three pretty distinct generations. I guess we've been playing tours together since... I think our first concert was sometime in 2012. And then we played some Asian tours in 2013, came to The Cotton Club. Maybe that was in 2014, we played in Thailand. I can't remember the exact timeline. 2015 was when we made that record, Find the Way. It didn't come out for another two years, but we did that after a tour in the UK. We had played six gigs together, after which we started to really feel like we were breathing as one band.

Finding the way for me in that band was very different from "Little Big." "Little Big" have very, very specific ideas for the songs, which I explain to the guys in the group. We follow them, we try to inhabit them and make them feel alive. With the trio ("Find the Way"), I hardly say anything. I am finding MY way, in my own trio. It's a bit like me being a sideman in my own band, almost. I'm learning so much, from playing with them. So I feel like we've documented some pretty real and nice moments on that record, but I also think the trio is even getting better. We just played a week at The Village Vanguard last month, the end of September. And it feels like a WHOLE other thing now. I'm really excited and I hope I can get the chance to do much more with them as well.

AAJ: You know, in recent years, actually Billy Hart has played with a lot of younger musicians. But unlike Art Blakey, Billy Hart tends to totally accept the younger values.

AP: Well, not exactly. What he really is, is that he cares very deeply about this music. He wants to learn and to see where it's going. And he's always checking out the younger drummers and trying to figure out how to do what they're doing. In the mean time, all the younger drummers are like again, "How do you play one thing with so much power and intention?" That's beautiful, because there IS a two-way exchange of information. Most of it comes from Billy. But he is still hungry, and is not like "Oh I know everything." He's just an eternal student, which makes him such a master of a musician. Because by being an eternal student, you never stop growing, and you never stop being in the moment and learning. If you are not learning, you are forgetting in some kind of way, right?

AAJ: About what did he once ask you to teach him?

AP: He wanted me to teach him about how to play in... [13/8]. So there is a tune on the record "Unravel." I actually really love that version of the song in the album. That song happens to be in an odd meter. It's in 13/8. But we haven't played that song on the tour at all, and I didn't show Billy a chart for it. Neither did I tell him it was in 13/8. I had played the song with Ben before, and when we were in the studio, we were like, "Hey, let's try this tune of mine!" And Billy was like, "What is it?" We were like, "You'll hear it!"

So we played that song, and didn't tell him anything. What is on the record was his first impression of that song, not knowing what meter it was in, not knowing anything about it. He was just responding to us playing in the moment.

AAJ: It only took one take?

AP: We only did one take. It's a magical take that I really love. But then the next time he played, he was like, "Yeah I like that. But what is that tune? And how can I think about how to play in 13/8?" You know, so he wanted to learn about that and now he's found out ways to do that. Then he learnt what I had in mind originally. Now he's found a way to somehow learn where I was coming from originally and bring it to the more intuitive zone, where you find both of them existing together.

AAJ: After Find the Way, it was Little Big. Also the band you've brought to Shanghai this time. As a title, what does "Little Big" stand for?

AP: "Little Big," it stands for... I mean, that's a good question, actually. The short answer is that it is the title of one of my very favorite books ("Little, Big"), by an author named John Crowley. It's a fantasy novel, about a world existing kind of side by side or within this world. The inner hidden world within the outer exterior world. It has other meanings as well. Some meanings relate to hermetic philosophies, like "As above, so below." Sort of esoteric philosophies coming from the Egyptian traditions.

We definitely have a lot of songs that have a wide dynamic contrast. That feels like the name continues to reveal itself to me with different meanings over time. But, I just like the way it sounds. I just like "Little Big" in the end. People get a little confused with it though, they think it's a little big band or something. And it's not. It's definitely not a big band, right now. It's just a name.
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