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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.

AAJ: If "Little Big" implies some sort of philosophy, which are the most representative songs according to you?

AP: Let's see... That's a very good question. I'd say... (thinking) You've got some of these archetypal figures of mythology that show up. "The Trickster" and "The Fool" are both very important characters in mythology all over the world. "The Fool" actually has the wisdom, and "The Trickster" is the one who goes to the Gods and brings down fire to share with humanity, for example. Many different cultures, [with] different versions of that story. "The Trickster" gets able to travel between worlds. "Lilac" is one of the characters from the book "Little, Big" as well. "Small Planet" as well, is just with the whole thing in it. In a certain way, the heart of the album lies in that song.

"Mandala" is my secret favorite, among the other songs. A mandala is a design and a perfect pattern to stare at for meditation. A spiritual ritual symbol in Indian religion representing the universe. These patterns are very symmetrical in many ways. There is also a little hidden philosophy. This is another song in 13, which relates to the symbol they called "The Fruit of Life" in different philosophies as well. 13 itself, again, time coming back to my math, 13 is a Fibonacci number. You know, those weird little things do connect!

AAJ: I sense that you've been using a bit ostinatos being a sideman and even in your own band. You've found your own approach to songs like "Kid," "Small Planet" among many others. Sequenzas as well. It's interesting, because most band-leading musicians, pianists especially, would usually shun away from ostinatos on purpose.

AP: Oh I love many different things. I refuse to just be only one kind of person, or one kind of musician. I love ostinatos. Like I mentioned earlier, one of our goals is to try to allure you into a sense of coming outside of yourself. Sometimes it takes a little bit of hypnosis to do that. I feel like an interesting ostinato or a repetitive figure with enough variations in it, can pull you into a state where your mind starts to surrender a little bit, and you are not judging things in the same kind of way. Even when I'm writing somewhat complicated music, my real goal is to wake up people's hearts and wake them up in their bodies, and shake them a little bit. Shake them out of their habits. Sometimes it takes pulling them into a state of flow and surrender, in order to have a chance for some other moment to come out of nowhere and really shake you.

The song "The Trickster" for example. There is an ostinato in my piano part underneath the guitar solo. It's a figure that I'm playing constantly that almost sounds like teasing you. (singing the melody) It's like a kid teasing another kid almost. But it keeps slowly moving through the harmony and building up. And then, when I release it, you are like "Oh, how did we get here?"

AAJ: Yeah, just like a lengthy accumulation before the explosion.

AP: Yeah exactly. Like creating hypnosis for these cathartic moments that allow the energy you've built to burst out.

AAJ: I really love the way you dealt with ostinatos in Little Big. Even though you didn't approach Find the Way exactly in the same way, the gradient-type musical expressions are sharing similar aesthetics.

AP: Yeah, that comes from listening to a lot of different bands that did that those kinds of things, like Sigur Rós, Explosions in the Sky, many more.

AAJ: Oh since now you've mentioned post-rock...

AP: Oh man, I love so much music from many genres! So with this band in particular, I guess I'm not trying to create "Fusion." What I'm doing is "fusing." I'm trying to FUSE the elements together. I feel like "Fusion" itself has become a little bit of a weird word. It's associated with something at times a little bit histrionic, displays of a solely masculine sort of energy. Like "Hey look at all the things I can do on my instrument!" And how fast I can play and how loud it can be. Sort of a little bit of an unbalanced energy. That's what I feel like many people associated with "Fusion."

So I don't like that word, but I'm interested in FUSING different genres and many different things together, into something which feels integrated and authentic. I don't want anything that feels like jazz musicians trying to play rock. That sounds lame. And I also don't want rock musicians trying to play jazz. Neither. We're just people who love a lot of types of music and are trying to find something in their combination.

And it's difficult. The thing that's really interesting to me is how hard it is to play simple. A lot of my music is simple and complicated at the same time. There are a lot of complicated things of which I often find a way to try to put a simple package around the outside, to hide the inner workings.

There is a quote by Charles Mingus, as one of my guiding principals. He says, "Making the simple complicated is commonplace. Making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity." So I'm always trying to take complicated things and put them in a simpler looking package.

AAJ: But keep it sophisticated.

AP: Yeah, right! I don't want to dumb it down. But I want to give you something that grabs your attention. I want to welcome you in and then give you something you weren't expecting at the same time. I don't want to only give you what you think you want. I want to give you something a little bit weirder, maybe then you thought you wanted.

And I definitely love melodies and folk songs. I don't want to run away from that. I like writing melodies. I think sometimes such a concentration on "newness," for my taste, can be a bit like "How far are you gonna keep pushing the new?" What is the point of music? Progress? I don't know. Maybe for some people, it is. But for me, progress itself is a weird word in general and a large word as well. The idea of infinite progress. We're gonna really have infinite progress on this planet? We have finite resources, but we're gonna have infinite growth? You know, that's not how things go, right? You try to figure out something to feel. "What feels good to you?" It's a bigger issue as well. (laughing)

AAJ: As a tone developer, you seem to have not only a personal philosophy of your own keys tone, but also a sophisticated concept about the integral band sound. Just now, you were rehearsing right there and it seemed to have proven the point. Meanwhile, your piano tone seemed to have differed a little bit from Find the Way to Little Big. For instance, Brad Mehldau's tone is recognized as "metallic," while Kurt Rosenwinkel's as "cometic." Where would you expect your tone to go?

AP: Well that's an interesting question. What I'm after my tone? I want the tone to be like little pearls. Like, it's round. "Round" is the key. My favorite piano touch of the living musicians now: Gonzalo Rubalcaba. He has the best touch for my taste.

What I'm looking for is something that's on the dark side, but there is a certain element of brightness inside of that dark. It's like a dark sphere with a bright glowing center. That's what I want. I want it dark on the outside but with an energy on the inside. That's what I'm looking for with my sound.

When I hear the first draft of the mix of Little Big as I was working on that record, I guess it has something to do with the sound guy or the mix. The sound was very close. It had the darkness, but it was missing with the little bright center that sort of hits you in your heart and chestnut like it's supposed to resonate in some certain type of way. So mixing the piano sound for that record meant that I needed to bring that up a little bit more and figure out ways to get that back in there.

AAJ: So you didn't change your piano touch from Find the Way to Little Big? But it did sound a bit different in Find the Way. By the way, that album is indeed very impressive and very healing.

AP: Yeah that's a beautiful sounding record, and it was great working with Manfred Eicher. I'm happy with the way the piano sounds on that one as well. That was another part of finding the way, in my making that record. That whole session was like radical surrender. It was me letting Manfred be Manfred and produce the record. For instance, after hearing the second tune we recorded, he said "Okay this is the first tune on the record!" But it was only the second song he'd heard. So I was wondering inside, "How do you know? You haven't heard the rest of the music!" But he was already sequencing it. So I was like okay cool, I'm gonna let Manfred make the record the way he does it. And I was also surrendering there, and as I mentioned before, not telling the guys on the band how to play the music at all. Let's just be in there together, and "find" it together.

One place where I did speak up about something, to make my preference known, was with the piano sound. I want the piano a little bit darker than some ECM records, and I want the reverb a little bit less. I feel like a lot of the piano sounds on ECM can be really beautiful. But for my taste, for what I'm looking for in my sound, the first draft had a little bit too much reverb and a little bit too bright. Where we brought it to in the end, I felt like it was really a nice meeting point between our aesthetics.

AAJ: In recent decades, there seems to be a trend in jazz: the boundaries between written compositions and improvisations in the traditional sense are getting blurred. The new form is to be less formalized, even in the song structure. More personal music works, meanwhile less potential standards. What does this trend mean to you?

AP: I disagree. I wouldn't go so far as to say that they're "standards," but people are playing my songs all over the world. That's just happening. Yes, there are specific elements to my songs, but I guess what I'm after really is trying to write something that invites you in. "Song for Sashou" from "Find the Way," people are playing that song now, you know. I don't know if it's a "standard." I don't know what "standard" means any more. But I do know people are playing that song. "Adrift" as well, and "Small Planet" from this record. I get videos from people sending all over the world that are playing these tunes. They are exploring them, and taking them to places beyond what I originally came up for. Yes there are complicated structures, but my tunes are pretty simple! They are not that hard. It of course takes a little bit difficulty to do them, but the structure still welcomes you in. I hope!

AAJ: Would you be bothered by some certain type of rearrangement or cover by others?

AP: I just want to write the songs that feel good to play. I don't care what people do with them! I released the stems from "Little Big." All of the audio files, for people to download, remix and make anything they want with them. As well as the charts for free. Play with the sheet! If it sparks something for you, let that do something cool and creative for you.

AAJ: I remember reading your chart of "Peaceful Warrior." It was really quite remakers-friendly.

AP: Oh yeah, right! Totally! "Peaceful Warrior"? Yeah totally. With Invisible Cinema I put those charts out like ten years ago. With Little Big I put out the charts, but I also put out the audio files. So people can really get in and remix and record a new solo on top of it. Whatever they want to do! Just to substitute something. I don't care what people make. And if they don't need to do anything with it either. But just as an option, for if they are interested. I love people taking my music and putting totally a spin on it, for sure.

AAJ: Among all those you haven't collaborated with, who or what kind of musicians of today are on your wish list?

AP: Oh, people who I haven't played with... Well, I'd say probably the biggest one on my wish list, Bill Frisell, whom I'd really love to play with. He is a true poet, one of the deepest poets that exist on that instrument.

I've gotten to play, like not much, but I have gotten the chance to play with Wayne Shorter. So I did that already, just one gig though. It was with Gretchen Parlato. But he is one with whom I haven't worked with.

AAJ: Wayne Shorter、Gretchen Parlato and you, it's a weird lineup...

AP: Oh it was Gretchen and Lionel Loueke, Derrick Hodge, Kendrick Scott and me.

AAJ: Kendrick Scott? Not with Mark Guiliana?

AP: No, that was before she was with Mark.

AAJ: That's a long time ago!

AP: Yeah yeah yeah, that was a long time ago. We played in Paris. That was when the rhythm section was Terence Blanchard's band. And Gretchen hired basically Terence's rhythm section. And Wayne came. Wayne was there and sitting on that gig with us. Wayne was there. Milton Nascimento was there. It was crazy!

Other people who I'd love to play with...(thinking) Okay, Thom Yorke, Johnny Greenwood. You know, the Radiohead guys.

AAJ: Little Big was released through Ropeadope. A label that produces so many different types of music and does a lot of different things!

AP: They put out a lot of stuff, and some are really cool. Matthew Stevens put out his record Preverbal and that's really very special and interesting. Logan Richardson put out Blues People on that label too. Terrace Martin, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah and all those guys doing really cool things. For me it's great that they are a company that's just super down to try new things.

I made Little Big myself. And I was shopping around to different labels. A lot of the labels would say "Yeah, we wish we had done it from the beginning with you." But I was like "No, I had to do it myself." "But we are interested in putting it out, maybe if we recorded it." I would refuse and said that I just wanted to put this one out. And Ropeadope was down to do that, and they've been really supportive. So I'm gonna do the next one with them, too.

AAJ: What's the next one about?

AP: It's the next Little Big record. I don't have the name exactly yet, but there have been a number of tunes which address specific things. There is a tune called "Dreams of a Mechanical Man."

AAJ: A mechanical man? Was that inspired by your drawn-to-science and rational side?

AP: I guess. But it's also very much more related to our psychology, a bit of the nature and the way we go through our lives like little robots doing things the same way all the time, not breaking up patterns, and therefore, going around and around in little circle. We are in our dreams, not even fully awake.

"Solace," which I'd definitely be playing tonight. I'd play a lot of the new music that we're working on. "Solace" is about finding a way to open the heart, especially in a time when the news everyday just sort of bombards you in a way that makes you feel smaller and a little bit more closed off and isolated. So this song it's an invitation to reconnect. It was also written for myself as a heart opening kind of song. To feel something, and not be afraid of it.

Another song called "Attention, Earthlings" is about climate change. There is plenty of things that this album is about, but more than anything, in the end it's a collection of songs. I'm simultaneously doubling down on the hypnotic elements. There are definitely songs that are very much ostinato-driven, but I've also found it was important to have some songs with a bit more harmonic content, and a bit less of that repetitive left hand, even just for my own sake. Because I wanted to use my left hand in a different way than playing ostinatos. Some of the new songs might not have any repetitive things at all. Just chord changes, the melody, an inkling of a drumbeat, something like that. I want to find more freedom, within form.

Photo Credit: Blue Note Shanghai

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