Aaron Parks: Rising To The Challenge

R.J. DeLuke By

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My thing has always been trying to figure out how can I feel at home in the music that's being made.
—Aaron Parks
"I'm always trying to put myself into scenarios with people who play in a way that challenges me and gives me a chance to grow," says pianist Aaron Parks, who has carved an impressive career in jazz since going to New York City early in the new century and eventually garnering a major gig with trumpeter Terrence Blanchard's band.

The group's he's played in are nothing but challenging, as he serves music made by people like Kurt Rosenwinkel and Joshua Redman. Since last year, he has done a record and some touring with Dhafer Youssef, a Tunisian oud player and singer.

Now he has presented his new CD, Find the Way (ECM) that put him with some more large company—drumming great Billy Hart and the strong and bold sound of Ben Street on bass. The result is a free-flowing collection of improvisations that take different twists and turns for this growing artist. At times, the music is ethereal. At times searching. At times strongly and directly stated. It has a lightness of being and the conversational aspect among the three is always present.

The trio worked on the music on a tour in Europe before going in to the studio with ECM's iconic producer Manfred Eicher. Parks' observations and reactions about the process and the trio are a microcosm of his musical curiosity and inventiveness, his open-mindedness, and his willingness to serve the music in any way that makes it good and affirming.

"I feel simultaneously comfortable and uncomfortable playing in that trio. Which is really nice," he says, chuckling. "It's a nice strange feeling. "It's a strange thing for a pianist, perhaps, but I haven't done all that much trio playing in my life.. It hasn't been the thing I like the most about music. I tend to like the supportive role a little bit more and getting to be the slightly quirky second soloist. I like having someone who takes a solo and gets some energy going, then I like to take more of an anti-solo kind of thing. I'm still learning what it is to lead a trio and how to shape things, orchestrationally. Figure out how to tell a story with only the three instruments."

He adds, "The more that I explore it, the more I am fascinated and discover that there are so many places to go."

Parks is comfortable in a leadership role in certain situations. But the trio with Hart and Street, he says, is different in that his mates have much more experience than the 33-year-old. Street is almost 20 years older and Hart is 45 years older.

"I am the leader. I wrote the songs. We're doing this under my name. But ... a lot of the time I don't think of that as such. For better or worse. My thing has always been trying to figure out how can I feel at home in the music that's being made."

Sometimes the leadership role helps in that regard. Other times, says the pianist, he can feel like a sideman in his own band, "letting the music show me what to do, rather than me telling the music what to do. It's difficult and it doesn't always make for the most exciting concerts. Sometimes it's going to fail. Sometimes it will be beautiful. Sometimes interesting... All that I really want to do it find out ways to keep my connection to music within myself, feeling really good as much as I can. If I have that, then I don't feel that I need to lead the band. I just show up and join it."

Parks, from the state of Washington, is fond of his trio as players and people. He learns things each time they play together.

Hart "has done so many things, but he's so free and open and curious about all music right now," Parks says. "He's not only trying to do a thing that he did in the past. He's super curious about the drummers of today, the music that's happening today. He's always still trying to learn, which is incredibly inspiring to be around. He's not resting on his laurels in any way. He loves music... He also has all of the experience—time on this planet and time spent being close to music—where it feels like there's an authority that he has. He can play something you've heard drummers play many times, but he'll play it understanding what it does. The effect that it has. And he'll play it with such intention and meaning. It can be at times really jarring. Sometimes what he's playing is incredibly supportive. Sometimes what he's playing is him being on his own trajectory, telling his own story... It's kind of terrifyingly inspiring. Playing with him every time feels a bit like that. He shows up, he sits down at the drums and then there's the possibility and availability of magic."

Street, he says, is thoughtful and intense, "a beautiful, complex person. It shows up in his approach to music, the way that he plays. You can think of Billy as being the ocean almost, and Ben is kind of like a rudder for a boat. Ben knows how to interact with the ocean and help to steer the ship, so to speak. He's after beauty ultimately, I think. But I also sometimes find something almost ornery about the way he plays. He'll play something against what you might expect, with a kind of mischievous stubbornness, not ironically but in a way that makes it uncomfortable to play mechanically or habitually. Which makes it possible for something real and authentic to happen."

Parks had recorded for ECM before, but this time he worked directly with Eicher for the first time.

"Working with him was amazing. When he hears something that he likes, he responds to it in a very pure, almost childlike way. The combination of that innocence with all that experience of what he's heard and done through the years is remarkable. Then that same child-like way, in a certain sense, can also show up when he's not really quite feeling it. As a producer, he has very clear ideas. I decided to go into this session and surrender to that. Let him produce the record and use his experience. In general, the whole band, the basic idea of the session and tour I did leading up to it was surrendering as much as possible. Letting go of my attachment to what I thought it needed to sound like."

The open and at times ethereal quality emerged organically, from the individuals as players, but also from approach and attitude.

"With a lot of the songs I write I have a certain idea in mind in the beginning of what I think they're going to be, what they should be. But with this band, master musicians and beautiful people like Billy Hart and Ben Street, I didn't want to come and tell them how to play my songs. The fact that I wrote them doesn't mean the thing that I thought of has to be the main thing. It's just one possibility. A lot of the things that were more specific that I had in mind at the beginning just melted away. There is something ethereal about what's remaining in what we found."

Somewhat self-effacing, he notes, "Most of the time on the piano, I have no idea what I'm doing. I'm rummaging around trying to find what feels good. What smells good. What sounds good. I think I got lucky, this time. I'm happy with a lot of what I found."

Pianists have many influences, usually common ones that come from the pantheon of jazz music over the decades. For Parks, among them is the great Shirley Horn, known as one of the great jazz singers in history. Knowledgeable people know that she was a superb pianist with sweet phrasing, an uncanny sense of dynamics, swing, and a great sound. Carmen McRae, herself a decent pianist, took on Horn to play piano when she did a 1991 tribute album to Sarah Vaughan, called Sarah: Dedicated to You (Novus).

"I still keep on gong back and discovering things that I don't know about her. There's something about her piano playing—I've been listening to it since I was 15 or 16," Parks says. "She has this way of playing ... she has these hovering notes. She sends them out in the most delicate way. Floating out in a way that doesn't seem like piano anymore. It has something to do with her touch. It has something to do with her timing. Something to do with allowing it to be simple. I don't know exactly what it is."

On the title track of the new recording, "A lot of the way I play on that track you can trace back in one way or another to Shirley," he says. "And on other things as well. A patience that she has in her piano playing and a feeling of not needing to prove anything."

He notes he recently went back to listen to a 1978 Horn album, A Lazy Afternoon (SteepleChase), that has Hart on drums and Buster Williams on bass. "It's so fucking good. Billy's already playing with so much wisdom. It's from 1978. I hear the same person. It's crazy, to me."

Another pianist he admires is Kenny Barron. Parks studied at the University of Washington at the age of 14, through an early entrance program, as a double major in computer science and music. He was part of a rich music scene in the Seattle area, doing gigs at the age of 15 and 16 and getting a lot of encouragement. He was selected to participate in the Grammy camp with other young musicians, which led to a move to New York City and pointed him to the Manhattan School of Music.

"Mostly because Kenny Barron was teaching there. I wanted to study with him. I got to for two years, which was great," he says.

He hung out on the scene, meeting people, and landed a gig with Blanchard, with whom he toured and made records including A Tale of God's Will (Requiem for Katrina).

"It was kind of ridiculous how lucky I got. That was the gig that I wanted the most. I wanted to play with Terence. That album of his, Wandering Moon, I'd worn it out. I was obsessed with it. Some of the earlier ones as well. I was a huge Terence fan. I learned so much with that band.

"Similarly, the other thing I wanted to do the most was play with Kurt Rosenwinkel. I went through a period of obsession with The Next Step, Heartcore and The Enemies of Energy. Those are important records for me. I played with Kurt for eight years. Learned a whole lot about music."

He also hooked up with saxophonist Joshua Redman and eventually became a founding member of the fine group James Farm with Redman, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Eric Harland.

"A common thread in a lot of these relationships is Eric Harland. Eric was in Terence's band when I first joined. Eric was in Kurt's band. It was on a tour with Eric that Kurt and I first played together. With Matt Penman, Eric and Kurt on guitar. That ended up being the beginning of my relationship working with Kurt. Then Matt, Eric and I did Matt's record together, Catch of the Day with Seamus Blake. Then we did my record Invisible Cinema. Josh heard that record and we ended up putting together James Farm. Harland is an important person in my life and a beautiful human being."

Aside from getting gigs surrounding Find the Way, Parks has a new project with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington that is getting off the ground. "A joint-led kind of thing called Social Science. With her, me, Matt Stevens and young multi-instrumentalist Morgan Guerin." He also did a record with Gilad Hekselman, "where I'm playing more electronic things, like left-handed bass on the keyboard. Which is another fun challenge."

The ever-active Parks also has another band he calls Little Big.

"In some way it continues the trajectory of that record of mine Invisible Cinema from nine years ago. I'm picking up from there. I've got a whole bunch of tunes. Probably three albums worth of music that I could record with that band. It's a matter of doing it right and having it really feel right. I need that music to be produced in a different kind of way than a typical jazz record. So I'm working on finding ways to do that."

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