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Aaron Parks: Structured Freedom


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I get to the studio, and Terence [Blanchard] says, 'I just found out that Chick [Corea] isn't coming, so do you want to do this radio broadcast thing with us?'
Pianist and composer Aaron Parks is 24 years old—and he started college 11 years ago. A child prodigy who entered the University of Washington at age 13 as a triple major in math, computer science and music, Parks quickly found that music was his true calling. Now, after a five-year stint with trumpeter Terence Blanchard, Parks is set to release his Blue Note debut, Invisible Cinema. The album, which hits stores on August 19, 2008, is a tour de force of composition, imagination and performance.

All About Jazz: So I was feeling very smart, listening to the record without reading any of the promotion material, and thinking, "Man, if this isn't a concept album, I don't know what is." And then I started reading the bio and see the line, "I was thinking about actual cinema, and this album has a story line." Can you talk about creating a narrative on an album without words?

Aaron Parks: I think that the songs were all originally conceived individually, but the songs have a way that they flow that means a lot. They build naturally, and that creates a sense of drama. And the musicians on the record—[drummer] Eric Harland, [bassist] Matt Penman and [guitarist] Mike Moreno—they all have a sense of drama that was really conducive to the type of music. The way that they played created the story line itself. I had a lot of stuff planned out that was structured, but I also wanted to leave a lot of things open, to let them develop the way that they naturally do.

AAJ: Was it necessary for them to understand the narrative for it to work?

AP: No. They understood the narrative of the songs individually, rather than the overarching story of the album. The funny thing about how it came together is that I had this idea, I had the album title Invisible Cinema, but when I was recording the songs I didn't have the whole overarching picture in my mind. It was the way that the individual tracks came together and the stories of those songs, the way that they built individually. I put them together once I had a sequence, and some of the song titles even changed to accommodate that new story that was built in the moment.

Aaron ParksAAJ: Was this music that you were trying out in performance, or was it all fresh for the first time in the studio?

AP: Some of the music is very, very old. Some of it has its roots back as far as six or seven years ago. And some of it is brand new, stuff that I had never played before we went into the studio. One of the songs, "Nemesis," I had written for [guitarist] Kurt Rosenwinkel originally. "Peaceful Warrior" is a song that I wrote for [guitarist] Lionel [Loueke].

But then there are other songs that hadn't taken life until we played them in the studio. Especially in the forms that they took on the record. Songs like "Riddle Me This." I played that song live before, but it never came together in quite the same way that it did on the record.

AAJ: Can you talk a little bit about how you chose this band? People who know you will know about how some of these musicians came to be on the record, but let's tell everybody.

AP: Absolutely. The first thing that I thought of was the drums. My music is very, very drum driven, and the guy who I really consider one of my musical soul mates is Eric Harland. He was the obvious, natural, really only choice for the drum chair. I was really happy that he was able to make it. I played with Eric first in Terence Blanchard's band for a number of years, and then he also hooked me up with my current gig with Kurt Rosenwinkel. He's been a great mentor and a really great supporter ever since I first came to New York.

I met Matt Penman, the bassist, through Eric. We did a tour in Japan together that was really one of these life-changing musical experiences. We also recorded Matt Penman's record, Catch of the Day (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2007). I think that's a really great record. There's a natural thing that Eric and Matt have that, for me, the way that we play together is like falling off a log. We all ended up being with each other without having to think about it.

AAJ: Why was the tour life-changing?

AP: It was a tour with Kurt Rosenwinkel on guitar. It was the first time I had played some of my music [in a] quartet with the guitar, and that instrumentation just sort of activated some of my songs. It was also the first time I'd ever played with Kurt. The thing about that tour was that we were playing this music that had a lot of structure to it but was unfolding in very, very different ways every night.

This was a tour of Japan, and it was just one of the most natural musical experiences. Playing with these other musicians, I felt so comfortable. Every one of us felt like we could do anything and everyone would be there to support us, no matter how crazy a choice we made. Really, really deep listeners. Having that experience makes it hard to go back to anything less than that. That becomes the ideal.

AAJ: Is that a rare experience?

Aaron Parks / Terence BlanchardAP: It's a very rare experience to have musicians who understand each other so quickly, so naturally. It usually takes a very long time for that kind of thing to develop. On that tour, almost from the first or second gig, we were just with each other all the time. Kurt and I were taking solos that didn't really have clear starts and ends. During his solo I'd be soloing, and during my solo he'd be soloing. Things were just flowing into each other without really having to talk about it at all. That was an amazing thing for me. I really learned a lot. I think there are bootlegs of that tour floating around on the Internet.

On [Invisible Cinema], I have Mike Moreno, who's one of my good friends. I've played in his band a lot and in Kendrick Scott's band with Mike. Practically everybody in New York uses Mike on guitar. We've got a very, very natural shared language that's been developing over the past few years now. I think it's really great. Mike sounds amazing on the record. It's great playing with him live all the time, because he's very open and has a lot of different textures that he can get out of his instrument.

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.

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)




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