Aaron Parks: Structured Freedom

Jason Crane By

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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.


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