[I've been writing for Jazziz since 2002 or so, but this is my first cover story for them. I think it turned out pretty well.]
WOUND AND UNBOUND
Pianist Aaron Parks brings an alt-rock attitude to his Blue Note debut.
Aaron Parks’ long blond hair falls around his face, framing startlingly blue, long-lashed eyes. The nails of his sandaled feet are painted alternately turquoise and pumpkin-orange. It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon, and Parks’ debut disc as a leader, Invisible Cinema (Blue Note), has already been out for two days, but the Virgin Megastore in Union Square isn’t stocking it yet. If the pianist is disappointed, it doesn’t show. We retire to a park bench across the street, attempting to make ourselves heard over passing trucks and the supplications of the homeless.
Parks’ fingers wind around each other restlessly as he talks. He pops his knuckles, bending the joints back and forth like a fighter preparing to be taped up. But the 24-year-old doesn’t possess a fighter’s aggressive demeanor. Instead he comes across as a genial hipster, a transplant from Seattle who now lives in Brooklyn. His conversation reveals the restless, questing mind of the boy he was not so long ago – a boy who, at the age of 14, left high school through an early-entrance college program to enroll as a triple-major (math, computer science and music) at the University of Washington.
At 16, Parks transferred to the Manhattan School of Music. During his final year of studies there, he began touring with Terence Blanchard. Subsequently, he appeared on three of the trumpeter’s albums – Flow, Bounce and A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina) – as well as on the soundtracks to the Spike Lee films Inside Man, She Hate Me and When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. He continued touring with Blanchard for five years before partnering with guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel.
“I really, really love the sound of guitar and piano in unison,” Parks says. “There’s this certain thing that happens when you meld those two instruments together, and it can create a third – in the same way that saxophone and trumpet sometimes meld into one instrument. I’m really addicted to that sound. It makes the melodies able to sing a bit more than a piano trio might be able to on a song. Plus, it gives this extra level of intensity you can build up to. You can get to a certain point with a piano trio, but then having another instrument that you can elevate beyond it, that’s one of the things I really love.”
Along with guitarist Lionel Loueke, Parks was a driving force in Blanchard’s band, and the trumpeter recalls his former pianist fondly. “Aaron always brought freshness through his compositions, unique writing, and use of different vehicles,” Blanchard says. “His playing has developed over time, and he has his own touch and unique sound, with a distinctive harmonic and rhythmic approach to music. I have no doubt about Aaron as a leader. He has vision and is creative. He's been on a path of personal growth for years, even as a young musician.”
That vision is apparent from the first chords of Invisible Cinema. “Travelers” kicks off the album with an intricate rhythm reminiscent of the programmed drum patterns on Radiohead’s Kid A. Parks’ right hand pounds the music forward, as his left dances with an agility that’s reminiscent of McCoy Tyner. But it’s the disc’s third cut, “Nemesis,” that serves as a sort of manifesto and as a microcosm of the whole album. Its combination of groove and grandeur defines Parks as both a musician and composer. He laughs when I compare the song’s melancholy opening figure to the current theme music for the TV series Battlestar Galactica, which he hasn’t heard.
“A lot of my melodies have that thing where they could almost be battle anthems,” he says. “I go for that. I’m drawn toward the archetypal, toward the big sweeping grand statements.” Mike Moreno’s electric guitar also contributes considerably to the piece’s impact. His strings of notes aren’t especially jazzy. Rather, they’re bluesy and loud, with a barbed twang somewhere between Larry Coryell and Lonnie Mack.
Parks enjoys employing odd time signatures – as long as he can sneak them under the listener’s radar. “People aren’t talking about the fact that almost every song is in an odd meter,” he says with a grin. “They don’t notice. But ‘Travelers,’ that’s in 15/4. The solo section in ‘Peaceful Warrior’ is in 9/4 for most of it…I love odd meters, but I love them when they happen organically, where you don’t even need to think about, ‘Oh, this is a weird meter.’ It just feels right.”
For this reason, Parks frequently leaves the most intense playing to his bandmates, whether it’s Moreno on guitar or hard-rocking Eric Harland on drums. “I’m much more in a role of trying to create subtlety in contrast to what the guitar is doing,” he explains. “That’s what I set out to do. But live, the music opens up and growls and becomes gigantic and angry. And the tunes become like rock anthems.”
Parks, though, is after a particular kind of fury, one that has more in common with King Crimson’s austerity than with, say, Metallica’s cataclysmic roar. And he’s no fan of grandstanding jazz players. “Discipline – that’s a huge concept,” he says. “And that’s something that is lacking in the current jazz culture. Everyone wants to be a showman, everyone wants to get house – take the long solo, build up to the climax, the crowd goes wild. They’re trying to be rock stars as jazz musicians. But I’m more interested in bringing the feeling of a rock concert without doing a showboating rock star-style solo. I think the music can take you there without having to be so singled out as an individual.”
Aaron Parks has made a jazz record that sounds a lot like an alternative-rock record. Clearly, jazz as it’s been largely understood for more than 70 years – acoustic instruments, blues-based swing, tunes from long-forgotten Broadway shows – doesn’t mean much to him. He posts poems and sketches on his MySpace page; he’s as fascinated by Brian Eno’s Ambient IV: On Land as by Wayne Shorter’s discography; and he understands in a way few musicians older than 40 can that the imperative to “make jazz relevant” doesn’t mean – can never mean – returning it to its pre-rock and roll status in American culture.
“The jazz tradition is about incorporating popular culture, all the time,” he explains. “Those show tunes, those were pop tunes at the time. But [musicians have] continued to record them for 50 years, and as a result jazz has stopped being a music that people identify with because it’s not reflecting what’s going on in the culture. People are stuck in the past. You can really love and respect the past, and try to study it and understand it, and that’s great. But I don’t think trying to duplicate it is a very good idea.”
This logic would seem to put Parks at odds with many of his predecessors, but in line with many of his peers. “In a sense, I would say that for a long time we were going through the ‘Wynton generation,’” he says. “I don’t think we’re there anymore. I think Brad Mehldau has assumed the forefront, in a sense, in terms of what the young musicians are paying attention to, who their role models are – a certain type of openness to other forms of music. And that’s shaped – and is shaping – a new culture of jazz, which I think is a good thing. And the media and the record labels and all those different things are finally starting to come around to this.”
Terence Blanchard agrees, saying, “Aaron is part of a movement of younger musicians who have a unique approach to music based on their cultural upbringing. He has grown up in different times from us, which ensures us that his approach will be and should be different than ours.”
“One of the things that I give thanks for is that I didn’t jump into leadership,” Parks says. “It was possible. I’ve been talking to Blue Note since I was 16 or 17 about doing things. But I wasn’t ready then and I knew it. And with my apprenticeship in Terence’s band for five years and in Kurt’s band for the last two years, I learned so much. Without those experiences, I would have never been able to make a record that I can stand behind, like I did with this one. It would have been a record of some standards, with some haphazardly chosen originals – just the new young guy who’s got some technique and whatever. But to me, that’s a pretty boring story. It’s been told over and over, and it’s not interesting anymore.”
“The whole young lions thing, I mean, that formula should have died in the ’80s, and I think it really did die as far as listeners are concerned,” he continues. “They’re not interested in that anymore. But that’s the thing that’s worked in the past, and everybody’s reluctant to abandon it. So everybody’s still looking for the next hot young thing.”