Pianist and composer Aaron Parks is testing his own musical boundaries. He is exploring new textures on the piano, new ensemble configurations, new melodic approaches, and expanding into new facets of his already-lush multiplicity. In a recent phone interview, Parks discussed his favorite authors and storytellers, his newest collaborators, and the sensitivity with which he approaches music today.
The Jazz Gallery: So you’re in New York now?
Aaron Parks: Yeah, I got back a couple of days ago. I was all over, but most recently I was out in California doing the Stanford workshop, that was really fun. Then I did a red-eye to get to a gig in Richmond after playing a gig with Charles Lloyd, which was a trip and a half. We did a show in Richmond with James Farm, then took the first flight out, and I’ve sort of been straight into stuff in New York! I’ve been playing gigs for most of the last few days. Some really fun ones, including a great one tonight.
TJG: What’s the hit tonight?
AP: Tonight is with Matt Brewer. He put together a really nice band, a sort of West-coast crew, with Ben Wendel, Charles Artura, and Justin Brown. I love Matt’s tunes, man. They’re so particular and beautiful.
TJG: What do you mean by ‘particular?’
AP: He has a very special approach to harmony, really beautiful voice-leading in uncommon ways that all make sense. It’s relatively common these days to have written-out voicings, rather than simple chord-changes [in the piano parts]. He gives me both: his ideas for what the chords are, and his ideas for what the voicings are. A lot of people write out voicings, but the voicings he writes out are, man, so beautiful. The other thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of his tunes are written on guitar: Most of the harmony, at least at the exposition of the melody, is flushed out via arpeggio in one form or another. Basically, a moving line where you can sustain the pedal and it spells out a harmony in a river of motion. We had a rehearsal the other day, and everyone in the band was intuitively zoning right into a nice space.
TJG: I guess that’s the power of a good composition.
AP: That’s true, the power of a good composition and the right band.
TJG: So you’re playing with a lot of people, even just in the last month, between Stanford, James Farm, Charles Lloyd. Is this the pace for you these days?
AP: It’s the way things are going this year, which I enjoy. I love playing with different people. Everyone brings out a different side. I just love figuring out what everybody’s idea of a party is, and joining it! [Laughs] I’ve been doing a bunch of things with different bands, which keeps me creatively nourished.
TJG: So, talk a little bit about “Little Big,” the project you’re bringing to The Jazz Gallery on August 21st.
AP: So this is a band where a lot of the tunes go back a long way. Basically, I put the band together with the purpose of playing these songs, a lot of which come from primarily non-jazz influences. I tried bringing them to various different projects, and it was always really cool, I’d have a good time, but there was something about it that made me say “You know, I might want to have a dedicated project for some of these songs, and get guys who, while having a grounding and history in jazz, don’t do that primarily.” The band is based around that—guys who used to be in the jazz scene in New York maybe ten or fifteen years ago, but who now are doing things with different rock bands or alternative/country artists.
The idea is to get people who love playing songs. The improvisation element is an important part, but I want to be playing the songs in a way where it feels natural and flowing and organic where things can happen. But with this project, the point is the song.
TJG: So how do you seek out musicians for that? There are plenty of folks who love a good melody, and there are plenty who can improvise, but that combination can be hard to find.
AP: It definitely can be. I tried a lot of different versions, and it ended up settling into this one. Greg Tuohey is a guitar player out of New Zealand. He’s a unique and beautiful musician. He came up around the same time as Kurt [Rosenwinkel], went to Berklee with Kurt and Mark Turner and met all those guys up there. Then he got a little burnt out on the whole improvised music thing, I’d say maybe ten years ago, or maybe the struggle of it. And, he was finding interest in other things. So he’s been touring with different bands, most recently with a guy named Joe Pug. He had come to me because he’d heard a record I did some years ago, Invisible Cinema, and he said to me “Man, this is kind of the first thing that’s made me want to play jazz again in a while.” So when I was thinking about these songs again, and writing some new ones in that vain, I said “Hey, what about that guy?” So I started getting together with him and working on the music, teaching it to him, a lot of the time by ear.
From there, we tried a few different people. The drummer, that’s one of the hardest things. You’ve gotta have someone who really grooves, but doesn’t groove in a way that’s inflexible, but rather sort of permeable. There’s a lot of guys who can really do that, but in this particular project, I was looking for more of a rock guy who also improvises. And so I ended up getting a recommendation to try Darren Beckett, a fantastic musician originally out of Ireland.
TJG: I’m familiar with him—he does a lot of production, right?
AP: He does production, he’s been working with Brandon Flowers recently, and he also did a lot of work with this band Ambulance LTD. Before that, he was working all the time as a jazz drummer in New York. And a really great one, at that: All the guys who know him give it up to him. But he got out of that scene a little while ago. He’s one of my very favorite drummers to play with, absolutely.
We actually recorded some stuff last May, which I’m still in the process of mixing and trying to get it right. For the record we used one of my favorite bassists, a guy from Denmark named Anders Christensen. That was great, but being in Denmark, he’s not able to just fly over for a couple of gigs. So, I’ve had the chance to play a bit with another ‘A.C.,’ Adam Chilenski, who will be doing this gig on electric bass. He’s another great bassist, who got on my radar originally from RJ Miller. Most recently I was listening to RJ Miller’s record Ronald’s Rhythm where Adam’s playing bass. Adam fits the same profile: Touring a lot with different rock bands, while also coming from a background in this music.
TJG: And he’s playing electric bass?
AP: Yeah, that was a funny thing that we came across in the process of recording. When we were recording with Anders Christensen, he came over from Copenhagen, and borrowed some [acoustic] basses from Ben Street. But at that time of year, the weather was changing so much, and the basses were sort of creaking and acting kind of finicky, buzzing a lot. So we ended up recording the whole record with acoustic bass, and then listening to some of this stuff and realizing that this was kind of a big problem. And then, we were recording at this studio near to where I live, Brooklyn Recording. The guy who owns that studio, Andy Taub, is a beautiful human and crazy person, and has a large, sprawling collection of instruments of every sort, everything that you could imagine. It’s spread all over the lobby, including a lot of great guitars and synths, as well as great instruments that I don’t even know what they’re called. In that collection there were a bunch of electric basses. We checked out a bunch of them, and he ended up settling on a Hofner bass, the kind of Paul McCartney ‘Beatles bass.’
TJG: I know that bass, it has a big warm sound, right?
AP: Totally. It’s a semi-acoustic sort of vibe. Once we started recording with that, all the music just came together in a whole other way. I was like “Oh man, I never realized that this just needs electric bass.” Of course it does. These are little rock songs.
TJG: Do those moments ever give you pause and make you say “Hm, I wonder what else I’m not thinking of?”
AP: Well yes, it does make me wonder that, but at the same time, it doesn’t necessarily make me stop. When I notice those things I’m like “Oh, that’s interesting, I’m glad that I noticed that.” And then I’ll keep going [laughs].
TJG: So it’ll be those three guys, plus you on piano. How would you describe your current relationship with the piano?
AP: Let’s see. That’s a hard thing to say. It’s constantly changing. Right now, I’m interested in the piano as an instrument a bit more than I ever have been in my life. I’m practicing more, and working on things a bit more ‘pianistically,’ which isn’t really the kind of thing that Little Big is necessarily about. It’s something I’m mostly working on myself. Piano in the past has mostly been the instrument that I happen to play. Right now, I’m really finding myself drawn to trying to understand density and touch, a lot of different elements. I’m trying to have a left hand that’s awake and aware, that’s supporting. I think that for a long time, I had in general a more linear approach. Right now, I’m finding myself a lot more interested in rhythm and texture. That’s inspired by the music I listen to, as well as my contemporaries, notably David Virelles, who played at the Gallery last week. I would say that when he came to New York, he gave everyone a shot in the arm, gave New York piano something it needed. I’ve found myself really inspired to seek out new textures and colors.
TJG: So, as a composer who uses the piano as both a performance and a compositional tool, in what ways does the piano enable you as a composer, and in what ways does it limit you?
AP: I’m not sure. I feel like yes, it does limit me in a certain way, in that most of the songs that I write, I write them at the piano without writing anything down until it’s done. Most of the time, there are exceptions to that rule, and there will be something I compose with the assistance of little keyboards and multi-tracking to build up different parts, but the majority of my pieces I sort of just keep on chewing them over until they define themselves. When they’ve revealed whatever seems like their inner-most essence, I’ll notate them and orchestrate it however seems fitting. A lot of it is, or can be, self-contained on the piano. A lot of the pieces with this band, and with others, can work almost as solo piano pieces, or piano and drums. The ‘drum beat’ is so important, even if I can’t play it, I’m almost always vocalizing it at the piano, I almost can’t even help that now. It’s a subconscious thing. But I love colors, and I love having different people’s perspectives that they bring to the music.
So, about this band Little Big, one of the things that I’m also thinking about is that this is the way that it started, with these people in the quartet formation. But one of the things that I’m starting to realize about it, and I haven’t really done it yet, is that it’s starting to feel more like an idea than a band. I feel like I can expand it or subtract from it in different ways. It’s just built around these songs. I could bring in a few horn players, or people playing additional synthesizers in different circumstances.
TJG: So what’s the idea?
AP: The idea is the songs. The whole thing is just songs, man. It’s a band for songs. It’s kind of simple, but that’s pretty much what it is for me right now.
TJG: That’s beautiful—is this a similar kind of approach that you were taking, from a more improvisational view, when you were recording Arborescence (ECM Records 2013)?
AP: That was definitely a much more improvisational—almost entirely so—approach.
TJG: Could you talk a little about the improvisational head-space you were in while recording the album?
AP: Mostly I was just interfacing with the piano and the acoustics of the room, which was pretty magnificent. It’s a beautiful thing to not have to wear headphones in a studio, to just play a note and have it feel like it means more than just a black key or a white key. So I was definitely lingering over things slowly, letting them evolve however they wanted to. I think some of the time, there were some pieces that felt more actively cathartic, with more emotional release, where some of them were more playful. It felt like different moods… I don’t really know how to talk about it. I just went in and played a whole bunch, and we listened back. I played those improvised pieces, which made up a majority of the album, and I played a bunch of compositions and standards as well. It just ended up being that those totally improvised things were the ones that felt most alive, somehow.
TJG: “Homestead” is one of my favorites. It feels so wandering and songful, and so composed.
AP: There are two pieces on the record which have composed material, at least for parts. One is “Homestead,” the beginning of that piece is something I wrote maybe twelve years ago, just a little chorale. And the other one is “Elsewhere.” Both of those started with composed material, and then went on without a plan—it’s not like I just played over the changes. I just went somewhere else.
TJG: Do you have a consistent approach to writing melodies?
AP: Not really. Every song emerges in its own little way. Some of the time it starts harmonically, sometimes it starts rhythmically, sometimes it starts with a little left-hand figure repeated in one way or another, sometimes an arpeggio inspired by [Matt] Brewer. I don’t know exactly how they happen, I wish I had a better answer [laughs]. I’ve got different processes, but there’s no consistent way that I approach sitting down and composing. It’s more like “Okay, here’s something I just stumbled upon. Let’s try to build it into something.”
TJG: I’m curious about how you approach non-musical sources of inspiration. How do you translate inspiration from non-musical sources into notes, phrases, the stuff of music?
AP: I feel like that definitely happens, but I don’t think that I do it so much consciously or explicitly. I read a lot of poetry, books, science, different things. But for me, music is music. I’m not trying to exactly say something from another art form or source of inspiration through music, at least not explicitly. I just want the music to exist as its own thing. It’s a good question and I’m not quite sure how to answer it… When it comes to fiction, movies and film, the things that influence my writing are attention to detail, and overarching narrative structure: Having a sense of storytelling as well as paying attention to the small details of the syntax of sentences or the way things are framed. That’s one example of how things from outside of music influence me in a concrete way.
TJG: What’s on your bookshelf these days?
AP: Let’s see. I recently devoured James Baldwin’s Another Country. Incredible. So deep on so many levels. Psychological observation of how human beings work; racial relations; sexuality; as well as some of the most delicious prose that you’ll ever encounter. I’ve been reading a book of essays by Jane Hirshfield, one of my favorite American poets. There’s a book of hers called Nine Gates which is one of my favorites, and she recently published another book of essays entitled Ten Windows. I just finished Niels Lyhne by Jens Peter Jacobsen, a Danish poet and author. I’d read it a while ago. It’s a pretty incredible book, about life and the hazards of idealized love. I’d first heard about it in Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. In one of those letters, [Rilke] speaks of the books he always has at hand: The Bible, and this book. And I said “Wow, I’ve got to figure out what this thing is.” So I just read it again, it’s pretty brutal, and beautiful.
I read a collection of poems by this Portuguese author Frenando Pessoa who wrote under close to seventy pseudonyms or heteronyms. I’m learning about him in the course of reading this book. He was as much a constructor of different personalities and personas as he was of poems. He made up these elaborate stories for each of the different characters that he wrote as, and they criticized each other’s novels and poems, it’s a pretty crazy thing! It’s interesting to see someone exploring their own multiplicity and contradictions, the way they assume different forms.
TJG: There seem to be plenty of parallels between Pessoa and the current state of your career, in terms of the projects on your plate, the artists you’re performing with…
AP: Totally. You know, right now, I’ve only got one rule, which is to pay attention, when I can. As life goes by, in whatever circumstances I find myself in, pay attention to what’s going on, and try to join it, or engage with it or observe it, or whatever it might be, but pay attention most of all. Speaking of other books, there’s some Chögyam Trungpa, Osho, George Gurdjieff, a bunch of “spiritual” writers. I don’t like that word, “spiritual,” as if there’s some stuff that is and some stuff that isn’t. My whole thing is “My god, anything exists! That’s crazy!” [Laughs].
TJG: I’ve forgotten exactly where the quote is from, I think it may be in the introduction to Lewis Thomas’s Lives of a Cell. But there’s a passage somewhere about how it’s incredible that each of us, at any given moment, isn’t completely astonished that we exist.
AP: [Laughs] Exactly! It’s easy to forget and grow accustomed to it, because it’s what our entire experience is. Our entire experience is perception, so we can get used to the fact that anything exists because we see it every day. For me, right now, I’m enjoying doing many different things, celebrating different creative outlets, the different relationship that we have in life.
TJG: You mentioned that you have this one album that you’re editing. Any other projects in the pipeline?
AP: I’ve got a handful. I’m doing a tour with Ben Street and Billy Hart in October in the UK. I’ve got some repertoire that’s specifically written for and adapted for that band. I’d really like to get a chance to document that and see what we find. I’m actually not a huge fan of piano trios in general, but there are two trios that I’m interested in right now. There’s that, and also playing standards, or something resembling standards, with Thomas Morgan and Tyshawn Sorey.
TJG: In these Jazz Gallery interviews, invariably someone always mentions Tyshawn Sorey.
AP: Yep. He’s everywhere, man. He’s one of those beautiful chameleons, able to adapt while still being himself in whatever circumstance he finds himself in. It was about a year ago that that trio played together in Copenhagen for the first time. We just had a blast, man. It was just so intuitively beautiful, going in and out of playing free, into songs… Tyshawn finds himself doing a lot of different things, but not so often playing standards, I think. And Thomas is one of my favorite musicians as well, way up there with one of my favorite melodic soloists. His solos are one of my favorite things. The combination of them together, and they have a lot of history playing together as well, is a very natural intuition. I hope we get a chance to do something with that.
I have dreams of playing with Tom Harrell and Dayna Stephens in some way together. I have a bunch of different ideas. There are so many people who I connect with and love playing with. I sort of just want to find the right music to play with everybody.
TJG: Is there anything you’d like to add about the upcoming show at The Gallery?
AP: Not really. We’ll be playing songs. If you come expecting a lot of shredding, you’ll be at the wrong place [laughs]. I want to make it feel good, and hopefully we make people want to dance as well.
Aaron Parks’s Little Big performs at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, August 21st, and Saturday, August 22nd, 2015. The group features Mr. Parks on piano, Greg Tuohey on guitar, Adam Chilenski on bass, and Darren Beckett on drums. Sets are 8 and 10 p.m. each night. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Free with SummerPass. Purchase tickets here.