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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by James Francies

Photo by James Francies

Pianist Aaron Parks is a bit of a throwback to an earlier era of jazz musician who came of age on the bandstand. At age 19, Parks was touring and recording with trumpeter Terence Blanchard, as well as playing with top young musicians in New York like Lionel Loueke, Christian Scott, Walter Smith III, and many others. Now with albums released on Blue Note, ECM, and Nonesuch (as a member of the supergroup James Farm) under his belt, Parks is an established leader and a pianist whose influence is widely felt throughout the world jazz scene.

As a participant in The Jazz Gallery’s ongoing Mentorship Series, Parks now has the opportunity to pass the lessons learned on the bandstand onto a new generation of talented musicians—in this case, vibraphonist Joel Ross. This week, Parks and Ross will be performing twice in New York. On Tuesday, they will play one set at SEEDS in Brooklyn, and on Thursday, they will play two sets at the Gallery. We at Jazz Speaks caught up with Aaron this weekend, ostensibly to talk about working with Joel, but ended up engaged in a deep and discursive conversation about the nature of learning music, particularly at a time where influences can come from all sides of the globe.

The Jazz Gallery: How you would describe your overall approach to planning these concerts with Joel?

Aaron Parks: I’ve definitely been very excited about it. There are so many different ways that it could have been done. But one of the best ways that I was mentored was just playing music by my contemporaries and some of the people who inspired me, and just being in a bunch of different bands and learning their own music. What I wanted to do was to bring Joel into that world and play music by some of my friends—like Lionel Loueke, Ambrose Akinmusire, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Dayna Stephens, Mike Moreno, John Ellis. I wanted to explore these tunes and improvisational frameworks that have been very important to me with Joel.

At the same time, I really wanted to pick tunes that were song-songs rather than really involved compositions, stuff that we could really sink our teeth into and get to know one another with. This has worked out really well in the end because we ended up not being able to get any of the same rhythm section players for multiple gigs. This has ended up being one of the highlights of the experience, since we’re playing these tunes with a bunch of different vibes coming from the bass and drums.

TJG: This approach seems to be more about the process of making small group jazz rather than creating a polished product.

AP: Absolutely. I’ve really been more interested in that than in the actual music itself. It’s more about the attitude you have and the connection you feel with the other musicians, and then how that spills over into what the music feels like and what the audience experiences as well.

Sometimes I find myself writing stuff with very specific things in mind, but for this program I didn’t want to go in that direction. I wanted to bring in songs where Joel and I get to be ourselves, and then find each other within these different circumstances.

TJG: Why have you been drawn to playing tunes by your peers, rather than say songbook standards, which are also open enough to foster that kind of communication you speak of?

AP: I love that too and it’s an equally valid approach. For me, the tunes of my peers are standards. They’re songs that have taught me a lot about harmony and songwriting, and there’s a certain shared language in them, especially the ones that I learned during my first couple of years in New York. Beyond having Joel learn these songs, I’m also excited to go back and look at them again. I don’t usually get a chance to play with the people that wrote them, and when I do, we’re usually doing new music.

TJG: You spoke earlier about that fact that every gig has a different drums and bass pair. How do you think Joel will respond to these different situations?

AP: We just had our first gig, and that was with Dezron Douglas on bass and Eric Harland on drums. The next one is going to be Ben Williams on bass and Kendrick Scott on drums, which will be really fun and very different as well. Then on the 21st it’s Thomas Morgan on bass and Eric McPherson on drums, which is only two days later and still radically different from the first two.

Joel is a special player. He’s already at a point as a player where he’s ready to adapt to many different situations. He doesn’t have that paint-by-numbers or cookie-cutter approach at all. He’s someone that I want to play with regardless of this mentorship program, but this gives me the opportunity to do it in a fun, structured way. He’s already adapting to everything, regardless of what’s happening or who’s playing in the rhythm section, and following his own inner muse as well.

I feel that in this current generation of players, like 18 to 23-year-olds, there’s something very interesting coming out of it. They’ve grown up in this age where music is all available. They have even less of concept of genre distinction than people my age had. For example, when the record I did back in 2008—Invisible Cinema—came out, people were like, “Ooo! He’s mixing different genres!” Even eight years ago, that was kind of a story. Everything is doing that now. That’s just what is happening. For a lot of these younger guys, music is music, and they’re able to make connections between seemingly disparate things.

I was having a conversation with Rio Sakairi [The Jazz Gallery’s artistic director] the other day, and although there’s nothing new in music per se, in the same way, the materials that are used to build skyscrapers and computer chips were all here on planet earth from the beginning. We just figured out new ways to combine them that made certain technological things possible. So in that way, I think some of these younger guys are combining old materials in ways that we haven’t heard before.

TJG: On the flip side, does all of this free recombining of varied styles of music make the music unrooted in tradition? The music can be novel and interesting in theory, but not executed convincingly.

AP: There are different approaches to this question. I think that going deep into any particular thing can be very important. Throughout my musical life, my thinking about it has changed many times. I think that process has to happen in a certain way for everyone. You find something that you love and you learn the rules of it. Then you go through a process of rejecting those rules and doing your own thing, and then you realize neither one of those ways is the real answer.

I think the philosopher Nietzsche put it something like this: you’re a camel, where you learn the tradition and how things have gone. Then there’s the stage of the lion where you have to slay the dragon of tradition and expectation. Then the final stage is that of the child, where you can see things as they are and make true personal decisions, whether they are seemingly new, or something that may have been done before. It’s like going by sense of smell, in a certain way.

I do want to hear groundedness in somebody’s music. But I don’t have a definition of what language that needs to be. I definitely hear groundedness in people’s music who haven’t necessarily studied a certain tradition or system of thought. They’ve found their music by committing to their sense of what the ground is.

I think it can be a confusing time because you have all this music in circulation, but it’s the same dilemma that we’ve always had. We’ve always had a lot of information coming at us from different directions. It’s just more accessible now. I think the biggest pitfall is that you can end up being a bit of dilettante, just doing a little bit of lots of different things.

I think cooking can be a good metaphor for that idea. Someone could really love Indian food and French food and food from Suriname. They could go to these restaurants and know that the food has turmeric and cumin and butter involved. But that person hasn’t actually studied any cooking techniques, and then the person just throws things into a pot at home, expecting it to be tasty. In a lot of ways, that stuff just isn’t going to work. There’s a science to cooking and mechanisms that make things taste a certain way. The same with music—there are mechanisms that make a certain kind of music feel right and authentically grounded.

TJG: The jazz critic Ben Ratliff has a new book that talks about how to have a unified way of listening to all the varieties of accessible music now. He talks a lot about listening to what we could call physical characteristics of music, like repetition or slowness or density and seeing how they play across music from different traditions. Can focusing in on these physical characteristics create groundedness?

AP: As a listener and as a performer, the first questions I think of are, “Where are we? What’s happening right now? What just happened? And what’s going to happen next?” Certainly a lot of thought goes into what kind of music you learn, what your taste is, and so on, but when it comes time to actually make the music, I don’t think you’re really actively thinking about those things, at least not in a conscious way. Ideally, I think, we improvisers are surrendering ourselves to the moment and asking ourselves to respond authentically, whatever that means to us. For me then, questions of language and tradition and knowing how to play this versus how to play that, can be answered both yes and no. There’s no right answer of how to respond musically in a certain situation.

TJG: Like it’s as if your musical response to a situation can come from your study of a certain tradition, but also can come from the development of a very personal musical system, like the processes through which Steve Coleman or Henry Threadgill improvise.

AP: There’s so many ways of thinking about this problem! Another way could be actively deciding to not adopt any system and act completely on intuition. Then when something comes out that sounds kind of familiar, you can decide to not run away from it. Maybe you don’t need to avoid the obvious.

For me, I feel my system has been to listen to a ton of music, play with a ton of people, and then really play by ear. I’m not as drawn to working with systems, but it’s not a question of right or wrong, it’s just how I’ve come to learn about how I process music.

But, if you asked me this question two years ago, I would have had a different answer about my process. At the time, I was learning a ton of standards, I was working on harmony in a much more traditional way. It’s constantly evolving.

However, the basic thing is the same for me. No matter what I’m studying, no matter what kind of system I’m working through, I am accepting or rejecting, creating or subverting. At the end, the thing that I’m most interested in is whether I’m connected in the moment of playing music. I want to be doing something that makes me feel like I’m present with heart, body, and mind, rather than something that is mechanical. All of these systems are ways of challenging myself a keeping myself from falling back asleep.

In that regard, this whole idea of accepting or rejecting a certain system or tradition doesn’t really matter, which is why I can get confused about it! They’re all temporary perspectives that I can have, and that burn away in the moment of music-making. Ideally.

TJG: This idea of perspectives “burning away” reminds me a bit of how Bill Frisell talks about his mindset during improvisation. For him, the best times happen when doesn’t feel like he’s thinking while playing, that his mind feels blank.

AP: Yeah. In the moment, there’s some thinking that’s happening, but my ideal state is when the mind feels clear, the body feels relaxed, and I feel engaged with what’s happening. The thing I’m most concerned with is playing something that feels attentive and present. That’s more important than knowing how to do a certain musical thing, or do something impressive. I feel that’s something that makes a good classical performer as well—a sense of embodiment. It’s easy to forget about that when it comes to improvised music, because it’s easy to get caught up in the information.

TJG: To bring us back toward your current mentorship project, how do go about communicating this ideal state of mind to Joel? Do you have to say anything? Is it just through how you play on the bandstand?

AP: A little bit of both. I think mostly the idea is communicating through action whenever possible. There are moments where, maybe due to his youth, Joel wants to be involved with everything that’s happening musically. And this was a thing for me as well when I was younger. I would be trying to accompany, but the accompaniment would be taking a lot of the attention away from what anybody else was doing. The big thing is finding ways to allow yourself to surrender, to play not what you think is cool, but what is needed. Frisell is definitely a master of that. Duke Ellington as a pianist.

For the most part, I really don’t want to talk too much. When I was coming up, my mentors didn’t talk to me that much, and when we talked, it was something really simple, quick, and to the point. That’s the kind of thing that makes more an impression.

Aaron Parks and Joel Ross perform Tuesday, April 19th at SEEDS and Thursday, April 21st at The Jazz Gallery. Sets are at 9 P.M. on Tuesday and 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. on Thursday. The pair will be joined on Tuesday by John Ellis on saxophone, Ben Williams on bass, and Kendrick Scott on drums. They will be joined on Thursday by Ellis, Thomas Morgan on bass, and Eric McPherson on drums. $10 general admission for Tuesday, $15 general admission (FREE for members) for each Thursday set. Purchase tickets here.