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.