When three professional jazz musicians, composers, and friends in New York get together to take musical risks and strengthen their voices, you end up with something like Aurelia Trio. Co-lead by Theo Walentiny on piano, Connor Parks on drums, and Nick Dunston on bass, each member provides a strong individual voice, both in the written ink and while performing. In a previous interview with the group, each member told The Jazz Gallery a bit about their perspective on what fuels the trio. The trio will return to The Jazz Gallery, with Colin Avery Hinton subbing for parks on drums. We caught up with bassist Nick Dunston about his take on the group’s growth and development, as well as his own compositional contributions to the group.
The Jazz Gallery: I’m really enjoying the last Aurelia Trio recording, and am looking forward to the next one this spring. Will the upcoming gig at The Jazz Gallery feature the trio’s original personnel?
Nick Dunston: For this gig we’ll have Colin Avery Hinton on drums instead of Connor Parks. Connor is a founding member of Aurelia, which is a complete collective, just to be clear. We all co-lead and write for the group. A conflict came up that Connor couldn’t get out of, so we called Colin Hinton. Theo met Colin at Banff, and I’ve played in a couple of his bands. We’re really excited; Colin is a great musician and composer. It’ll be good, and intense. We’ll likely feature his compositions as well.
TJG: In your previous group interview with The Gallery, you discussed how your rhythmic concept and group energy have been strong from the start, but your goals have continuously evolved. How have things changed as the group has matured?
ND: At first, we were playing “original jazz tunes” in the way a piano trio would approach them. That was our basis for becoming comfortable interacting, rhythmically and texturally. Now, we’re trying to compose in ways that give us opportunities to explore our improvisational and rhythmic comfort levels. Connor writes a lot of beautiful, simple songs that invoke a gentle attitude that we can feel free to disobey. It can be both wholesome and sarcastic, just like our normal conversations. Theo’s compositions push against the idea of the ‘piano trio’ as a piano-centric thing. He uses orchestration concepts that I think are still mostly unexplored in the context of piano trios.
TJG: Since you write with such different styles, does that put limitations on your own compositional voice? For example, “Oh, I won’t write this, that’s more something Theo would write.”
ND: I can only speak for myself. But whether we’re talking about established artists, legends who have passed, or my musical friends, they all influence me a great deal. I’m not afraid to be influenced by Theo and Connor, or anyone for that matter. Since we’re all composers in our own rights, with strong senses of self, we don’t reject the influence we get. Rather, we cherish it and make it our own, especially when writing music. I’ve never felt self-conscious that I’m ‘trespassing’ on someone else’s compositional style. When you have a compositional voice, your music is never really going to sound like someone else. For example, I mentioned that Connor writes more song-type compositions. I have a tune called “Motian Sickness” with a simple, singable melody, kind of folksy in a way. On paper, it’s pretty similar to how Connor writes for this group. But every time we’ve played the tune, it sounds nothing like how Connor’s music is ever performed. We’re great friends, so we’re naturally going to have things in common, but we’re all very independent, and we respect each other for the differences we have.
TJG: Regarding that ever-so-slippery balance between composition and improvisation, how notated and premeditated does your music tend to be?
ND: I believe that some of the most interesting improvisations happen under the most specific constraints. I study classical composition privately with Missy Mazzoli, so I’ve gotten used to having a position on everything that I write. In the trio, we vary in terms of how specific we want our compositions to be interpreted, but we’re writing for each others’ skills, and there’s so much we don’t have to say. We’re all open to the music being played differently every single time, and have the trust to support it. I’m probably the most compositionally specific of the three of us, regarding details and “instructions,” so to speak. But we’re open to surprising each other [laughs].
TJG: What’s an example of one of your pieces that had specific rules at the outset, but has changed over time?
ND: I have a piece called “Dunsterlude,” it’s short, kind of ballad-like, with a short melody and a countermelody. I wrote it a few years ago as part of a suite. At this point, I don’t think of it as my own composition anymore, because ever since we recorded it, it’s always new, and it’s always refreshing. By playing it a lot, we’ve exposed and explored parts of our improvisations that we might not have without this framework that once was very specific. It was initially kind of a kind-of-straight-eighths feel, softcore, brushes, you know. Like stratus clouds, low and floating. Now, Connor will change the feel or the underlying rhythms, which is tongue-in-cheek but also sounds great. We have a relationship where playfulness is so essential to our rapport. The trust is there, and I’m down with wherever it goes.
TJG: You spoke earlier about orchestration in the realm of the trio: Are there any trios that you guys use as models, that really inspire and influence you, especially regarding orchestration?
ND: We’ve individually all spent a lot of time with the recording of Keith Jarrett Trio Hamburg ’72 with Paul Motian and Charlie Haden. It’s obviously Keith’s group, but there’s so much sonic space on that record for each of the musicians. You can zone in on each instrument and have a clear idea of what they’re doing, but they’re not necessarily playing less to leave space for each other. They’re supporting each other and checking in on each other, except for when they’re not, and that’s cool too. There’s a huge cohesion, regardless of what they’re doing. There’s one part where Motian plays auxiliary percussion while Jarrett plays soprano sax. Anything. They’re turning the idea of being a “piano-centric” trio inside out. The actual sound of the piano takes on different shapes depending on how they approach it. It goes beyond “the piano is the bandleader, and the rhythm section is playing in service of the bandleader.” If you were to separate them and add up all the parts, it would be so convoluted. But when you look at their orchestration in sum, it doesn’t feel dense or confused. That’s a huge inspiration to us.
TJG: I imagine that thinking about texture and space, Tyshawn Sorey must be a big influence. Connor mentioned Tyshawn was a big personal influence in the last interview as well. You’ve been playing a lot with Tyshawn these days: What about playing with him do you bring with you to the Aurelia trio?
ND: I first played with Tyshawn while studying with him at The New School a few years ago. We met again at Banff, and this past September was my first professional private work with him. He’s one of my heroes, so I was surprised at how comfortable I felt at the first gig we played together. I was simply in awe at his musicality, but I felt a big sense of his trust in me as a musician, and that empowered me to let go of any insecurities I might have had. I just did my thing, took care of business. That reinforcement, that trust from Tyshawn, along with how he’s completely redoing the piano trio in a new way, is giving me a lot of emotional energy. That’s given me a maturity that can I bring to Aurelia as well. Tyshawn really appreciates hiring musicians who are composers, who thinking on their own terms, and when you get independent improvising composers together, it always leads to cool new music. That’s been a big lesson for Auralia as well.
TJG: You’re a super busy guy. With such a busy schedule, what does Aurelia Trio personally do for you?
ND: It feels like home, really. Our connection is always there. When I’m going through some serious depression, I don’t have to be concerned about it negatively affecting the music, because the emotional support that these guys bring is always there, on and off the stage. It’s a constant in a way that it’s a safe space where we can always try new stuff. There’s always enthusiasm, and we can incubate as artists and really work things out. It’s important. We need more bands, because that’s where growth really happens. That kind of incubation isn’t too common anymore.
Aurelia Trio plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, February 15, 2018. The group features Theo Walentiny on piano, Nick Dunston on bass, and Colin Hinton on drums/percussion. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.