To the audience of The Jazz Gallery, pianist Aaron Parks needs no introduction—he’s performed on our stage numerous times and received a commission for The Jazz Gallery Composers’ Series in 2007. He’s one of the most well-traveled young pianists in jazz, having toured and recorded with trumpeter Terence Blanchard as well as the group James Farm, which is includes saxophonist Joshua Redman, bassist Matt Penman, and drummer Eric Harland. His 2008 Blue Note Records début Invisible Cinema was released to international acclaim.
On Parks’s new album Arborescence (ECM), however, the pianist moves in a new direction. Instead of working with a rhythm section in a tightly-controlled studio environment, Parks plays unaccompanied in a warm, reverberant hall. And, while Parks’s previous releases have been an outlet for his compositional acumen, almost all of the music on this album was improvised on the spot.
We caught up with Aaron by phone to talk about how the album came about, his improvisational process, and what listeners can expect at his performance at the Gallery this Friday, October 18th.
The Jazz Gallery: Why a solo album?
Aaron Parks: Honestly, the funny thing about this recording is that it wasn’t something that I would say I thought out at all. The record came about through a friendship that I have with the producer of the record, whose name is Sun Chung. He heard me playing solo piano before in various contexts and suggested that he was interested in trying to make some solo piano recordings and seeing what happens.
We did that a little bit here in the city, in a sort of cheap studio, and then he did some research and found this beautiful hall: Mechanic’s Hall [in Worcester, Massachusetts]. At the time we decided to do this, we had no connection with ECM, and we weren’t really sure what we were going to do with it. We were going to make it, and then maybe Sun was going to put it out himself. It was some months later that Sun ended up getting a job at ECM, and he brought his catalog and played some of it for Manfred [Eicher, head of ECM Records], and Manfred was open to the idea of putting it out.
AP: I really don’t know! I feel like all those albums that you mentioned, they’re all so… canonical. There are so many canonical works in their catalog. But so many of them are really different as well, like Craig’s record from a couple of years ago is definitely a departure. I feel it’s a lucky home for us to have and I hear the sound of the album really fitting with a lot of the ECM aesthetic, both sonically and what the performances ended up sounding like—especially in their more spacious and/or patient nature.
TJG: How does the space that you’re in affect how you play, and how did this particular space contribute to what the record ended up being?
AP: For me, I know for a fact that if I set out to make an improvised solo piano record—which, by the way, wasn’t what this was intended to be—the music that would have emerged probably would have been very different. There’s something about the acoustics of that room that’s very particular and, a lot of the time, made it so I could play two to three notes instead of seven or eight and still feel a sense of fullness.
That hall has been sampled a number of times for its reverb, so there’s a lot of [digital] reverbs available on the market that have a “Mechanic’s Hall” setting on them, so to be in that place itself and experience the sound of the piano in that room—it of course had a huge impact.
While I was up there—I was up there for a couple of days—I also recorded some standards and some originals and some other things that did not make it onto this album. I even recorded some of The Well-Tempered Clavier just to warm up, but what I found was that in that space, the things that were really coming to life were the things that were totally improvised—me responding to the piano and that room. A lot of the time, things needed a lot more space.
TJG: It sounds like you came into the room with an agenda, but then the room made other plans…
AP: Well, I came in with no agenda but with a lot of ideas, and the room narrowed them down.
TJG: Going back to how you recorded some of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier during the session, is there other classical keyboard literature that has informed your approach, even when improvising?
AP: Of course everything that I listen to gets filtered in, gets integrated into what I do. There’s definitely some Debussy, there’s definitely Bach; some Messiaen, Feldman… But aside from slowly making my way through a few of the preludes from The Well-Tempered Clavier—and really much much more slowly trying to make it through the first prelude in the Debussy book of preludes—I didn’t have any classical training growing up. I came up and I played classical bassoon and I learned to read bass clef, but for whatever reason, my relationship with the piano was always one of improvisation and engagement with—for lack of a better word—jazz. I didn’t even learn to read treble clef until some years later, which meant when I first had the gig with Terence Blanchard’s band and we started recording some film scores, I was counting ledger lines and writing the names of notes above it once the pieces were written out. It was kind of terrifying.
TJG: Speaking of Terence Blanchard and doing film scores, you’ve shown an interest in creating imagery with your music, like on your last album, Invisible Cinema. When you’re doing a free improvisation, are you just responding to the sound that you’re making or are you consciously trying to paint a musical picture?
AP: I’d say definitely sometimes I’m imagining a sense of narrative, but not in a spelled out “then this happened to the main character and then he fell down the stairs” way (that was a really terrible story, by the way!). But there is internal song narrative that I think about.
Regarding colors and visualizations and images—that would sure be interesting if that was what I did. I would enjoy that. But no, I don’t do that. I don’t know exactly what it is. When I’m fully connected, it’s like there’s nothing. It’s not images or colors or even the music. It’s a full immersion.
TJG: Bill Frisell talks about the feeling of his solo improvisations in a similar way – when he’s at his best, he’s not thinking anymore.
AP: Yeah, not thinking at all and just going with it. Sort of experiencing emotions, but not really naming them and putting them into the music. Discovering little melodic motifs or harmonic themes and working with that in a semiconscious way.
When I listen to music, I tend to think very imagistically or metaphorically, whether I’m listening to someone else’s music or to my own tracks. I like the way that certain non-technical words can help create an opening to an experience of certain aspects of sound.
TJG: Going back to the recording session, did the completely improvised pieces have a stronger sense of imagery than the other pieces?
AP: I don’t know. You could say “yes.” I’d say that they felt alive in some way. Not saying that since they were improvised they were more pure and alive—there were all sorts of other improvisations that didn’t feel that alive. But these ones that we ended up choosing, each of them had some sort of core and they fit together as a piece. There’s variation throughout the album and there are definitely some different moods, but the shading sort of lived within the same world, which is something I rather like. Hopefully, it’s a record where you can discover some new detail with intense listening, or you can just put it on in the background and let it add to the architecture of the room.
TJG: One last question: since this is an album of improvisations, what can the listeners at The Jazz Gallery expect to hear at the show this week?
AP: I don’t know, yet! The fact of the matter is that I haven’t done that many solo piano concerts in my life and I’m learning by doing, in this case. I wouldn’t say that I’m holding myself to the idea of doing a full improvised concert. I’ll probably do a substantial portion like that, but I also just like songs too much not to play songs. But maybe I won’t. I don’t really know, yet. Right now, I don’t have any agenda.
Maybe I’ll start playing and it turns into an improvised suite of music; maybe for the second set, I’ll play four standards in a row.
That’s the interesting thing about making a totally improvised album. There’s no way I’m going to ever go up and play the album; I can’t tour the album. All I can do is play solo piano and see what happens. I’m intrigued and slightly terrified by the whole thing. I’m looking forward to it.
Aaron Parks performs solo at The Jazz Gallery this Friday, October 18th. Sets at 9 and 10:30 p.m., $20 general admission and $10 for Members. Purchase tickets here.