The members of Aurelia Trio—pianist Theo Walentiny, bassist Nick Dunston, and drummer Connor Parks—met during their first year studying at the New School and quickly formed a tight musical bond. Out of their diverse backgrounds and musical interests, they have begun to forge a distinct and individual sound. Last year, they self-released an eponymous debut record, which you can check out below.
This Thursday, September 21st, Aurelia Trio will make their debut at The jazz Gallery, playing original compositions by all three members of the band. We sat down with the trio to talk about their origins and their constantly-evolving musical rapport.
The Jazz Gallery: How did the Aurelia Trio form?
Theo Walentiny: At the end of my first year I started an octet out of which this band formed—it’s kind of funny, that band has a lot of bands within it. There’s a quartet with a guitarist in it and us as well.
TJG: Has the concept for the band remained consistent since the beginning?
Connor Parks: It’s evolved but some things have remained consistent, especially the way that we deal with time and rhythm. We really had a rhythmic consensus from the beginning. That feeling is the same, the connection is the same. But the kinds of aesthetics and the various types of music that everyone writes and wants to play has evolved over time.
TJG: The first track of your EP, Blue Air, seemed to be very free. What was the time consensus on that tune?
CP: I feel like everyone will have a different answer. Nick and I have a very unique way of playing together, and Theo and I have a very unique way of playing together, and they have a unique bond too. Speaking rhythmically, I’m very free to play on some kind of grid or to not play on that grid, but we still move together.
Nick Dunston: We’ve always been so comfortable playing together from a rhythmic standpoint, so musical freedom is a given at this point. For me, I get to think a lot of orchestration, in the sense that we’re trying to give a lot of attention to our broad range of timbres—it’s almost as if we’re thinking very texturally on top of our intersecting rhythmic concept.
TJG: Does the textural quality of the music make the time harder to keep?
TW: There’s such a strong connection when you’re in the music, it’s oddly clear that you don’t have to think about it.
CP: I think the level of trust is very high, and that frees us to explore less common sounds on our instruments—to make a very orchestral sound or some other sound outside of classic jazz piano trio. That’s a product of the time we spend together—it frees us to try these new things.
TJG: Does this style of playing lead to certain roles emerging amongst yourselves? Connor, based on what I’ve listened to, it sounds like you play a heavily textural role in the group.
CP: Textural playing is something I’m very into—I think the way I relate to the drums is very textural and more broadly compositional than “drum” stuff. My goal is not to be playing drum-specific information. Obviously that’s what I studied for most of my life—trying to express the jazz drumming feel as an art form. But my interests very much lie in furthering that—getting beyond simply knowing it and referencing it.
Tyshawn Sorey is a huge inspiration in terms of composition and drumming, mostly because each time I hear him it sounds like a whole percussion section. It almost sounds orchestra, compositional, the way he improvises. I’m never thinking, “That’s so amazing, what he’s playing on the drums,” which of course it is. When it washes over me I’m thinking “This is composition. He’s transcended the drums.” He has all of the knowledge and the history, and he’s just going past all of it.
Elvin Jones is also great example of someone who shattered our expectations of the drums. He took it so much further than people thought it could go. It’s so rhythmic, it’s so textural—the arcs are huge. The phrases are so long. But the history of the drums and the language are still so strong. It really is a beautiful duality. I grew up playing percussion, so I very much come to the drums from that makeup. I thought I would be an orchestral percussionist for a long time, but then I picked up the drums—that’s my passion now and I feel very connected to it. I’m certainly freed by Nick and Theo also. The way Nick relates to the music very much allows me to play this way.
TJG: Nick, what are you doing to open up everyone else’s playing?
ND: Every jazz bassist grows up with this idea that the bass is the heart or the pulse of the band. That’s forever ingrained, and I do agree with that. But it always comes back to trust. I trust these guys with the responsibility of this music; I never feel like I have to hold anything down. It’s more a question of the bass as a supersonic presence—as a catalyst for textures, and allowing the drums and piano to merge into a single sound. Oscar Pettiford, Doug Watkins, and Charlie Haden I would say are my three main guys. There are so many reasons why I love them, but they all have the most incredible warm, welcoming sounds, and in different ways—they connect the different elements of the band sonically so well; I think that the tone itself is often overlooked. When we’re playing, sometimes the composition of the pieces require me to play the bass in a more-or-less traditional role, playing to keep everything together—and I love that. It’s groovy, and rhythmic, and fun. But I never feel like I have to. If I want to play texturally and play with sounds, I can do that as well. It all comes back to trust.
TJG: Sound-wise, do I hear a bit of Harish Raghavan?
ND: I love Harish. His sound is so unbelievably raw and free. He also puts so much trust in his bandmates. And he has such a studious vibe—he works so hard on his craft. But when he’s on the bandstand he just lets it all loose. We have this phrase—“unleash the Harish,”—he just goes the fuck in and lets all of his training go in the background and lets all of the passion and emotion just pour out. It’s amazing to hear and it speaks to me on such an emotional level. He’s definitely a significant influence on my playing.
TJG: Theo, how would you consider your role in the band? How do you go about writing music for the trio?
TW: I write for Connor and Nick specifically—I feel I know them and the way they play well, and trust them. I can almost visualize the way they’ll go about something. Knowing who I’m writing for gives the music a lot more feeling.
I find it interesting that a lot of classic jazz trios end up becoming like piano concertos, where the piano is the foreground—the one instrument always playing the melody and harmony, while other instruments act in a supporting role and prop up what the piano’s doing. I try to take piano out of a traditional role and let every instrument have their time in the foreground. I don’t always have to be a soloist or the focus; I can play a supporting role and act as the rhythm section for instruments which may not usually solo.
TJG: With so much time spent together and such intimate knowledge of each other’s playing, do you still catch each other by surprise?
CP: That’s a huge element of why I enjoy playing in this Trio. I’m not actively trying to insert an idea into the composition, but I’m very welcoming of surprises, and I’m trying to react to something as instantaneously as I can. Sometimes we talk about the general shape of a composition to get it going, but those ideas usually get abandoned at some point or we try to do the opposite of that just for the sake of doing something different, and it’s not even a power move—it’s just the nature of how we improvise.
TJG: Who’s driving the music? Is there a leader?
ND: Maybe the first time we play someone’s piece, but after that not really. At our Cornelia Street Cafe gig, someone thought all of the music was written by Theo, and another person thought all of the music was written by me. I took that as a huge compliment; we’re all composing for one another, and even though there are plenty of surprises in the music, we all know what will allow each other to flourish. Once we perform it once or a few times, we’re all in it together, and it almost becomes detached from the composer the way we all feel so comfortable with it.
TJG: I’d like to talk about what you are aiming for sonically. There does seem to be a heavy classical influence both in the drama and the romanticism of the music. Can you talk about how the jazz influences the classical of the tunes or vice-versa?
ND: I use this word very carefully, but I think it’s the word I want to use: we’re so willing to disrespect the shit out of the music. Yes, it is very romantic sounding, but when we want to surprise each other or let loose, or whenever Connor smacks the shit out of the drums on an impressionistic piece—
TJG: He really is into that.
ND: Yeah, we love that shit, and that’s part of the spirit of it. I guess you could say the content is more classical sounding than jazz, but the actual impulse—the willingness to go wherever, to be so raw, is entirely coming out of jazz.
TJG: It’s almost trollish.
ND: Yeah, we’re poking fun. Sometimes I’m just mad for some reason (laughs), and I’ll just let it out.
TJG: Who are you angry at, Nick? Let’s start with Washington.
ND: We don’t have enough time.
CP: Those ideas are connected, as absurd as they are. The music may sound serious, but we don’t take ourselves or the music too seriously. We’re not afraid to do something that may be considered abnormal or bizarre. But we look at is as a parody of the world—just very strange, bizarre, and really just fucked up. A lot of what we’re channeling is a response to that. The drums are really powerful. You can really express such deep, raw human emotions with them and it’s so liberating to do so.
TJG: Who doesn’t like smashing stuff—and artfully at that?
CP: There’s a really beautiful Rational Funk episode about this with Dave King. People always talk about how drummers play too loud, but they’re just not playing dynamically. The drums can play so soft—really whisper, and be so beautiful and delicate. But people don’t really do that. And the drums can be loud enough to get people to get up and leave, but no one really does that either. They play in this one narrow field, but there are so many other dynamics to access. For me, there’s a direct connection to that. If in real life you hear someone doing some really fucked up shit, you naturally play music that is going to mirror that absurdity.
TJG: The training for the drums is pretty restricted—
CP: It’s very control oriented. You’re learning how to channel kinetic energy, to measure out your stroke and its velocity. But when you let loose or play with bad technique—playing with objectively bad technique to get a certain sound is so fun and it’s so often unexplored.
I remember hearing Tyshawn at the Vanguard—he was playing there with his trio, and there was this sick moment where pianist Corey Smythe was playing this lush, moving, beautiful piano, and Tyshawn is just sitting there. Then out of nowhere he just hits the floor tom as loud as he can and everyone in the room has a deep reaction to it. That’s just an example of how powerful the drums can be.
TJG: Last question—what is Aurelia? Is it a reference to Bernie Madoff’s shadow hedge fund?
ND: No, but I kind of wish it was. I found it on Wikipedia, but I don’t remember how I got there. It has something to do with jellyfish, but I found that out after the fact, which worked because we talk about oceans and water a lot. We were looking for a name and I just asked everyone if it worked, and we went with it. I think it sounds enough how we sound that it works.
TJG: The band does have a swimming quality to it, doesn’t it?
ND: We like to think so—we call Connor “Aquabeat.”
CP: I am an Aquarius, which is actually an air sign—actually, all of that’s made up, but I’m really into being an Aquarius. I’m definitely a water-boy—I grew up in Florida, around water. Blue is my color. Someone described our rhythmic conception as being jellyfish-like, and we thought that was hilarious.
Aurelia Trio plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, September 21st, 2017. The group features Nick Dunston on bass, Connor Parks on drums, and Theo Waletiny on piano. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members). Purchase tickets here.