Aaron Parks: The Comeback Kid

Nearly a decade after his major-label debut, and following much soul-searching, pianist Aaron Parks mounts his return as a leader

Photo of Aaron Parks

Aaron Parks’ eyes are the first thing one notices when meeting him. They are large, widely spaced, electric blue and remarkably expressive. “Great to meet you!” he tells JT at ECM Records’ offices in midtown Manhattan, with a bear hug for good measure. Sure, it’s a boilerplate greeting. But those eyes say he really means it.

Photo of Aaron Parks
Aaron Parks (photo by Bart Babinski/ECM)

The 33-year-old’s piano stylings are equally expressive, if not more so. On Find the Way, his new ECM album with bassist Ben Street and drummer Billy Hart, he puts dark underpinnings into the chords; like chiaroscuro in a Caravaggio painting, they throw his melodies’ bright whimsy and humor into relief. Original compositions like “First Glance” aren’t just clouds on the left hand, sunshine on the right, but a sophisticated balance that nonetheless makes the most of its contrasts. Parks is expressive but hardly facile.

“He has this amazing combination of the left-brain and right-brain sides of jazz,” says saxophonist Joshua Redman, a friend of Parks’ and his partner in the four-piece collective James Farm. “His music is incredibly rigorous. The tunes that he writes, if you analyze them, the structure is so impeccable. But it’s also incredibly emotional, emotive. The first thing that grabs me about Aaron’s music isn’t the rigor of it, it’s the beauty of it.”

It isn’t only Parks’ elders who are impressed. Drummer Kendrick Scott, his bandmate in trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s 2000s quintet (and erstwhile freelance employer in the years since), calls him “one of the foremost creative artists in our generation. As a player he pushes boundaries of the known and creates sonic spaces that evoke a deep sense of contemplation. And as a composer he is constantly mining his deep curiosity for form, timbre, space and feel.”

Parks was in his late teens when he earned his place in Blanchard’s band and just 24 when he released his major-label debut as a leader, 2008’s Invisible Cinema. The album was generally acclaimed, but five years would pass before Parks followed it up. It took a while for him to grow comfortable with his vision, and that comfort’s still tenuous. “I feel almost shy, talking about it,” Parks says. “She’s the muse! And I feel like all I can do is catch a little glimpse, or a little shimmer. She’s forever out of reach, but I’m always after her.”

Still, Parks explains, he is ready to pursue the muse in earnest. “I’m a little bit more clear about the things I want to do than I was before,” he says. “I want to be doing some more things with my own music again.”

The Young Aaron Parks

Whidbey Island, where Parks was born and raised, is a snakelike formation at the threshold of Puget Sound, about 30 miles north of Seattle. His father, mother and sister all played instruments, but Parks found his way to music without any pressure. “The piano was there in the house and I would play around on it,” he says. “My mom was super encouraging. … She wasn’t pushy, but made it easy for me to pursue music in whatever way I wanted to. It was a great way to grow up, being able to explore art and music as a child.”

By the time he was 10 he’d become serious about music, beginning lessons on piano and bassoon. (The latter didn’t last.) Recognizing a talent for improvisation, Parks’ piano teachers steered him toward jazz from the start, and he was a precocious pupil. Though he’d learned just one song, “In the Mood,” he made an audition tape of it for a Seattle area youth big band—and got in.

It was then that Parks started listening to the music he was learning to play. His first obsession was with Gene Harris; next came McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock. Then, at the advice of his teacher, Parks’ parents took him to a Keith Jarrett concert. “Keith was hugely influential,” he says. “He was moving around in ways that I’d never seen a piano player move, and making sounds that I hadn’t heard. I was like, ‘What is this and why is it having this effect on me?’”

At 14, Parks enrolled in the Early Entrance Program at the University of Washington. There he met some other jazz musicians his own age, bassist Evan Flory-Barnes and drummer Eric Peters, and formed his first trio. With his mother’s mediation, they scored a weekly gig at Tully’s Coffee Shop in downtown Seattle. They also released two independent CDs, The Promise and First Romance.

Two years later, Parks transferred to Manhattan School of Music. (In fact, his entire family moved across the country for his sake. “Just as ridiculously supportive as ever,” he laughs.) He chose MSM for a very specific reason: Kenny Barron taught there. “The lessons with Kenny, there were two pianos in the room, and I’d walk in and he’d usually be in the middle of a song. And I was made to understand that I should join him. He hardly ever said anything; we’d just play two pianos for an hour. I learned tunes, and I learned how to learn tunes—there’s ear training for you.”

In 2001, it was Barron who recommended his young pupil to Blanchard, then seeking a replacement in his band for Ed Simon. “Kenny said, ‘I’ve got this young kid and he’s something else,’” the trumpeter recalls. “So I got his information and I asked Aaron to just come and play with us on a radio show.” He’d met Parks a few years prior, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., during Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead program. “So when I saw him, I was like, ‘Oh, right! Hey, man!’ And once I saw him, I knew he could play. I asked him if he wanted to join the band after the show.” Thus began Parks’ New York jazz career, at the seasoned age of 18.

From Gifted Sideman to Reluctant Leader

Blanchard soon became enamored equally of Parks’ composing and playing. The pianist had begun writing tunes in his early teens, and those skills developed quickly. His first album with Blanchard, 2003’s Bounce, begins with Parks’ composition “On the Verge”; the next, 2005’s Flow, ends with his “Harvesting Dance.” “You can always find people who can learn how to play,” Blanchard says. “It’s another thing when you learn how to communicate on a certain level, because that goes beyond just knowing how to play. Aaron is one of those rare ones. … His song ‘Ashé’ [from Blanchard’s A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina), Parks’ third album with the band], that’s a masterful tune. It’s gonna go down in history.”

Redman was also startled by his writing chops. “He really writes instrumental jazz compositions like a singer-songwriter,” the saxophonist says. “For all the complex material that he uses, there’s always this lyrical and melodic simplicity, in the best sense of the word.”

When Parks decided to leave Blanchard’s band following A Tale of God’s Will, the trumpeter didn’t doubt that his young sideman had the talent to make it as a bandleader. But he wasn’t certain Parks was ready to take on the business end of the business, so to speak. “It’s kinda like having that kid in college sports who wants to go to the pros real quick,” he explains. “You have to say, ‘You need another year of just growing and relaxing’—not having the pressure of having to lead a band. I thought he should have stayed with the band a little bit longer.”

Photo of Aaron Parks from 2008
Aaron Parks in New York in August 2008, just a few days after the release of his first and only Blue Note album, Invisible Cinema

Indeed, when Parks released Invisible Cinema, featuring guitarist Mike Moreno, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Eric Harland, on Blue Note in August 2008, it garnered many enthusiastic reviews (Read review of Invisible Cinema album by Aaron Parks) and landed Parks a spot in JT’s “New Visionaries” issue that September. But that’s where Parks stalled.

Parks blames his long hesitation to try again on some personal issues—he was the victim of both a broken heart and bank fraud—but also suggests that Blanchard’s instincts were correct. “I wasn’t really mature enough at that moment. … I just wasn’t ready for prime time. It’s as simple as that,” he says. “I really doubted my vision at a certain point. I wondered if it was something that I really wanted anymore.”

Still, Parks was far from out of the game. In addition to heavy freelancing, he was working regularly with vocalist Gretchen Parlato, and had developed a deep musical relationship with Kurt Rosenwinkel that would last nearly a decade; he appears on the guitarist’s 2012 double-disc set, Star of Jupiter, and accompanied him on his historic gig at Madison Square Garden in 2013, part of Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival. In 2009, Redman’s admiration for Invisible Cinema—“It was one of those albums that I just kept listening to, over and over again,” he says—inspired him to initiate the collaboration that became James Farm. But when it came to taking the driver’s seat, it just wasn’t happening.

Photo of James Farm with Aaron Parks
The collective James Farm, from left: Matt Penman, Joshua Redman, Aaron Parks and Eric Harland (photo by Jimmy Katz)

Mostly not happening, anyway. There were occasional flukes, one of which would re-introduce Parks as a headliner. He had privately recorded a solo session in Massachusetts in 2011, drawing on influences as varied as Bela Bartók, Ran Blake, Paul Bley and Jarrett. It had the feel of classic ECM, as label head Manfred Eicher recognized, signing Parks and releasing the recording as Arborescence in late 2013. It put Parks back onstage as a headliner, touring solo to support it. (Read review of Arborescence album by Aaron Parks.)

A Trio of His Own

Not until he formed his trio with Ben Street and Billy Hart, however, did Parks have a real project. He’d been a close follower of Hart’s quartet with Street, pianist Ethan Iverson and saxophonist Mark Turner. “I just loved hearing the bass and drums hook up in that band,” he says, chuckling. “So, me being a little greedy, I figured that I’d start a band with them!”

“I was honored by that, actually—to be included in this more contemporary vision,” Hart says. “I’m a great fan of his playing, of his compositional concept, of his knowledge of the tradition of this music. And of his ability to carry it on with an even more contemporary vocabulary.”

Photo of Aaron Parks with his trio
Aaron Parks with Billy Hart (left) and Ben Street (photo by Bart Babinski/ECM)

Parks had a specific concept in mind for the trio, which began with gigs at Smalls in Greenwich Village, and he boils that concept down to one word: surrender. “My idea was that I didn’t want to tell them much of anything about what to do,” he says. “A lot of these songs have existed for a while; ‘Unravel,’ for example, we recorded on the first James Farm record. And a lot of them I had very specific ideas about. I brought some of those songs to this band but forced myself to let go of what that idea was so that I had to rediscover the songs.”

Hence he brought in no arrangements, instead working the songs out in rehearsal and performance and letting his collaborators’ ideas shape the trio’s direction. They used this process first at Smalls and then on a short European tour, during which they joined Eicher in France in October of 2015 to record Find the Way. They’ve continued to work together since the recording, including another European hit in the spring and an album-release party at Smalls. At this writing there are no plans for a further tour to promote Find the Way, though Parks hopes he can organize one soon. “Playing with Ben and Billy is so easy and so challenging at the same time,” he says. “I definitely learn so much. But basically I’m throwing myself into the lions’ den with them.”

New Formations on the Horizon

The trio may be his main focus at the moment, but Parks has other concepts percolating—the clearest sign yet that he’s reaching full artistic flower. He does an occasional standards trio with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. He’s got a quartet, as yet unrecorded, called Little/Big, whose focus is on the rock-influenced music that Parks showcased on Invisible Cinema. He’s also creating a five-piece band with Mark Turner, though he’s still working out exactly what instrumentation he wants. At the moment, however, he’s leaning toward vibraphone—specifically that of Joel Ross, a 21-year-old musician from Chicago who’s currently enrolled at the New School in New York. “I’m excited about the folks that are coming up,” Parks says, enthusiastically rattling off names. “Immanuel Wilkins, the alto player; [saxophonist] Maria Grand as well. Daryl Johns, the bass player—Daryl’s scary, man! How’s he so good? Micah Thomas is scary good on the piano. And so is James Francies, who’s my roommate. And I just love Joel, as everyone does, and as everyone will come to once they know him. The young generation right now, man! It’s kicking my ass. I’m loving it.”

At the outset of his proper career as a bandleader, Parks has already assumed the role of mentor. “Aaron was one of the first people to look out for me and help me when I moved to New York,” Ross says. And as Parks’ own teachers attest, the new crop would be hard-pressed to find a better example to follow.

“I’m getting to that age now where I’ve seen a number of musicians throughout my career, and you’re able to draw conclusions based on your experiences,” Blanchard says. “And in my time on this planet, there have not been too many people like Aaron Parks.”

Preview, buy or download songs from the album Find The Way on ECM by Aaron Parks on iTunes.

Read review of performance by Aaron Parks with James Farm.