Aaron Parks - the right band is the right band


Never mind wondering what country he’s in, Aaron Parks is waking up these mornings and thinking, what band am I with? The Seattle-born pianist, who makes his Scottish debut this week with a trio featuring the legendary drummer Billy Hart and bassist Ben Street, is currently on a series of consecutive tours that range in style from a duo with violinist Adam Baldych to the high energy, state-of-the-art jazz quartet James Farm.


“I’m either going to be absolutely buzzing and wishing I could just carry on forever at the end of the run or am I’m going to be completely sick of music,” he says down the line from Innsbruck, where he’s enjoying a rare travel-free day. “Equally, I might be so sharp that I’ll have improved out of all recognition or it’ll all go down in a horrible spiral and I’ll sound awful.”


There seems little likelihood of this last scenario being the case. Since 2008, when he released Invisible Cinema, his first album on the definitive jazz label, Blue Note, but the fifth of a recording career that began when he was sixteen, Parks has been one of the most consistently intriguing musicians of his generation. He is as assured in solo piano performances like his 2013 recording, Arborescence, as he is inspirational in his work as an accompanist, a role that he talks about with great enthusiasm and for all that he jokes about burning out on his current schedule, his appetite for music comes through unmistakably in conversation.


Parks grew up in a small village on Whidbey Island just off the coast of Washington State and he has, he says, made two giant leaps in his life. The first leap came when he moved to the city of Seattle to study at the University of Washington at the age of fourteen through its early entrance programme and the second when his family – mum, dad and sister – upped sticks for New York two years later because he had been selected for the Manhattan School of Music.


“I came from one very small, sparsely populated island to another, completely different kind of island, Manhattan Island, in quite a short space of time,” he says. “It was a huge culture shock and more than that, about a year after we moved to Manhattan we woke up to 9/11 and something horrendous happening just a few blocks from our apartment. So that was quite hard to deal with but the energy in New York I found quite invigorating. It was completely different from anything I’d ever experienced.”


By the age of twenty, Parks was touring and recording with trumpeter Terence Blanchard, formerly with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers but already a major figure in his own right as both a bandleader and film music composer, and his reputation began to grow from there. Trumpeters Christian Scott and Ambrose Akinmusire, both recent poster artists for Edinburgh Jazz Festival, and singer Gretchen Parlato are among the musicians who have called on Parks’ talents. Then Blue Note Records cottoned on.


Parks is charmingly self-deprecatory about the first fruit of that partnership.


“I wanted Invisible Cinema to be a balance of formal structure and human imperfection and to have the kind of detail that you get in the best novels but I might have taken the detail a bit too far,” he says. “My favourite number has always been five - we have five fingers on each hand and there are five letters in each of my names – but when the album was finished, I was quite pleased with the result but I discovered it was fifty-five minutes long and it was five hundred and fifty-five megabytes on the disk. So I don’t know, a psychologist might have a field day with that sort of information.”


There are three, rather than five, musicians in the group Parks brings to Edinburgh and he’s not altogether sure that the piano, bass and drums format is right for him. He is certain, however, of the company he’ll be keeping, bassist Street being a mentor of his and drummer Hart being an inspiration.


“I go to see Billy at every opportunity when he’s playing in New York and I always sit as close to the stage as possible because his enthusiasm for the music pours from him,” he says. “He’s always checking out the new young players on the scene and what I love about him especially is, he’s the same person off the drums as he is on the kit. I don’t know about playing trio. I actually like providing harmony and working with a guitar player or a saxophonist or a singer. So it’s a challenge but there’s a lot of beauty to be found in it too and if you’re working with the right musicians – and I will be – then that’s the right group to be playing with.”


From the Herald, September 30, 2015.


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