Aaron Parks: Little Big

little big

Little Big is an album you’ll want to spin like a globe, placing your finger anywhere and opening your eyes to take joy in where it lands. From first to last, Aaron Parks amps up his artistry in a ripe configuration with guitarist Greg Tuohey, bassist David Ginyard and drummer Tommy Crane. Gliding through a set of 14 originals, the itinerant keyboard player renders a sound perhaps best characterized as photorealistic.

Little Big runs on a spirit of genuine appreciation, be it for childhood (“Kid”), love (“Good Morning”) or worlds within our own (“Aquarium”). Every surface reflects some form of nostalgia, made possible only by the quality of its summoners. Parks and Tuohey are as inseparable yet distinct as gesso and pigment, each defining the other in mutual appreciation, while Ginyard and Crane uphold their canvas with algorithmic integrity. As a whole, these musicians render tessellations of melody and rhythm that would give M.C. Escher a run for his money.

Parks’ writing speaks power into being, unrolling the full breadth of this quartet’s capabilities across the brain. From the intimate piano solos “Lilac” and “Hearth” to the representative “Rising Mind” and “Doors Open,” a purpose-driven energy prevails. Among the music’s many strengths is its evocative clarity, exemplified to the fullest in “Small Planet.” The steampunk ambiance of “Professor Strangeweather” offers another highlight in treating each instrument like a cog for a balanced machine. “Digital Society,” by its own measure, grounds us in the here and now through its bitmapping of the modern soul. If the band’s name tells us anything more, it’s that once any contradiction becomes a reality, you wonder why you ever thought of it as a contradiction to begin with.

(This review originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Two Aaron Parks reviews for The NYC Jazz Record

In the summer of 2014, Aaron Parks held a ten-week DIVA (Danish International Visiting Artists program) residency in Denmark. By then, at the age of 30, the American pianist had already achieved an independent sound, but on these two albums arising from his Danish tenure he thrives on the unsolvable riddle of collaboration.

When Parks released his 2013 disc of solo improvisations (Arborescence, ECM), he earned knee-jerk comparisons to fellow pianist and ECM stalwart Keith Jarrett. Yet while their styles could hardly be more different, they do have one thing in common: a genuine respect for melody. It’s this sense of song and structure that balances Parks’ youthful optimism with patience.

Groovements

On Groovements, he shares a studio with bassist Thomas Fonnesbæk and drummer Karsten Bagge. Despite being the first time this trio had recorded together—playing tunes written especially for this session, no less—these virtual strangers make for a cohesive mesh.

As if in service of that point, the group improvisation “Shapes ‘n’ Colors” is among the more seamless tracks. No less groovy than its satellites, the tune hits all the right pressure points and is every bit as flexible as Parks’ distinctly New York-ian “Elutheria.” Fonnesbæk and Bagge contribute two originals apiece, the former’s “Winter Waltz” and “Forever This Moment” being special vehicles for the composer’s artistry while the latter’s “Alcubierre’s Law” and “A Rabbit’s Tale,” not surprisingly, capitalize on the rhythmic core. The trio does bare its traditional chops, however, when handling the swing of Cedar Walton’s “Bolivia” and evergreen “You And The Night And The Music” with tact. Even the two surprises, Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” and Danish classical composer Carl Nielsen’s “Tit Er Jeg Glad,” proceed with confident logic.

Duets in June

Duets in June would seem to be the more intimate project on paper, but its unusual combination of guitar and piano reaches more broadly and adventurously, the pepper to Groovements’ salt.

Much credit goes to guitarist Thomas Maintz, who wrote all the music except for three improvisations. The latter are the highpoints of this date—exercises in unforced seeking from two musicians who don’t just react to, but converse with each other. Where the drunken “Absinthe” and photorealistic “East Village Waltz” are tongue-in-cheekily illustrative, “Six String Levitation” (featuring Parks on melodica) and ambient “Please Hum (A Hymn)” offer more cerebral delights. Maintz speaks most lucidly through his acoustic baritone guitar, as on “Nude in Red Armchair,” in which his adaptability comes to the fore. All that said, it is Parks whose underlying feel for mood and message rings truest. Whether singing at the keys in “Secret Hallway” or going solo for “Riddles Dressed in White,” he understands that tenderness in music is more than a pantomime. It’s a way of life.

(This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, of which a full PDF is available here.)

Aaron Parks: Arborescence (ECM 2338)

Arborescence

Aaron Parks
Arborescence

Aaron Parks piano
Recorded November 2011 at Mechanics Hall, Worcester, MA
Engineer: Rick Kwan
Mixed at Avatar Studios, New York
Produced by Sun Chung

Into the forest again
whence all roads depend
this way and that
to lead him back.
–Robert Creeley

Aaron Parks’s solo ECM debut might just as well be called “Arbor Essence.” Not only because each of its 11 improvised tracks grows however it wants to, but also because as a forest they provide shelter from rain and screen against the sun’s blinding rays. The album belongs unquestionably alongside Craig Taborn’s Avenging Angel and any number of Keith Jarrett records as a significant contribution to the solo piano archive, though it owes as much to Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, and Paul Bley.

Parks

With so much foliage to reckon with, it’s no wonder Parks begins “Asleep In The Forest.” The apparent expanse of his playing is only enhanced by the engineering, which places us with him among the branches, looking down at the comings and goings of fauna below and wearing moonlight like a shroud. “Toward Awakening” confirms this feeling of night in a dreamlike pulse and builds waves with a surrendering intensity not heard since The Köln Concert. Unlike that classic predecessor, this excursion bleeds in more intimate ways, shared not with an audience of flesh but a congregation of souls. An awakening, yes, but into a realization that one always returns to slumber.

Like the album as a whole, “Past Presence” is a study in contrasts, of depth-soundings and highborn prayers. It’s a fantasy novel come to life, and in which kingdoms are built on foundations of magic just as they are undone by the same. In the looming shadow of its castle is where Parks follows more robust threads of melody in “Elsewhere,” an eerily distorted ballad of seeking and forgiveness that touches the horizon like a match to candlewick. So peaceful is its skewed vision of reality that the mechanisms of “In Pursuit” come as something of a surprise. In them is a whiff of philosophy that lingers over interlocking hands, the left’s rising bass lines bolstering the right’s gossamer speech. “Squirrels” and “Branchings” are, respectively, more whimsical and poetic, while “Homestead” favors the grays and browns of an Andrew Wyeth painting, its nautilus resting beneath a billowing curtain and chambered by the will to be heard.

This is one of those quintessential ECM albums that would not have existed without the label’s tireless archive on which to build, for one will catch hints of mainstays Ketil Bjørnstad (“River Ways”) and Arvo Pärt (“A Curious Bloom”) in addition to the ones already mentioned. By expanding minds on either side of the genre fence, it bespeaks the joy of creation for any who will take it—a gift without wrapping but the embrace of a welcoming ear.

(To hear samples of Arborescence, click here.)