Aaron Parks interview

2013 interview. On South Korean singer Yeahwon Shin’s debut for ECM Lua ya pianist Aaron Parks provided little hints and nudges quietly probing and navigating on a beyond-genre late night...

Published: 11 Nov 2019. Updated: 4 months.


2013 interview. On South Korean singer Yeahwon Shin’s debut for ECM Lua ya pianist Aaron Parks provided little hints and nudges quietly probing and navigating on a beyond-genre late night listening lullaby album. His debut as a leader for the label, solo piano album Arborescence, is a major moment

You studied at university at a very young age. How did you find that experience; and from your vantage point now do you regret entering higher education at such a young age? Well, I can’t really say that I regret it. From an outside viewpoint it might seem like a peculiar (and potentially problematic) path to take, but from my perspective it’s just what happened. Sure, there were some unique challenges, but overall my memories of that time are positive. I made some really good friends at university, got to study with amazing teachers, and experienced something of city life for the first time. Certainly I would have had some different experiences if I’d stayed on the island where I grew up. But since I didn’t live out that alternate trajectory there’s no way I can know where it might have led. Perhaps I would have met and married a high-school sweetheart, or studied to become a palaeontologist, or gotten involved with crystal meth, or learned how to drive a car. Who knows?

Was Seattle a stimulating place to grow up in, culturally?

That’s a difficult one for me to answer, as I actually didn’t really grow up in Seattle proper. From the age of three until I was 13 or so, my family lived on the south end of Whidbey Island, a long and narrow enclave only an hour or so north of the city but a world away culturally. It’s the kind of place that seems to have a gravitational pull for many folks seeking an alternative to life in mainstream society. I could make some kind of joke here about “transplanted hippies and grizzled men with extensive gun collections somehow coexisting side-by-side,” but that would probably be a bit of a caricature. In truth, the island had a relatively quiet and small-town-friendly kind of vibe, and in many ways it was a pretty idyllic place for me to grow up: a close-knit community of interesting people with an abundance of natural beauty. The house I was raised in was on a bluff overlooking a small inlet called Useless Bay. I spent a lot of time on the beach there and in the woods nearby; the childhood imagination ran wild. Seattle certainly had its own unique cultural landscape, but I was pretty far removed from that there on the island. Case in point: I was hardly even aware of its famed ‘grunge’ scene until after I’d moved away. There was always music playing in our home but it tended toward classical/world/folk/ambient, for the most part.

When did you reach the point, and why, was it that you decided you wanted to pursue a life as a musician?

It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment when I made that decision. You might say that it was a gradual dawning, rather than a light suddenly turned on. From the time that I started playing music I loved it and just wanted to play as often as I could. But I had all sorts of other interests as well and wasn’t sure which direction I’d go. When I began studying at university I was triple-majoring in math, computer science, and music, with the ‘practical’ idea of supporting myself as a computer programmer and making music in my spare time. Somewhere along the way my plans shifted and I found myself pursuing music more seriously, while still continuing to study math and computers (just in case things didn’t work out). Eventually I jettisoned the fallback plans entirely and just dived in headlong. That’s when it became evident that moving to New York was the necessary next step. I was fortunate to have parents and mentors who were supportive and encouraging at every stage.

If push were to come to shove what did ‘jazz’ mean to you starting out as a young player; and has that image of its culture and heritage changed over the years for you as an active player?

When I was first starting out with this music the three things I fell in love with were: swinging, improvisation, and the blues. My taste was pretty straightahead; the first band I really loved was the Ray Brown trio. I went from there to an obsession with McCoy Tyner, followed by Miles Davis, then Keith Jarrett, then Herbie Hancock, and then the whole kaleidoscope just opened up. As I’ve grown older the boundaries between genres have become a bit more ambiguous and my taste has grown more inclusive. These days I don’t even know what a lot of the music that I make would be called, especially on a recording like Arborescence. Maybe just this: music.

That said, I also love making music which is more directly connected to the continuum that some call ‘jazz’. Since you specifically asked about the culture and history of this music, I will say this: at its hereditary core, it is essentially a Black American art form. That’s how I saw it when I was starting out, and it’s the same way I see it now. That’s never felt like an exclusionary conception to me, even as a White Guy; rather, it felt like something beautiful and sacred, a tradition and ancestry which I loved and wanted to get closer to and hopefully join in some way.

Would you say moving to New York at the beginning of the 2000s was a turning point in your career; and if so, why? If not, was there another time and a place where you felt you were moving forward artistically and there was no turning back?

Certainly it was. Really, there’s no place like New York for learning by osmosis. When I started going to Manhattan School of Music I found myself surrounded by a bunch of incredible musicians (Thomas Morgan, Ambrose Akinmusire, Will Vinson, Jaleel Shaw, Obed Calvaire, to name just a few) who challenged me in all sorts of new ways. Many of the friendships and musical bonds from that time have endured to the present day. There were also, of course, all the live shows that were suddenly accessible to me – much more than in Seattle, let alone on Whidbey – where I could experience the music first hand. And the jam sessions where I could sit in, fail, then come back next week and hopefully (borrowing from Beckett) “fail better.”

I also started studying with Kenny Barron then; my lessons with him were invaluable. For the most part he was a man of few words. Our time together mostly consisted of me learning standards from him, by ear, in a room with two pianos. Even though I’ve now forgotten many of the songs we played together, that type of learning by doing made a deep impression, and I think has helped me to be able to assimilate and internalise new songs pretty quickly. I also recall a particular instance when, as I was on my way out the door, he stopped me and mentioned off-handedly, “Oh, by the way, you should really work on your touch.” Of course, he didn’t specify how I should do that; he gave me no foolproof recipe for a “beautiful piano sound.” But since it was so rare for him to offer advice verbally, I took his words seriously. In the end his non-specificity was somehow perfect: it set me off on a search to find out for myself what kind of sound I truly wanted and to discover ways to get closer to it.

It’s five years since Invisible Cinema was released. Would you say that a great deal has changed in your career since; and if so could you explain what has happened and whether that album was the seed?

A lot has changed, and a lot has stayed the same. I was touring with Kurt Rosenwinkel before that record was made, and I continue to play in his band now. I also still do a lot of other sideman work, which is great!

I’ve been working on a number of different projects of my own since then; some have hatched and grown legs while others are still incubating. There are some things which seem like a natural continuation/evolution of the vibe from Invisible Cinema (a new band I’m putting together to play some of my more highly-structured songs), and others which don’t really have much to do with that kind of aesthetic at all (the trio which recorded Alive in Japan, for instance, which is much less compositionally driven and more focused on the mystery of playing swinging music together in a way that feels good).

As for that record being “the seed”: risking an easy/cheesy metaphor, you might say that James Farm sprouted from the seed of Invisible Cinema. It’s the same rhythm section team, and the four of us (Joshua Redman, Matt Penman, Eric Harland and myself) have rather simpático compositional sensibilities. But really the causality isn’t quite so linear. I’d started playing with Eric in Terence Blanchard’s band when I was 18. I met both Kurt Rosenwinkel and Matt Penman for the first time during a tour of Japan with Eric’s band. Josh had been playing trio with Matt and Eric for some years, and they’d also spent significant time together in the SF Jazz Collective. Matt’s album Catch of the Day (with Eric, Seamus Blake, and myself) was recorded at least a year before we made my record with the same rhythm section plus Mike Moreno.

Everything grows out of everything. Or maybe, in this case, just out of Eric Harland?! In any event, I’d say that Invisible Cinema itself was one chapter (but not the first) in a still-unfolding story.

Looking back a bit how did you find first working with Terence Blanchard’s band, and what were the biggest challenges initially in playing with him?

Simply stated: it was incredible. I had been listening to Terence’s music for years (especially Wandering Moon), and one of my dreams was to someday get a chance to play with him. I couldn’t have imagined that I would get that chance less than two years after moving to New York. Terence was (and is) a remarkable bandleader. He challenged us to take chances, to step into the unknown, to not be afraid to ‘fail’. For the most part, he didn’t give much direction about the shape of the music off the bandstand, except to occasionally call me out when he sensed that I was “mailing it in” and not fully involved during a show. In my five years in the band I learned so much about storytelling, accompaniment, drama, presence, and especially band chemistry. The group he put together that recorded Flow (with Lionel Loueke, Brice Winston, Derrick Hodge, and Kendrick Scott) remains, to this day, one of the most cohesive and adventurous bands of which I’ve ever been a member.

Which solo piano albums, particularly in a jazz idiom, do you listen to; or is it something you prefer not to do as a general rule?

I listen to most everything I can get my hands on! It's tough for me to single out specific albums, but I can say that I’ve spent a lot of time with improvisatory solo piano music by Paul Bley, Thelonious Monk, Keith Jarrett, Art Tatum, and Ran Blake, as well as performances by Stanislav Richter, Aki Takahashi, Béla Bartók, and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, to name a few. But my listening patterns are always shifting. After I’ve spent a lot of time deeply immersed in someone’s musical world, I’ll sometimes systematically take a break from listening to their music for a while (sometimes even for a few years if their influence on me has been particularly strong). This gives me a chance to discover and absorb some new sounds. My most recent solo piano ‘discoveries’ are Stanley Cowell and Teddy Wilson, both of whom I only just started to check out; already I’m in love!

Recording for ECM must invoke a certain mystique for you. How did you relate to the label before signing; and is the “ECM sound” something that means anything specific to you? If so, could you pinpoint what this is?

Surely there is a certain mystique to the label; such a rich history, so many classic albums. I grew up with an abundance of ECM recordings in my collection (mostly Keith Jarrett at first, and eventually many more) and I always felt the singularity of their aesthetic. Wide-open soundscapes, starkly beautiful design, and above all, patience. I’m not even sure that I fully know what I mean by that, yet it’s the word that comes to mind and it feels right somehow. There’s a particular feeling of closeness and resonance that I get from many of their records; years of listening have undoubtedly shaped some of my own priorities in music. I would never have anticipated that a recording of mine would be released on ECM, though. It was a bit of a trippy moment when I got my first advance copy of Arborescence and opened it up to reveal that iconic CD design with my name printed on it.

I believe the studio you recorded Arborescence in has special attractive acoustic properties. Was it a distinctive recording experience for you than perhaps records you’ve made before?

It’s true. Mechanics Hall (in Worcester, Massachusetts) has a particularly beautiful natural resonance. So much so that a number of widely-used artificial reverbs are modelled on its acoustics. It was a remarkable experience to be in the place itself, to record without headphones and enjoy the warmth of the piano sound in that hall. Much of the music on Arborescence has a spacious nature that undoubtedly has a lot to do with the acoustics there – when two or three notes sound so good, why play eight or nine?

Turning to Arborescence once more: why record a solo piano album now at this point in your career, and what do you think is the most significant challenge in making one?

Actually, this album isn’t something that I really planned on, at all.

You’re also featured on South Korean singer Yeahwon Shin’s debut for ECM, Lua ya, released recently. The album has some very soft and lulling textures and sounds quite unlike anything around at the moment. Was it a huge shift to be involved in that recording and what aspects of it did you most enjoy?

The instrumentation (piano, accordion and voice) was a bit unconventional, and the music was almost all collectively improvised (none of the songs had premeditated arrangements), so in that sense it was definitely something of a shift for me. But not a jarring one; it felt natural. Yeahwon and I have a close friendship, so making music together often feels more like some kind of meditative conversation. While we were recording it didn’t seem like we were trying to achieve anything other than a shared atmosphere of simplicity, intimacy, and honesty. I love it when music feels like that!

Do you see yourself as first and foremost a pianist, an improviser, or a composer?

For now, I’ll set aside the platitudinous (yet true) retort: “I see myself first and foremost as a human.” With that out of the way, I suppose I could say that I see myself as improviser first, composer second, and pianist third. I might also add interpreter to that list, lurking somewhere between improviser and composer. Or, on second thoughts, maybe it’s composer first, pianist second, interpreter third, and improviser last. Or perhaps none of the above. It’s always changing and it’s often difficult for me to distinguish what’s what. My answer would probably depend on when the question was asked and how I’m feeling at that moment (and also, most likely, what type of green smoothie I had for breakfast and the alignment of the planets as well). Interview: Stephen Graham

Aaron Parks, above. Photo: Bill Douthart/ECM