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Matthew Ruddick

Author of Funny Valentine, an acclaimed new biography of the jazz trumpet player and singer, Chet Baker.
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Wednesday, 07 October 2015 04:17

Ten Questions for Aaron Parks, American Pianist

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Pianist Aaron Parks is a jazz musician who came to the public's attention during his time with trumpeter Terence Blanchard. Born in Seattle, Washington, he currently resides in Brooklyn, New York. 

1. You went to University at the age of 14. How did that come about?

I grew up on a little island called Whidbey Island, a little north of Seattle. It was a really great place for a young kid to grow up – a lot of wilderness, beaches, forest – good for the imagination. However, the school system there was not particularly rigorous, and when I was young, I was hungry for information. I had some really amazing private teachers, including a math teacher who introduced me to Fibonacci numbers, and I learned about how this strange sequence of numbers appears in nature, and all over. Basically, I started seeing beauty in mathematics – rather than drudgery, or work – and got exposed to this at a young age. I started to find myself getting pretty bored at the school on the island. My parents had heard about this program in Seattle called the Early Entrance Program; basically you do all your high school work in one year, and then you start the University at the age of fourteen. So I pretty much went from a school system which was not challenging to one which was crazily intense, with around five hours of homework a night in that first year! And I was still playing piano and bassoon at the time. Somehow I made it through that year, and after that, college was a breeze! I started at the University of Washington doing Maths and Computers – that’s what my Dad does, he’s a computer programmer – and then also music. After a couple of years there, the music bug really bit. I thought the academic thing was cool, but decided to follow the music, and see where it leads. I was very fortunate to have a family that was incredibly supportive, that were willing and able to uproot themselves. So the whole family moved to New York when I was sixteen, and I did two years at the Manhattan School of Music, and then graduated to the school of the road – with Terence Blanchard.

2. Was it always jazz for you? 

From the beginning, at the age of ten, I was always playing improvised music. On the piano, it was only that. I played a classical repertoire on the bassoon, starting around the same time. I was making up what I thought were tunes, but were probably collections of random notes. My parents suggested I take lessons, and I got very lucky with the people they found me to study with. A lot of this stuff is just how you’re exposed to it at an early age. Rather than me being shown a way of playing correctly, my teachers taught me to play by ear, and asked me what I was curious about working on. In certain ways this created big gaps in my music education, like not being able to read music on the piano very well. I can read bass clef, from playing the bassoon, but I couldn’t read treble clef for many years. I started to learn it – trial by fire – while playing with Terence Blanchard’s band, when we were doing film scoring sessions. It was kind of nerve wracking! But at the same time, it was a great way to get exposed to music.

3. What were the most important things you learned from playing with Terence Blanchard?

There are so many things I learned from Terence. For one, the cinematic art of storytelling – the sense of telling a story, creating tension and release. He’s really incredible at that. I also learned a sort of fearlessness. He wanted that band we had to not be afraid of taking chances – to go for it, and not be afraid to jump off that cliff, not knowing if there was water down below. By doing that, you start to learn how this works, and to understand. You learn that when there’s nothing down there, you need to get back out of there. But there’s no way to learn how to do that without doing that repeatedly, and failing. And the third thing he’s beautiful at is creating a sense of closeness with his audience. A lot of time I was with the band, he would do like a stand up comedy routine – the introduction of the band would be a ten-minute long thing, where he was telling jokes about everybody. And he created a feeling of camaraderie, helping to break down that barrier between the musicians on stage and the audience. I’m still developing my approach – for the most part I try to be radically unpretentious, be a little bit ridiculous! I’m still wondering if it’s working or not!

4. Over the last few years you’ve collaborated with many people, rather than have a regular band of your own. Was that intentional?

Yes, to a certain extent. I enjoy being a chameleon, and finding my way into a lot of situations, and trying to make music in them. I really enjoy learning and adapting that way. Over the last ten years, I haven’t been leading bands, but I’m aiming to do that a bit more these days. There hasn’t been a ton of work for me to keep a band together, for that matter. More recently, I’ve been playing with this trio Billy (Hart) and Ben (Street) as much as I can – before this UK tour we played about five or six gigs together, including a short tour in Asia. Then we’ll make a record, as soon as this tour is finished.

5. How did your current trio come about?

I’m not sure how much I love piano trio music; I’m just not completely convinced about it. I like the piano fine, but I prefer it in the context of other horns, or a singer. The piano trio can be cool, but it’s not really my cup of tea. For a lot of my own music, I tend to hear guitar playing the melodies, sometimes in unison with the piano. I tend to hear bigger sounds. I figured if I was going to play some piano trio – which as a piano player, you have to reckon with, at some point – I want to play with someone who has a ton of experience. I got to make a piano trio with a Danish bass player, Anders Christensen (Dear Someone – 2009), together with Paul Motian, and that was such an interesting experience, playing with a drummer like that. Beautiful and terrifying, and exposing certain things about my playing.

Now that I have the opportunity to put together a band of my own, I’m treating it as a learning experience. The whole thing came about because of the friendship I’ve had with the bass player, Ben Street, for many years. He plays in Billy’s quartet, and has played with him for many years. It’s a funny thing, because the three of us are about two decades away from each other in age! Ben just turned 50, I’m about to turn 32, and Billy is 74 now. I was very interested in that, having three very different generational perspectives. I was, and I remain, very curious to see what will happen every night.

6. What can you tell us about the new album you’re about to record?

It’s an interesting thing, because we’re discovering what we’re going to be doing by doing this tour. A lot of the previous tours we’ve done, I’ve brought in a lot more standards, but this time I’ve brought in a lot more tunes, and I’ve auditioned them, in a sense, seeing how people relate to them. So it’s a little early to tell you what the album is going to be like, even though I’m going to record it in about a week! Three of the things I brought in, for example, I’ve never played before this week. They’re brand new songs, and they’re still taking shape. I hope it’s ok for the audience! 

7. You said there hasn’t always been enough work to keep a band together. How would you describe the US jazz scene right now?

It’s tough, man. The deal for me was that I made the album on Blue Note Records back in 2008. That record came out at a very strange time, both externally and internally. It came out at the same time as the big economic crash was going down, and one of the most tumultuous times in my personal life – in my early-to-mid twenties, trying to figure out what I was doing with my life, heartbreak from this girl. I wasn’t in the headspace to be leading a band, even though this was the time I got my big break. But at that time, the stars didn’t really align. And with the economic crisis, a lot of the resources were drying up, and Blue Note itself was being downsized. So I got dropped from Blue Note. It was a rough moment. When Bruce (Lundvall) had signed me, the idea was to invest in me, and make lot of albums together. But it didn’t work out. So I ended up working a lot more as a sideman. But now I’m feeling a lot more of the hunger, especially having played with so many bands over the last few years, and gaining more perspective – learning what makes me feel comfortable, and what challenges me, and the proper balance between those things.

8. Your ECM debut, Arborescence (2013), was quite a contrast to Invisible Cinema (2008). Was that a desire to do something different, or write about the area in which you grew up?

Actually, it was neither of the above. The ECM album happened because of the guy that produced it, Sun Chung. We went up to the Mechanics Hall in Massachusetts. He had proposed doing a solo piano album – another one of those things that have to reckon with as a pianist. So we went up there, and I recorded a unch of things – I didn’t really have a theme in mind. I didn’t set out to make an improvised solo piano record. I recorded a bunch of originals, a bunch of standards – an eclectic repertoire. But when we listened back, the things that felt the most vibrant and alive, were the things that were primarily improvised. Two pieces had a composed piece of music, but once I finished the theme, I kept on playing as though I was composing the song further. In some ways, I’m not the guy who sets out to do things. I find myself in situations, and try to pay attention to where I am. 

9. How did the James Farm collaboration come about?

That came about through intersecting circles. I had made Invisible Cinema with Eric Harland and Matt Penman, and we had also made Pemnan’s record, Catch Of The Day (2008). I had first played with them together on Eric Harland’s tour of Japan in 2005 – a band that included Kurt Rosenwinkel, which is where I first met Kurt. Josh had heard Invisible Cinema, and reached out to me with the idea of starting a collaborative project. We thought about various musicians we could work with, but then it became clear. In his trio, he had played with Eric Harland and Matt Penman quite a bit, I’d been playing with them in my band, and we both loved their writing – they’re both very interesting composers. So we talked about making it a collective, and bringing these guys into the fold. So that’s how it came into being.

10. What would be your ideal jazz quartet from any era?

That’s interesting. I’m not sure I have one ideal. I love the quartet of Paul Bley, Paul Motian, Gary Peacock and John Gilmore. I love that band! They seemed to lay down the groundwork for the American Quartet that Keith (Jarrett) put together. Turning Point (1975, but recorded in 1964 and 1968) is the name of the record.

Of course, some of the classic bands. Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones together doing anything, with McCoy Tyner and Trane, or there’s a record they put out together, Illumination (1963), with Charles Davis on saxophone and Prince Lasha.

Or I can put together a dream band? OK. You have to think about balance, it’s all about balance. There’s a temptation to put too many poets in the band. You need the anchors for balance. OK, Miles is in, for sure. See, part of me is too much of a romantic, because I want a front line of Joao Gilberto, Miles and Lester Young, but then a hardcore rhythm section, but that would probably be insane. I have played this game before. Who do I want? I’m taking Ed Blackwell on drums, Jimmy Garrison on bass. Is there a piano? I don’t even know if I want to hear piano. I’m very curious about Ed and Jimmy together, that makes me very happy. It would be interesting to hear a mathematician like Lennie Tristano on piano, but he would hate it! But it is interesting that everyone used to hang out with him, people like Mingus, not just the Tristano school. I’m still looking for the secret weapon who’s going to bind the band. Maybe I’ll put Paul Bley in there, because I’d love to hear him play with that kind of band. And for good measure, I’ll throw in Bobby Hutcherson! 



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