Aaron Parks' long-anticipated quartet recording, Little Big, on Ropeadope, marks a return to the eclectic, indie-rock vibe that he established on his brilliant but under appreciated 2008 debut Invisible Dreams (his sole Blue Note Records outing).
Genres fluidly blend and intuitive melodies prevail on pianist/keyboardist new album. He shies away from calling the new album “jazz” in a traditional sense, saying in a recent conversation, “This music is more like a psychedelic journey than anything else.”
“Throughout the record, there are little imperfections that I wanted to keep in for that human element,” says Parks, who enlisted engineer Daniel Schlett (The War in Drugs, Ghostface Killah) and mixer bassist Chris Taylor (Grizzly Bear). “Sometimes songs get too polished to the point where they’re shiny but unapproachable. I wanted to retain the cracks. It’s like the song ‘The Trickster,’ which has a false start that we kept in. We can play things that are very produced and pop-oriented, but we still want to keep the dirt under our fingernails. That’s the goal.”
Throughout, Parks eschews a virtuosic show of extraneous notes in favor of storytelling, creating a collection of musical tales that results in a balance between composition and improvisation. He says, “I wanted to make an album where the song is front and center. I love a sense of space, so that in my improvising I can come up with an alternative melody in the moment. That way you really can’t tell what’s composed and what’s improvised.”
Trio + guitare rock
Parks recorded the album live with the trio and then enlisted Greg Tuohey to come to the studio later to apply his guitar passages that fit smoothly with the coloring, phrasing and texturing of the tracks. He brings a playful rock grind to the opener, “Kid,” and plays in unison with the piano on the catchy “Small Planet” and the moody “Aquarium.” He slithers his driving lines through “Good Morning” and rips through the syncopation in “Digital Society” that leads into a dreamy, atmospheric close. Starting as Parks’ friend from jazz circles early on, Tuohey took a turn and launched into the harder zone. “Greg is a rock guitarist first and forever, and he improvises,” Parks says. “It may sound that we’re engaged in an interplay, but we’re separated. He came in and brought his killer, shredding lines that connected us all. He plays his guitar solos like a rocker. That’s the shit!”
One of Parks’ most adventurous tunes on Little Big is the expansive improvised jam, “Professor Strangeweather,” spearheaded by the leader’s keyboard thrust. That was a song that came together by collaboration. “I basically came in with the bass lines and a couple of chords,” he explains. “What we did was track that on piano, and DJ and Tommy just vamped. We played the different sections for a half hour, then took the parts and moved them around. We edited it all together to make a form, then layered the guitar in. We actually layered in three guitar tracks at the end. We stitched it all together, and yet it still feels organic.”
Aaron Parks, unrestricted by genre boundaries
Parks has been in demand ever since he broke in with Terence Blanchard when he 18 and went on to record four albums with him. He also has cred as a sideman with Kurt Rosenwinkel and Gilad Hekselman, and he’s a member of the acoustic quartet collective James Farm, with saxophonist Joshua Redman, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Eric Harland which has recorded two albums for Nonesuch. In addition, he leads a trio with bassist Ben Street and drummer Billy Hart and records for ECM. But his Little Big quartet is where he’s really stretching.
On tour, Parks is excited about the direction the band is going in.”The music we’re making is coming out of many different traditions,” he says. “I don’t care what the jazz people think. I’m finding music that works best for me. And this band can get a big sound. I’d much rather play in rock clubs in a standing-room auditorium than in a small club.”
As for what comes around the next bend for the band, expect more eclecticism. Parks is an insatiable listener of new music which has resulted in him posting two Apple Music lists. One is Daily Tracks, highlighting a tune that he listens to each day, from jazz drummer Bill Stewart’s new album to underground rapper Aceyalone. The other list, Earcatchers, features 75 tracks from his listening over the past 10 years, from jazz artists such as Sullivan Fortner and Logan Richardson to more adventurous acts like electro dance artist Maria Teriaeva and singer/saxophonist María Grand. “I’ve been listening so much that I’ve undertaken these two projects,” he says. “Let’s just say I’m using Twitter in a more creative way.”
Aaron Parks, Little Big (Ropeadope)