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Aaron Parks interviewed by Matt Kassel

Matthew Kassel
Contributing Writer
matthew.kassel [at] mail.mcgill.ca

On Friday, October 22, I sat down with pianist Aaron Parks between sets at Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill here in Montreal. He was performing in the Rick Rosato Quintet. (Read this review, on Nextbop, for more information on that performance.) We talked for about twenty minutes about his work, his projects, his influences, his life in New York, his views on the importance of rhythm. The interview was sort of interrupted when Peter Schlamb, the vibraphonist in the quintet, walked into the musicians’ room where we were talking. It was no problem, though.

MK: Is this your first time in Montreal?

AP: No, not my first time, I’ve been here a number of times. I’m not sure exactly how many. Probably four or five. The first time I came here was with Terence [Blanchard]. We played the Montreal Jazz Fest.

MK: When was that?

AP: I don’t remember the year exactly, but I know that it was when they had that…there was a whole other venue, I think, that they closed down recently. I forget the name of the theatre. It was like a square theatre...I played there with Terence. I played here the Jazz Festival before last with Joshua Redman, with that new band James Farm.

MK: Two summers ago?

AP: Yeah, like not this last one, but the year before that. Our very first gig with that band…it was a co-led band called James Farm. And our first gig was there [Montreal] and it was really fun.

MK: That’s good, how do you know the musicians [in the Rick Rosato Quintet]?

AP: I know the musicians…it’s sort of funny. Two of them took lessons with me at the New School. And they came to me, and I was basically like, “Why do you want to study with me?” you know, like, “I don’t have anything to teach you.” And so we’ve kept in touch, and Rick [Rosato] took some lessons, so that’s why I first met him. And he’s just a monster. Like he’s really…you know, he sounded good when he first came to New York, when I first started hearing him, but then he went up and started taking some lessons with Larry Grenadier, hanging out with him, and all of a sudden it just turned into a whole deeper, like pretty crazy thing.

MK: Larry Grenadier was in Montreal last weekend.

AP: Oh yeah?

MK: With Chris Potter.

AP: Oh, cool…yeah, and then everyone else I met in sort of similar ways. Ben [Van Gelder], just a monster. One of my favorite alto players around today, period. And the same goes for Peter [Schlamb], who also took a couple of lessons with me, and just…really one of the most original vibraphone players I’ve ever heard.

MK: Yeah, I like how he held his mallets.

AP: Right? [laughs]

MK: His body sort of, it’s like…

AP: He’s like such an interesting, awkward, wonderful person. And, yeah…that solo that he took tonight on the blues was insane.

MK: Yeah, he can go fast.

AP: He can go fast, but it’s not only fast. It’s like the content of his ideas. They all feel really connected. And he improvises in this way which feels really natural, and really, like, I mean…I can tell he’s checked out a lot of music that’s not vibes players.

MK: I heard a little Monk in his sound. Do you agree with that?

AP: For sure. I hear Monk, I hear [Paul] Bley, I hear a ton of people, a lot of horn players, piano players. But yeah, it’s interesting.

MK: “Wise Old Man,” that was your tune?

AP: Yeah.

MK: That was not on [your album] Invisible Cinema, was it?

AP: No.

MK: Because it…I don’t know, when I was listening to it [during the performance], I was thinking it was probably your piece.

AP: Yeah, sort of episodic, the way it transforms and sort of has that…I mean, it’s one of those tunes that I think, hopefully, really just creates its own unique vibe, like from the drumbeat to the chords and how it all works…and sort of…rather than you’re listening to a jazz tune, it sort of puts you in a place.

MK: Yeah, it seemed nicely symmetrical to me.

AP: Cool.

MK: I don’t know if that’s what you were going for.

AP: Definitely, absolutely, and yeah, that’s the balance; it’s a funny tune. But I wrote that for a commission by this club the Jazz Gallery, in New York. They were really kind enough…they were one of the places that really gave me my start when I first moved to New York.

MK: When was that?

AP: Like 2000 I moved there, and I started getting gigs there maybe 2002 or 2003. So they commissioned me to write this suite of tunes, and I wrote a bunch of different things. It was a suite for the different archetypes, sort of inspired by Jung’s ideas, but also just a bunch of other characters that I decided to make into types. So I have the wise old man, the trickster, the fool, the shadow on the self, there’s the storyteller.

MK: This relates to Jung?

AP: Some of it: the shadow on the self, the fool, the great mother, the wise old man, those were all archetypes that he talked about.

MK: Oh ok, I don’t know too much about him [Jung].

AP: Yeah, me neither. Honestly, I haven’t even finished one of his books. [laughs] And that’s a shame because I read a lot and I really should read his stuff. It’s good stuff. But yeah, so that was there that one came from.

MK: So, when you write a tune, do you draw on sources that are non-musical? Like, for example, drawing on Jung.

AP: Sometimes, but it’s not usually so overt. Usually I write a tune and then I think about something that I’m thinking about in my life, you know, something that interests me, you know, whether it’s a movie, a book, ideas. Then I’ll just throw that title on some random tune, you know? But the archetype suite was a little different, because I did have these characters, these sort of concepts that I had in mind and needed to try to bring to life in some way.

MK: Have you recorded those?

AP: No, not yet.

MK: Do you plan on it?

AP: At some point. I don’t know if I’ll record them all as one suite together. But maybe, it could be a nice thing to do actually. Yeah, I’ve been playing a bunch of different ones with different bands.

MK: In New York?

AP: Yeah.

MK: What’s the band you’re happiest with at the moment, if you can answer that question?

AP: Oh, that’s a good question that you’re asking. Well, I’m not sure. I’m happy with all of them, but they’re all at their beginnings, you know? I’ve got a couple of different bands. I have a trio that I’m really excited about with Matt Brewer and Tommy Crane. And we’ve known each other since we were like fifteen. And now we live a few blocks away from each other. It’s just sort of like one of those weird, karmic connections. So I’m looking forward to doing that; we’ve done a couple of tours. And I think that’s going to be my first priority, to record that. For a long time, I didn’t feel ready at all to do a trio. And I still don’t, cause you know, it’s like: Trios. There’s so much history there. When you make a trio record, you got to make it…it’s like your left hand, you know, as a piano player, you’re responsible for really animating all of the parts of the song. You can’t delegate that to a guitar player, or…you know, as much as I love all that orchestration….So I’ve got all these responsibilities, but there’s also room for freedom and real, on the fly expression, changing, evolving tunes. So that’s one band.

Then there’s the project with Josh [Redman] that I told you about. And that band’s cool, the record that we made, I’m pretty happy with it. And I think that’s a band that’s definitely fun and has a vibe. And I have two other bands of mine right now. Well, one that’s a quintet, that’s basically formed by me and Thomas Morgan, the bassist. And it’s just a band that plays beautiful songs. It’s like not about doing anything spectacular. We’ll play a whole set of ballads, or just show tunes that we like, or songs by Hermeto [Pascoal], you know. But…just beauty…it’s a beauty band. That’s sort of the idea for that, so we’ve played two gigs in New York, and that one will evolve. That’s with piano, bass, drums, tenor saxophone and guitar, because I love guitar.

And then there’s a new band that I’m a part of with my roommate Matt Brewer and his girlfriend. So all three of us live together in the same house, and practice music, and write, and it’s got sort of a weird family vibe, almost. So we made a band together. And that has two guitars. It’s two guitars, piano, bass and drums, and voice sometimes. It’s going to be maybe just a weird rock band-jazz thing. I don’t know what exactly, so that’s still a work in progress.

MK: Wow, you’ve got a lot going on. [laughs]

AP: Yeah, there’s a lot of things, and none of them are recorded. And none of them are really ready to be recorded.

MK: It’s make me think about how much is unrecorded.

AP: Well, just of everybody’s, right? There’s so much music…there’s a big difference between music that you imagine making and music that you actually make, you know?

MK: Yeah, well, would you say that the music that’s recorded is sort of the apex of what you’re doing at the time?

AP: I would say that’s it a snapshot of what you’re doing at the time. It’s not really an apex necessarily. For me, for example, some of the music that was on my record Invisible Cinema, some of that probably reached its apex probably three years or more before we recorded it. We did a tour with that rhythm section and Kurt Rosenwinkel. So it was Eric Harland, Matt Penman and Kurt. And that was the band, like that…I have some bootlegs from that tour that are like some of my favorite playing of mine and my favorite being part of a group. So we did a couple of my tunes then, like “Peaceful Warrior.” I posted that one on MySpace.

MK: Oh, I listened to that. I was wondering what that was…

AP: What’s that?

MK: I was wondering what it was, because, you only have two songs on your MySpace?

AP: Right now, yeah. Yeah, the whole internet thing, I just was like, “Yeahhh…cool…” I sort of got way into it for a while, you know, blogging a lot.

MK: I have a blog, too. [laughs]

AP: Yeah, I don’t know if you ever read my blog at all when I was keeping it…

MK: I haven’t read it.

AP: Well, it’s pretty much gone now. I deleted most of it. So I went way into that world and then backed way out. So I hardly even check Facebook or MySpace anymore. But, that tune’s on there. [laughs]

MK: So you’re just not interested in it, or…

AP: No, I am interested in it. I think it’s a great way to connect with people. But it’s just a matter of where you are in your life and whether it’s a time to be connected with people or not.

MK: You sound pretty well connected without it.

AP: Exactly, I like the people who I actually see on the day-to-day basis in my life, and I really enjoy focusing my energies towards those people. And then when I see other people who are, you know, my friends, I’ll stay in touch via, you know, the phone. Or, you know, when I see them, I’ll spend time with them, but I don’t need to keep in touch with everyone all the time, like broadcasting everything. Though I like it sometimes.

MK: It can be overwhelming.

AP: It gets super overwhelming. You’re just trying to catch up with everybody, and sort of like see everything that’s happening. And for me, I made the mistake of when I first made my Facebook page, just accepting friend invitations from everybody.

MK: I imagine there would be a lot of them.

AP: I have like three thousand friends now. And I don’t know who probably a little bit over two-thirds of them are, but they’ll like comment when I post a status update or whatever and want to start conversations. And that’s great, I love that…

MK: It can make you feel good.

AP: It totally can make you feel good. But it can also make you feel a little bit like you have to put on a show, because rather than just hanging out with your friends—which is Facebook, just talking about whatever—all of a sudden you’re interacting with the fans. And then you need to pretend to be. You know, then it’s not the real Aaron Parks, then it’s Aaron Parks: Facebook page.

MK: So yeah, I was going to ask, if you get a lot of emails from fans and stuff, like saying, “Can I have lessons?” or “Can we meet up sometime?”

AP: There’s some, you know. Some more times than others. When my record [Invisible Cinema] came out there was a lot of that. And I’ve, I think, pretty successfully managed to get myself under the radar at this point, which I feel good about. You know, when I run into people at clubs or whatever, and if they want to ask me about lessons, then that’s a good way to do it.

MK: So regarding the trio context, I can think of a couple of pretty good trio albums in the last couple of years: Vijay Iyer, Historicity; Sam Yahel.

AP: Sam Yahel’s one is beautiful.

MK: I really like that one. So I was wondering, if you decided to do a trio album, if you would incorporate their ideas, or listen to that and try to draw on it at all.

AP: I mean, I really…I think that anything that I have listened to is going to influence what comes next, but I don’t think that I’m going to really necessarily go into it with any agenda of saying, “This is what they did and I’m going to make a commentary on that,” in any way. I think that they all have their own trio concepts, and I love that. That’s really valuable. And then I also want to find what my trio concept is with Matt and Tommy. Because we already have one. We already have just a common sort of basic emotional rhythm. Which is to me, more than anything else…whether the people are really in tune with each other, like physically, intellectually, mentally and emotionally. And I think that that group just has a shared common vibe, and I just want to document that more than anything, more than any ideas. I just want to play music with them.

MK: So when you say emotional rhythm, do you mean like you’re all connected sort of on an intuitive level?

AP: Absolutely, there’s absolutely that. And I think, it’s just also a certain shared idea of…I don’t know, emotional rhythm is a hard thing to describe. But you know, rhythm is like that backbone of music. It’s this thing which is so much deeper than just like, syncopation. Rhythm is the speed at which things are happening, like one event to the next, and the spaces in between. And when you start going into that world, and then really expressing emotion through timing, through…I don’t know how to…these words are all garbled. I don’t really know how to express it.

MK: Is it like explaining what jazz is, maybe?

AP: Maybe, I mean it’s such a basic thing of music. It’s not about jazz, it’s just about being a human being who is like, alive, and emoting, and expressing themselves. And when you have people who sort of have shared language, in a way, of similar ideas about what certain emotions might sound like, or what a sense of drama…you know, you have a shared sense of suspense, of all of those things, you can connect really well. Like for me, with Tommy—the way that he thinks about time and the beat and where he chooses his accents and where the swells happen—all of that is just like really natural and feels like mother’s milk to me, you know? So that’s an answer to a question I guess.

MK: I sort of understand. So what’s your next gig, if you have one? I’m assuming you do. [laughs]

AP: I do. I’m going out with my friend Will Vinson.

MK: Will Vinson?

AP: You know him at all?

MK: I don’t.

AP: He’s a fantastic alto player, originally from London. He was one of the first people that I met when I moved to New York. And we went to school at Manhattan School of Music together and influenced each other’s writing and way that we think about music. And he’s starting to get some more gigs. He’s touring throughout Europe, which is really great. So that band is with Clarence Penn and Orland Le Fleming , and we’re going to France, we’re going to Denmark, Switzerland, a few other places, just like a week-long tour.

MK: Sounds nice.

AP: And then I play with Gretchen Parlato. I’m playing a couple of gigs with her in London and in Amsterdam.

MK: You have recorded with her, have you not?

AP: Yeah, I have.

MK: How do you like accompanying a singer?

AP: It’s a real challenge, you know, but with Gretchen it’s easy, you can play anything really, and she’s going to be there and deal with it and figure out a way to sing something herself that makes everything sound good.

MK: Is it more her responding to you?

AP: And all of us talking to each other, but she really…rather than having a way that she wants to do things, and we need to do things a certain way in order to accommodate, she’s really an improvising musician. She’s an improviser and is as ready to get up into complete uncertainty and let things sound bad and isn’t worried about it.

MK: That’s good.

AP: It is good, and it’s rare.

MK: Sounds like an honorable quality.

AP: It is indeed. Yeah, it’s one of the things that makes her, you know, in a way, one of the most important musicians right now. Even aside from what notes she sings, and even her aesthetic, just the fact that she can get up there and lead a band and let things happen. That’s such a rare thing to find these days, you know, because there’s a lot of control that bandleaders sometimes like to have. And they feel like they need to create a certain statement and deliver it in one way or another. Maybe I’m projecting…[laughs]…I don’t know. I really like Gretchen’s approach.

MK: Is it hard to live in New York as a jazz musician?

AP: Yeah, yeah it is. It’s hard to live in New York, period. It’s a tough city, it’s a beautiful one. You know, it’s really an ugly beauty. But yeah, it’s tough, I had a number of pretty weird and rough and just really pretty difficult experiences while living in New York, meeting some people who were a little weird for me to be around, and shit like that. Yeah, and then also just paying the bills. I had to move back in with my mom for like ten months until just a little while ago.

[Knocks on door…]

Matthew Kassel is a fourth-year at McGill University studying political science and Arabic. When he can, he writes--often about jazz. Find some of his work at http://coldjazz.blogspot.com/.