[27 August 2008]
At 24 and with five albums as a leader under his belt, Aaron Parks can no longer be marveled at for his youth. Once he was a whippersnapper out Seattle, a kid who skipped high school to head straight to music college and could burn on the likes of “Billie’s Bounce”. Cute, but you’re just going to wind up as a jazz Doogie Howser if you don’t grow up and make some serious music.
Parks has not shirked this destiny, and the last two years find him all-growed-up and at the edge of brilliance. Last year, he played on (and contributed composing to) Terence Blanchard’s breathtaking A Tale of God’s Will (Requiem for Katrina), and this year his Blue Note debut arrives. It is fresh, original, and points the way.
In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a revolution in jazz piano as forward-thinking young masters such as Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea infused the tradition with the fresh influence of popular music. Today, something similar is afoot. Pianists like Matthew Shipp, Robert Glasper, and—now—Aaron Parks are expanding the vocabulary of the music with the new rhythms of hip-hop. As the process unfolds, it seems like jazz piano is once again a thing of discovery.
Invisible Cinema, like last year’s In My Element by Glasper, does not graft some jazz playing onto a hip-hop album, nor does it tack some DJ or MC onto an otherwise conventional jazz album. Rather, it takes a fairly tame-seeming jazz line-up—acoustic piano, guitar, bass, and drums—and creates a new vocabulary within which the group can interact and improvise. Most obviously, this group does not play standard jazz “swing” rhythms: walking bass and swing on the ride cymbal. Instead, Parks’ tunes and arrangements offer up stuttering repetitions and lurching syncopations that create a new kind of swing.
“Nemesis” begins with a piano octave played over and over in syncopation, with Eric Harland’s drums coming in beneath the groove in a half-time heavy 7/4 funk. Mike Moreno establishes a melody on electric guitar, while Matt Penman’s acoustic bass wisely plays just a few notes and mainly on the first beat. The tune’s cinematic quality (matching the album title) is enhanced by judicious use of glockenspiel on the out-chorus.
“Karma” begins as a keening but not unusual theme for piano and guitar, but then Harland enters playing a series of unpredictable double-time funk grooves that are light and clean. Penman plays only off-rhythm figures separated by long pauses. Boppish unison licks for piano and guitar also fill the space in the written tune, but they are set against the hyper-tight drumming in such a way that they sound almost edited in.
“Travelers” also uses hip-hop in this disguised way, setting up a complex drum rhythm that is recorded so that it sounds unusually dry and sharp, then running the piano against it to create the feeling of jagged excitement. On all these tunes, the effect on your ears is riveting. The harmonic vocabulary and the instrumentation makes it clear that this is nothing more than challenging, well-played post-bop jazz. But the larger reality is that Parks and his bandmates have found a way to infuse the groove of hip-hop into the larger jazz tradition.
As a pianist, Parks has developed personality and style. His playing here is rarely showy—he exploits repetition and simplicity whenever he can. At the same time, he has not thrown overboard the vocabulary of blues and bop. “Peaceful Warrior” features a fierce trade of solos between Parks and Moreno, and both players use fire as well as ice. Moreno plays neither a straight bell-tone jazz guitar nor a standard distorted rock guitar—he finds a space in the middle where his basically-clean sound has an element of punch and buzz. Parks plays for atmosphere as much as for dazzling solos, and so his restraint on a tune like “Harvesting Dance” makes the potentially showy Latin licks (in unison with the guitar) seems organic and tied to the larger tune.
If you are going to lead a piano group, then the other test is going to be your ballad playing. “Praise” gets to the bar and clears it easily. Rhapsodic and beautiful, the tune also lets Harland continue to fashion rhythmic accompaniment that would not have been used in jazz ten years ago. Parks’s solo is integrated with the melody such that the performance feels seamless—less like “jazz” than like a purely great song.
The album closes with a solo ballad performance. Just two-and-a-half minutes long, “Afterglow” made me scurry to my iPod to listen to Keith Jarrett’s still-fresh solo debut on ECM, Facing You. Parks plays with a deliberate clarity here—you sense that every finger is finding every note for a good reason. It is a perfectly organic performance, a piece of music that would seem to just exist in nature like a birch tree or a rounded stone. It is utterly without flash or the unnecessary exuberance of youth. The other solo piece, “Into the Labrynth”, also brings to mind the freshness of that earlier time, when jazz pianists were reinventing the art for a new age.
That is what Invisible Cinema is doing. Aaron Parks, a veteran at 24, is moving jazz forward with maturity and modernism. He has absorbed the rhythmic influence of today’s popular music, but he has fused it into the jazz tradition with the care and intellect of an experienced artist. America’s great music has at least one more champion in the young-but-not-so-young-anymore Aaron Parks.