In 2019, pianist Aaron Parks was in some pretty sweet bands. He was a vital player on Waiting Game, Terri Lyne Carrington’s sterling recording, which featured long, open improvisations informed by both grace and openness. Parks helped to create fluent pop/jazz with the singer Emma Frank. And he was touring with his quartet Little Big, a band that has been extending how jazz can incorporate hip-hop, electronica, indie-rock, and soul with modern jazz and contemporary classical composition.
That quartet, itself a successor to the band that recorded Parks’s 2008 Blue Note debut, Invisible Cinema, came into the studio (along with producer Chris Taylor) and made a new set of recordings that are just as good as what they laid down on 2018’s Little Big. Little Big II: Dreams of a Mechanical Man is both a complex piece of artistry and a pleasure to listen to, a real sleight-of-hand act. It grooves you and moves you. It’s smart but not smarty-pants. It’s wise and fun at once.
“Friendo” begins with a bumping groove that propels a catchy melody set over a hip, descending chord sequence. But what starts as a sunny if sneaky melody grows in fascination as the arrangement develops. A second theme for piano and guitar emerges before “DJ” Grinyard’s understated electric bass solo, followed by an expressive guitar improvisation by Greg Tuohey over a new harmonic sequence. Parks then introduces a cycling melody for his acoustic piano that locks in with a different written guitar part—which part becomes the accompaniment for a synth improvisation to follow. When the two interlocking parts return, they are met by yet another melodic line articulated by Parks on vibes and synth, everything functioning as a Steve Reich-ian wheel within a wheel. That simple pop tune? Tommy Crane’s snapping drums are still propelling you, but the journey took you to new, arresting places.
This kind of combination of invitation and dare is all over Mechanical Man. “Is Anything Okay?” begins as a minimal exercise in texture and repeated notes, synth harmonies mixing with the simplest possible guitar line, before Crane brings in a slappy, electronica inspired groove. “Here” offers a heart-pulling melancholy, but it also has an underpinning of steady groove—with piano and drums are locked in like a set of steps that move forward no matter what.
Not everything on this recording pops to life in the same way, however. “The Shadow & the Self” is built on a Fender Rhodes electric piano pattern played low and dark with a voluptuous guitar melody. It develops slowly with Tuohey’s guitar solo full of open space, evoking the spacious sound of Bill Frisell at times. But this is a piece that lets the band really play like a jazz group, with the solo seeming to develop over a set of chords that are more complex than just what we heard under a theme. At the same time, this track shows how Parks is using more complex compositional forms. He adds a new theme toward the end and makes it more orchestral, using his singing voice as part of the ensemble, bringing to mind the work of another guitarist—Pat Metheny.
“My Mistake” is also compositionally closer to the new jazz, using a 7+6 version of 13/8 time yet still working as a groove foot-tapping groove. It starts with lots of melodic space, allowing Crane to shine, but then the melody gets more complex and takes over in a longer form. There are no “solos” here but, instead, a textural jam you might expect from a group that doesn’t put “jazz” in its promotional materials.
A trademark element of any Aaron Parks recording is his ability to use his piano in a thrumming, rhythmic way. Parks came to New York as a young player when Robert Grasper was a huge influence, and the players are connected in how they can use a piano to lock into a rhythm section the way that guitarists usually do—making a jazz band evoke both rock and hip-hop. “The Storyteller” features this sound to great effect, with Parks repeating notes with his left hand in a Morse Code style that gooses the music along and Crane playing a modified but subtle Latin groove. Parks’s solo here is state of the art: nervous, inventive, thrilling in its interaction with the drums. Snatches of Hancock or Corea or Jarrett are in there, sure, but Parks doesn’t play a pastiche of post-bop piano but in a modern style that is both tuneful and free or harmonic stricture. When the guitar and piano interlock, we get fresh melodic material in a longer form.
In two cases, Parks uses Little Big to explore older compositions in new ways. One is “The Storyteller”. “Unknown” previously appeared on 2014’s City Folk by James Farm, the cooperative band in which Parks plays with Joshua Redman and others. A cycling Parks-ian piano figure is central to both, but Tuohey’s guitar is a more ominous voice than Redman’s soprano, and Parks uses the studio to bring in synth and voice that also tint the song toward shadow.
Mechanical Man also offers a combination of traditionalism and greater freedom. “Solace” sounds like the title of a great jazz ballad—and sounds like one too at the start. Parks wanders through some traditional jazz harmony as a solo pianist then invites in the quartet for an aching guitar melody. In a few cases, Parks simply let the quartet improvise and let producer Taylor select a choice excerpt—such as “Where Now?”, which rides on Grinyard’s throbbing bass groove.
The magic of Parks’s Little Big band is clearest after multiple listens to this outstanding recording. The tunes captivate, and that may tempt you to underestimate them. “The Ongoing Pulse of Isness” is atmospheric in its prelude then “merely” pretty as it states its theme, and you might just get lazy and not follow the journey it takes your ears on. Listen again. It is a great jazz recording, which means that the theme is spun into something more astonishing when Parks’s piano improvisation becomes a true conversation with Grinyard, Crane, and Tuohey. For all the extraordinary detail in the arrangements and production across Dreams of a Mechanical Man, it comes alive in the way that the band interacts in real-time.
After years out on the road together, the band made a stunning recording. What could be more “jazz” than that?