Pianist Aaron Parks has released a couple of sizzling-yet-cool recordings in recent years with a band called Little Big. It is a quartet in which Parks composes and arranges for a band that includes guitarist Greg Tuohey and, in melodic and rhythmic inclination, connects us back to his unforgettable Blue Note debut recording, Invisible Cinema. Parks’ identity in that mode is strong: he finds ways to mold structures for improvisation that sonically evoke indie-rock and hip-hop alongside the tradition that threads back through Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Bud Powell, and Nat Cole.
But Parks has another side in which he is the consummate sideman or cooperative leader, a pianist who works well outside his particular “sound” – which is to say “in the tradition” but with his musical personality intact. His new recording, Volume One, features a trio co-led with bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Eric Harland. It seems – at first blush – like a more traditional jazz trio date because the band often sounds loose rather than like it is building some kind of New Jazz for the future. But Volume One generates a highly distinctive sound. It just does it on the sly.
The trio’s loose approach to the super-standard “All the Things You Are” is telling. Coming to this late-Covid session without rehearsal or planning, you would expect them to sound free-wheeling here. Parks fills his solo with craggy, open left-hand chords that engage in a bouncing dialogue with his always-melodic right hand – two voices playing tag with each other and then bringing Harland’s popping snare and Brewer’s full-toned acoustic bass into the play as well. It has a jam-session scamper in its bones like it was not excessively thought-through. But the arc of the performance is artful. It creeps to life out of a sensitive opening, moves into a vintage bass solo, climaxes on the “piano solo”, but then comes back down again with Parks playing the harmonic wash of the tune very quietly over Brewer’s gentlest accompaniment and Harland’s barely-there brushes. By its conclusion, it has earned the weight and care of Keith Jarrett’s “Standards Trio”. In short, this is not just a jam session.
The trio also seems utterly at home in the tradition of “Centering” by the late Frank Kimbrough, a mid-tempo tune with walking bass and wire-brush swing. The pocket is light and deep at once as Park floats the melody with gentle ease. Again, the suggestion is that this is a casual affair with an off-the-cuff vibe. Your ears might feel the same way about Parks’s opener, “Greetings”, with its percolating Afro-Brazilian groove with impressionistic harmonies that would have been ideal at home on a mid-1960s date. Until that is, you hear some of them with improvised piano lines spooling upward in abstract loops of melody that sound suspiciously more 21st century. It’s a taste of what’s to come because the session really isn’t the throwback it might seem, initially, to be.
For example, Eric Harland’s tune “Maiden” is a stately ballad that invites the trio to step forward. The simpler folk/gospel harmonies refer to the graceful, heart-tugging sound of some of the pianists of the 1970s. Then Brewer’s featured solo refocuses your ear on how this style also had a champion in Charlie Haden. “Eleftheria” (a Greek word and name meaning “freedom”), another Parks tune, also uses Harland’s clattering polyrhythms beneath a charming post-bop set of searching harmonies. Both Brewer and Parks play dancing solos that frame the piece a bit in the tradition of Chick Corea/Stanley Clarke.
Several of the performances on Volume One feel more urgent at the moment. The two compositions by Matt Brewer, while still harmonically in the jazz tradition, are closer to the New Jazz framework where the written material and the improvising feel more seamless and harmonic structure is bendable. “Aspiring to Normalcy” uses a composed left-hand piano arpeggio as a structural element for a length. As the trio drops that line for a period, the sense that they are “playing the chord changes” also disappears in favor of a more open structure. Intriguingly, Brewer’s second offering, “Of Our Time”, also uses piano arpeggiation as a central part of its written element, which stretches across a long structure that defies the basic form of a “jazz standard”. Harland improvises over (under? around?) the thrum of arpeggiated harmonies, continuing to be in the spotlight as Parks plays and embellishes the melody. Rather than return to the theme after “solos”, the performance ends with Harland’s improvisation melding with the theme, which never really went away.
So the real parlor trick of this Aaron Parks/Matt Brewer/Eric Harland trio is the way the band cloaks so much dazzle by avoiding flash, avoiding show-offery. Every jazz musician learns to play “All the Things You Are”, right? But as you listen more carefully to that performance on Volume One and certainly the original tunes, you hear the quiet authority of the band’s creativity. You may listen to Brewer’s solo on “Things” ten times and still discover new moments of thrill within it. If that’s the case, and it should be, listen to how Brewer accompanies Parks on the improvisation that immediately follows. He finds a funky pocket that has him spinning an exceptional melody on the bottom that sounds like a daring counterpoint to Parks and polyrhythmically in conversation with Harland. Or, three minutes into “Normalcy”, as the written arpeggio melts away, luxuriate in Parks’s restraint as he leaves space in his melodic lines, allowing the harmonies to ooze and bleed, making the trio sound orchestral and moody rather than busy, making the band have a distinct sound that is much more than its pure collection of notes.
I have no doubt that, despite the modernism and order that emerges as you listen more deeply to Volume One, the session really was largely unplanned. The familiarity and brilliance of Brewer, Harland, and Parks mean that the program would develop structure and weight over time, naturally. That makes the recording all the more magical.
A second volume from this session, as its title implies, is supposed to be coming in a few months. It isn’t typical for a band to have two gems in quick succession. But as you listen to this first collection for a third or fourth time, ask yourself where the weak moments are. It is unassuming, perhaps, but quietly, consistently, utterly wonderful.