Jazz music, news and views

Friday, October 24, 2008

Aaron Parks Quartet @ the Jazz Bakery


Pianist Aaron Parks's group hit the Jazz Bakery this past Tuesday in support of his new album Invisible Cinema, and they brought a crafty blend of jazz, classical, and indie rock atmosphere. Marcus Gilmore kept the quartet moving with some trashy, sure-footed backbeats on the groovier numbers. I'm used to hearing him in funkier settings (his work on Christian Scott's Anthem, also with Parks, and Parks's labelmate Gonzalo Rubalcaba's Avatar, in particular), but he was very comfortable playing it like more of a rocker. Thomas Morgan was in charge of "low end" duties that night. Guitarist Mike Moreno's crystalline tone couldn't fit more perfectly with Parks's bright touch on the keys. Their gorgeous lines were indistinguishable from each other during unison melodies.

The quartet avoided the pitfalls of jazz convention by shifting constantly and fluidly between the composition, soloing, and group interplay. (No "head-solos-head" arrangements here, thank you very much!) And it was easy to see how their individual performances were mutually supportive. Their sympathy was apparent from the opener, "Peaceful Warrior," which kept yielding surprises as new textures were explored.

Since I can't totally ignore the baggage I have as a listener, I'm initially inclined to compare Parks to Keith Jarrett -- his firm keyboard attack, thick chords, sparkling high-register lines, and a very intuitive, "letting the music happen" approach to solos. But naturally that's not the whole story. Parks is solidly in his own aesthetic, with his insistent ostinatos, pop-influenced harmonies, and deep vamps that burn into your brain. And he can take some startling departures when given the room. His playing serves not just the song itself but the compositional world he's created.

There were some killer solos, of course. Parks was excellent throughout, straddling several worlds on "Peaceful Warrior" or nodding at Bill Evans for a poignant rendition of "Blame It on My Youth." "Mirror, Mirror," a Moreno original that could easily belong on his leader debut Between the Lines, began with a characteristically intriguing, lyrical fingerstyle intro from its composer. Parks, who saw this tune for the first time that night, gave his solo a classical touch. "Con Alma" was done with such personal flair I might've thought they'd written it themselves. (That tune was only marred by a rude audience member who kept crackling something noisily during a solo from Morgan, who appeared undeterred.) Moments of rawer energy included Gilmore's explosive solo during "Harvesting Dance" and the lurching, sinister "Nemesis," for which Moreno dirtied up his usual milky tone. Apart from the solos, however, Parks's tunes are quite strong by themselves. The aforementioned "Nemesis" was very accessible to the young crowd (good live version here), and they kept everyone's head nodding along with the smart, ridiculously catchy, tango-gone-indie "Riddle Me This."

I mentioned earlier that I first heard Parks as youngster with Terence Blanchard. We often think of prodigies as conspicuously well-trained players with a precocious kind of virtuosity. Mature prodigies balance this with good taste -- they know they don't have to prove themselves. Parks and his cohorts have some obvious chops, and they use them only when necessary. Furthermore, they know how to blur the lines between composition and improvisation (a seemingly fundamental yet still-emerging characteristic of modern jazz). There are indeed spots to showcase each instrumentalist, but Parks's approach to sonics and structure revels in the mystery of avoiding the obvious. And the quartet kept the audience surprised with each turn.

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