Aaron Parks: Back from the Edge

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Parks has battled and triumphantly come back from bouts of manic behavior that left him “getting pretty abstract,” he said, to the point that he had to cancel a tour and seek help.

(Photo: Janette Beckman)

On a steamy midsummer night in New York, Aaron Parks cut a solitary figure as he lingered in the cool semi-darkness of the Village Vanguard. Not 20 minutes earlier, the pianist had wrapped the late set before a packed house on the fourth night of a six-night engagement. Now, as the lights in the basement club dimmed, he basked in its afterglow — alone, save for a few stragglers.

The set, he said, had been the gig’s best so far, filled mostly with originals that built to a roiling climax with the emblematic “Little River,” a minor-key, pandemic-era waltz written after the birth of his son, Lucas. Making full use of his foil, the young tenor saxophonist Ben Solomon, and his redoubtable comping partners, bassist Ben Street and drummer Billy Hart, Parks engineered a 10-minute-plus treatment that swung from peaceful to turbulent before settling into a delicate equilibrium.

“It’s a little lullaby that can get to be ferocious,” he said, clearly still feeling the charge of emotion even as he worked to contain it.

A pianist of deep passion and profound conviction, the onetime prodigy is — now on the cusp of turning 40 — riding high. The Vanguard gig is one of many credits he is collecting as a leader in top clubs, as a core member of Terri Lyne Carrington + Social Science, as a recipient of writing commissions and as a recording artist of distinction. This fall will see activity on most of those fronts.

But, for all the activity, he is careful not to ride too high. Last November, while playing with his quartet Little Big at the Blue Note in Milan — the sixth stop of a planned 17-stop European tour that was to include dates at Ronnie Scott’s in London, Zig Zag Jazz Club in Berlin and Bimhuis in Amsterdam — his musical life came crashing down. Parks, long diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was spinning out of control.

“I was getting pretty abstract,” Parks recalled four months after the episode as he eased into a couch in a cozy room on the second floor of his home in Beacon, New York. “I was talking a lot on the bandstand, sometimes taking large portions of the set to make philosophical observations of the world, sometimes dancing around stage like Monk, another person with bipolar disorder.”

The erratic behavior was, he said, accompanied by grandiose thinking.

“I was becoming convinced of some sense of over-literalizing metaphors.” In his mind, “Dreams Of A Mechanical Man” — the title track of Little Big’s most recent album and a brilliant act of musical rebellion against bloodless conditioning — increasingly existed outside the realm of mere symbolism.

The music transformed accordingly. As he began to entertain the delusion that “maybe I’m actually a robot, maybe I was made, not born,” the rebellion against conditioning became a surreal pantomime.

“I was taking a solo with my left hand instead of my right hand, sort of playing intentionally things that were corny and not musically sophisticated, taking the whole thing not very seriously.”

The situation became untenable. “He was clearly in a manic state,” said Greg Tuohey, the band’s guitarist and a trusted friend Parks credited with helping bring things under control. “He texted us: ‘We can’t go on.’ We knew at the same time it was not safe.” So they, along with Parks’ wife, mother and manager, decided to cancel the rest of the tour.

Parks said his finances took a hit, as did his relationship with some of the club owners left in the lurch. But the outpouring of affection and understanding from colleagues and fans on social media and in person was overwhelming. After he published an essay explaining the situation on Medium, the response, as he wrote on Facebook, “was more supportive than I could have imagined.”

His creative life also got a boost. As it happened, he and Philadelphia-based poet, singer and activist Samantha Rise had, during the summer of 2022, already begun shaping ideas for a project combining words and music. Produced under commission from the Hudson Jazz Festival, the project would have a personal dimension — and, he said, his experience on tour would become another of the “mental health reckonings” that informed it.

Rise, for their part, also drew on a cascade of personal tests: death, divorce and a coming out as a nonbinary person of color.

“For each of us,” Rise said, “there had been this buildup of personal challenges and heartbreak and grief into the pandemic and also the uprisings of 2020 — the critical mass of racial injustice and systemic inequity in America that boiled over in those windows of time.”

As Parks put it: “We’d been having conversations looking at the state of the world and thinking, ‘This is the best we can do?’”

The project, Dreaming Home, was posited as something of an answer to that question. Joined on a snowy February night by bassist Meshel Ndegeocello, drummer J.K. Kim and flugelhornist Milena Casado on the grand stage of Hudson Hall — perhaps New York State’s oldest surviving theater — Parks and Rise fashioned a work that was seductive but also subversive. Even at its most disharmonious moments, it fell so gently on the ears that its urgent calls to look inward — and face outward — might almost have seemed beside the point. They decidedly were not.

True, the work’s opening, “Dream Invocation,” suggested that a passive experience awaited the audience, an impression fostered by Parks’ trance-inducing central device: an unadorned six-note ostinato he rendered with sublime delicacy using his left hand. But when the sonic context shifted and subtle ambiguities crept into the surrounding harmonies, an odd current of contradictory sensations — a feeling of flow yet stasis, of comfort mixed with unease — portended a more complex experience.

Floating over the proceedings, Rise’s words offered up the piece as “an invitation to a place where our attention and our intention meet.”

By the time “Dream Invocation” made its climactic return about an hour later, the mood — lifted by moments of musical poetry in which Casado’s uninflected flugelhorn doubled with Rise’s crystalline vocal atop Ndegeocello’s pulsing bass — had grown more pressing. The original offering was now posed as a challenge in the form of a question: “And so, how do we find ourselves, in Hudson, huddled near the edge of oblivion/In the place where our attention and intention meet?”

That challenge, heralded by the signature ostinato’s recapitulation as a ghostly presence, jolted the audience. Parks said he sensed the reaction onstage.

“It was something that I felt was going to land pretty hard,” he said. “And actually experiencing it in the moment with everybody there I was like, ‘Oh, that is really heavy.’”

Despite the success of Dreaming Home, he said, a “low-level depression” persisted. The pressure of finishing the piece had taken its toll.

“There were moments when I was wondering, ‘How am I going to do this?’ I was just feeling overwhelmed,” Parks remembered. And he was still in a “pretty depressive state” in early March when he appeared at Bar Bayeux, an overcrowded sliver of a cocktail lounge on a down-market stretch of Brooklyn’s Nostrand Avenue. Matched for the first time with Thomas Morgan on bass and Joe Dyson on drums, he found freshness in standards that, in lesser hands, could have seemed well past their due date. The crowd, mostly male drinking buddies, was won over.

Yet Parks, hanging outside and grabbing a quick breath of fresh air between sets, was dissatisfied.

“I was stuck in my head, putting boxes around myself,” he said, invoking a metaphor that became a recurring theme, especially as he examined his writing — or, in his estimation, overwriting — of specific piano figures. For Little Big, he said, “I write myself into these little prisons and then I’m trying to break down the doors of them as well.” Likewise, in his work for Social Science, “I’m trying to break my habit of writing a cage.”

Carrington apparently had no such qualms. Speaking in the days after a March concert with Social Science at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, she recalled wanting to adapt Parks’ “Bells (Ring Loudly)” since she first heard Little Big’s hypnotic version. She and Parks — who appeared on her radar when he was a teenager in Terence Blanchard’s band and who played on her 2012 album Money Jungle: Provocative In Blue — agreed to add her lyrics and remove a final section while retaining the melody’s integrity. The rethought tune became the cornerstone of the 2019 Social Science release Waiting Game.

It also ushered in the Zankel Hall concert’s finale. The tune’s ringing sonorities and stinging commentary on police brutality connected with the audience, who cheered when its obliquely harmonized vamp suddenly morphed into a counterintuitive but highly effective bed for the simple, if iconic, melodies of “Lift Every Voice And Sing” and “We Shall Overcome.”

“It worked beautifully,” Carrington said, noting that Parks was her initial collaborator when she was forming Social Science and producing Waiting Game. “Bells,” she said, was the first tune to which she put a lyric: “It helped negotiate the direction of the album.”

She was effusive about his pianistic gifts; his solos, highly evolved yet easily accessible to the most naïve ears, had proved the point, generating some of the strongest audience reactions at Zankel Hall. And she praised his values, artistic and social.

“There are certain musicians who are in alignment with the future and where things should be and where they’re going, Carrington said. “And he’s one of those musicians. I feel like we’re from the same tribe.”

The months after the Zankel concert grew busier. He returned to Europe with Little Big, packing houses at venue after venue. Then came the Vanguard gig, with a wholly different but equally satisfying quartet. The pendulum had swung, he said, toward a possible lifting of his depression.

“Feeling that sense of connection — music finding a home in people’s hearts and being well received — is tremendously encouraging,” he said.

Little Big, for its part, might be restructuring more as a collective, relieving Parks of some bandleader burdens and encouraging more contributions from its members. Guitarist Tuohey, he said, had recently drawn on his rock chops to produce an Afrobeat-inflected “Sports,” which Parks labeled “an immediate hit.”

The band, contemplating a renaming to avoid confusion with a Russian group of the same name, was eyeing a possible recording this year. It would be the group’s third; Dreams Of A Mechanical Man was released at the pandemic’s start in 2020.

On a wider canvas, Parks was working on a commission from the Miami-based Nu Deco Ensemble, an innovative chamber group he joined on the album Nu Deco Ensemble + Aaron Parks, released in 2021. He was aiming to create 15 to 20 minutes of new music based on a folk tune over a six-chord harmonic progression.

“I’m still in the process of boiling it down to its essence and figuring out how to spread it around,” he said. “It’s just going to require deep dives in the basement of my house.”

Though such phraseology conjured images of him toiling and feeling the pressure to produce, as he felt with Dreaming Home, Parks seemed more at peace with the prospect. The piece is scheduled to premiere in October. The following month, he is scheduled to take a quintet, with saxophonist Solomon, to Europe.

Meanwhile, back home in Beacon, between moments of dutiful doting on 2-year-old Lucas, Parks called up a recording of two tunes — Bill Evans and Miles Davis’ “Blue In Green” and Duke Ellington’s “Melancholia” — from a solo concert he held at Timbuktu Studio on a side trip to Lisbon during last fall’s ill-fated tour. The concert, he said, was performed “in a bit of a manic state, right before the tour crashed and burned.”

To the lay ear, his interpretations revealed little evidence of his being in such a state. Relaxed, thoughtful, at once adventurous in spirit and fully grounded, Parks thoroughly inhabited the tunes. But if he did find his psyche on that slightly elevated plane, one might conclude there is value in being there — in flying high, that is, just not too high — and not thinking too much about it.

“I’m letting the music itself work its magic,” he said. DB



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