Aaron Parks Crafts a New Context


Keyboardist Aaron Parks, bassist David “DJ” Ginyard, guitarist Greg Tuohey and drummer Tommy Crane collaborated on Little Big.

(Photo: Steve Sussman)

By then, Parks was well into rehearsing repertoire with Tuohey, to whom his manager, Tommy Wilson, had introduced him in 2011. A New Zealand native, Tuohey enrolled at Berklee on a scholarship in 1994. He studied there for about a year, earning a reputation, Rosenwinkel said, as an “incredible jazz improviser.” Around 2000, Tuohey began moving away from jazz and established a career in rock and pop arenas.

“Greg wanted to learn as much of the music as possible by ear, and he memorized it all,” said Parks, who explained that Tuohey laid down his parts and solos after the piano, bass and drums had recorded their tracks. “He’s much more interested in texture and melody and phrasing than many mainstream guitar players. He is not trying to play shredding, killing solos. He is looking for his thing. For me, the guitar is a sort of foil. It has something to do with the energy and raw power—it lets you rock.”

In Tuohey’s view, Little Big “goes all-in with what Aaron did on Invisible Cinema. Rather than just use these little influences to color a sort of modern jazz record, this really digs into those styles. It’s genre-fluid. Jazz is the closest thing you could call it, and it’s overarchingly improvised. But personally, I’m not trying to play fast, sweating modern jazz over it. We’re improvising within those styles, trying to play within the sound world of each song. Everything is about thinking compositionally.”

Parks enthused about bassist Ginyard’s ability “to figure out what each composition needs and create a complementary angle to bring to it.” They met Thanksgiving weekend 2015 at the Blue Note in New York as subs in Terence Blanchard’s E-Collective. “Almost from the downbeat I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’” Parks recalled. “David thinks flexibly in response to what’s happening around him, but simultaneously very producer-like—he constructs and builds parts with an overview approach.”

“Aaron gives you a road map, but he trusts my judgment and allows me to be an artist,” Ginyard said. “I listened to Invisible Cinema all the time when it came out. For me it was a combination of science and soul, head to heart—smart, articulate music mixed with emotion. That’s what this band is for me. I wasn’t as familiar with some of the time signatures Aaron uses, but his soulfulness makes it feel natural.”

In fact, Parks noted, “Most of Little Big is in 4, one way or another.” But he did single out “Professor Strangeweather,” an improvised, studio-constructed jam that proceeds in 39. “There’s a measure of 4, a measure of 3/8, then a measure of 5,” Parks said. He attributed his comfort zone within that type of structure to several tours with oudist-singer Dhafer Youssef.

“I love accompanying Dhafer when he sings,” Parks said. “We get into some interesting spaces together. Everyone has different approaches toward creating an environment that draws in the audience and creates a possibility of communion.”

Asked whether he attains different satisfactions from playing in acoustic or plugged-in contexts, Parks denied any bifurcation in his tonal personality. “For me, the keyboards is another voice that I speak or sing with,” he said. “The primary thing with this [band] is the song. We’re all improvising and coming up with our parts and improvisations to serve that song. We’ve done a handful of tours since [recording Little Big], and we’re finding our identity as a live band. Certain songs open up more, and we’re finding segues between songs where we improvise together. I’m always trying to be authentic to myself within the context of what we’re doing. I love threading my way through some changes, and if a song requires me to do that, I will.”

As examples, Parks cited “Rising Mind,” a mostly acoustic track on the final side of the two-LP vinyl edition of Little Big, and “Siren,” a kaleidoscopic tone poem that leads off side 3. He then turned his attention to “Kid,” the opening track. “The chromatic and rhythmic syntax of the melody sounds like something Kurt might write and/or play—there are several tunes on this record I wouldn’t have written if I hadn’t spent so much time playing Kurt’s music.

“I feel the album as a whole tells a story,” Parks continued. “I live in a generation of singles and playlists, and I love making them myself. At the same time, I love albums, and I love a sequence that tells a story from beginning to end. So, I took care to present something that made sense every step of the way. I didn’t compose all the songs as a suite. They came together over many years.”

Parks named the album for John Crowley’s novel Little Big, which he’s read three times and has purchased on multiple occasions as a gift. “I grew up as a science fiction/fantasy kid, and this book has fantastical elements, as well as really smart, poetic writing,” he said. “The sentences, said aloud, are delicious. It gives you the feeling of world-building, a world that exists almost side-by-side with our own, but with a bit more magic and sense of wonder, looking into the hidden structures undergirding it all. One thing I love about this band is that it feels like its own little world. If you surrender to the flow of what we’re into, it gives you a sense of a little bubble you can live within.”

After mixing and sequencing the album, Parks offered the finished product to ECM head Manfred Eicher. “Manfred likes to be involved from the beginning, and I had my own specific ideas about the sonics,” Parks said. “Manfred isn’t necessarily opposed to that—David Virelles’ electronic record, Antennae, was its own little universe, and I was hopeful it could come out on ECM in that kind of way. But it didn’t seem to be exactly what they were looking for.”

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