Aaron Parks came to improvisation organically. As an adolescent, the Washington State native sat down at the family piano on a typically wet Puget Sound night. "I was trying to mimic the sound of a thunderstorm outside of the house [where] I grew up on Whidbey Island. That was my experience on the piano," the Brooklyn-based pianist revealed. "When I discovered jazz, it was something which gave me the ability to really express myself in the moment."
"Travelers," the opening selection from Invisible Cinema, the 25-year-old's debut, has a suspenseful tension that recalls that formative dark and stormy night, and opens up into a score Parks wants his listeners to storyboard. He admits it's "autobiographical" and something of a "messy love story," but leaves the rock-infused rest open to interpretation.
With Parks' omnivorous sensibilities on display, Invisible Cinema makes for an easy listen. He counts Blonde Redhead, Danny Elfman, Paul Bley, and Jeff Buckley as influences, and owes his development to five years in trumpeter Terence Blanchard's band, a gig he secured at age 18.
After transferring from the University of Washington, where Parks enrolled at 15, to the Manhattan School of Music in New York City, Parks was drinking up the concentrated local jazz scene while studying with the estimable Kenny Barron. One day after music theory class, Parks received a phone call from Blanchard.
"He was going to be on XM Radio playing live with a band with Eric Harland, Reuben Rogers, and Chick Corea, so he invited me to come and hang out. I get to the studio and Terence is like, 'Hey, we just found out Chick Corea can't make it. You want to play?'" Parks says. "And next thing, you know, I'm playing and Wynton Marsalis is moderating the interview and he's asking me questions about how I think about jazz." By the program's end, Parks had an offer to join Spike Lee's go-to film scorer's young band, which he excitedly accepted.
His education culminated on the road through trial and error. Blanchard was a hands-off bandleader. Should his young sidemen dig themselves in a hole, he let them find their way out.
"Trial and error, and that's what he gave us in that band," Parks recalls. "He gave us an opportunity to fail. He wouldn't say anything but we would know, and not because he was vibing us... he would give us the opportunity to correct our mistakes. That kind of trust that was shown from him, that strengthened us, that was incredibly valuable."
The eldest child of a computer programmer and psychologist, Parks didn't expect a music career and admits to being amazed at his current station. But just as he has long committed to chronicling the moment, he's just as committed to living in it. Between playing with Kurt Rosenwinkel's band and the projects of friends, he's already looking toward the next album, on which he's looking to collaborate with vocalists.
In fact, Parks' opening set for Patricia Barber features his new band, a trio, without the chromatic guitar styling of his last quartet. It's a creative courageousness that Parks attributes to his musical community, one unconcerned with "the definition of jazz." The fearlessness that followed him from his days at his parents' piano to that of a radio studio proves Parks is ever ready for a new adventure.