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Aaron Parks Trio

Aaron Parks Trio, St. George’s, Bristol, 08/10/2015.

Photography: Image sourced from the St. George's, Bristol website [url=][/url]

by Ian Mann

October 09, 2015


This performance was something of a curate's egg, improving immeasurably after the break as the trio achieved a greater degree of empathy and interaction and finally began to realise their potential.

Aaron Parks Trio, St. George’s, Bristol, 08/10/2015.

I first became aware of the music of the American pianist and keyboard player Aaron Parks in 2009 with the release of his album “Invisible Cinema” (Blue Note Records), a strikingly mature début that combined the sounds of acoustic and electric instruments in a manner that was sometimes reminiscent of the style of guitarist and composer Pat Metheny.

I have since heard Parks performing as a sideman with vocalist Gretchen Parlato and saxophonist Patrick Cornelius and also as a member of the ‘supergroup’ James Farm alongside saxophonist Joshua Redman, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Eric Harland. James Farm will be playing at Cadogan Hall as part of the 2015 EFG London Festival, a concert that I hope to attend and cover for this site.

Parks’ list of sideman credits is impressive and extensive and also includes work with trumpeters Christian Scott, Terence Blanchard and Ambrose Akinmusire, guitarists Kurt Rosenwinkel, Lage Lund and Mike Moreno, drummers Kendrick Scott and Terri Lyne Carrington and saxophonists Will Vinson and Ravi Coltrane.

Still only thirty one the Washington State native has also been developing his solo career with the release of the solo piano album “Arborescence” for the ECM record label and the rather more lo-fi “Alive In Japan”, a concert set recorded with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer RJ Miller.

His current tour of the UK is being undertaken as a direct consequence of his ECM connections and finds the young pianist leading another comparative ‘supergroup’ in the shape of bassist Ben Street and veteran drummer Billy Hart. Hart’s quartet, which features Street, saxophonist Mark Turner and pianist Ethan Iverson has also recorded two albums for the label.

Hart, born in 1940, has worked with many of the jazz greats including guitarist Wes Montgomery, organist Jimmy Smith, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianists Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. He even played with Miles Davis on the “On The Corner” album.
Street has similarly impeccable credentials albeit with a slightly younger generation of musicians, most notably guitarist John Scofield.

This date in the converted church of St.George’s was the final performance on a short UK tour that had already included visits to London, Edinburgh, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton. Reading accounts of some of the other shows it would seem that the sets varied each night both in terms of the tunes selected and the running order.

At Bristol the trio commenced with a sequence of three tunes beginning with an untitled Parks original which the quietly spoken pianist explained was still “finding its way to a name”. Parks’ solo piano intro was subsequently augmented by the sound of Hart’s mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers, the drummer subsequently moving to brushes or sticks as the music required with Street content to play more of an anchoring role.

Although this was a sequence it wasn’t a segue, there were clear gaps between the numbers with the trio adopting a far more vigorous approach on “Alice”, Parks’ dedication to Alice Coltrane. This was an altogether busier piece, full of bustling, bristling ostinatti and with Hart using sticks throughout. I’d seen Hart once previously at Brecon Jazz Festival in the late 1980s when he appeared with the Quest group led by saxophonist Dave Liebman and featuring pianist Richie Beirach and bassist Ron McClure. Hart’s drumming in the Quest band was powerful and dynamic and just what that group needed but here I found his playing to be too loud and too obtrusive in the context of an acoustic piano trio. Street was using minimal amplification for his double bass but Parks’ piano wasn’t miked up at all and in the early stages of the concert he was too frequently overpowered by Hart’s busy and restless drumming, a problem that continued into the third tune of the opening sequence, Wayne Shorter’s “Marie Antoinette”. That said Parks’ displayed a lightly skipping lyricism on Shorter’s theme and Street asserted himself with the first of several excellent bass solos before an engaging series of closing piano and drum exchanges. Nevertheless at this stage of the performance I was still left with the gnawing sensation that I wasn’t enjoying this concert as much as I should have been. 

Fortunately things began to improve with Parks’ “Song For..” -the pianist’s softly spoken announcing style ensured that I missed the name of the dedicatee -sorry. Here Hart kept things simple, sticking just to brushes, and finally gave Parks some much needed room to breathe. In this ballad setting the pianist was at last allowed to demonstrate his considerable lyrical and melodic gifts.

The first set concluded with the George Shearing tune “Conception” which gave Hart the chance to impose himself again with a genuinely impressive solo drum introduction and a similarly impressive closing drum feature bookending solos by Street and Parks as the trio stretched out energetically on Shearing’s theme. The Bristol crowd, which included many people younger than the usual jazz demographic, responded highly enthusiastically, there was even an element of whooping, but overall I remained less convinced.

From my point of view the second set was infinitely superior to the first. It was also longer which left the trio well in credit by the end of the evening. I don’t know if words had been exchanged in the green room at half time but after the break Hart showed a lot more restraint as he made greater use of the brushes and generally eased back on the throttle. In this more relaxed environment Parks was able to flourish, as on the opening tune , a piece with a foreign language title that translated as “Liberation”, something that suddenly seemed very apt. Here the pianist was able to solo expansively and also to engage in some absorbing dialogue with Street as Hart provided genuinely sympathetic support.

A melody written for one of the characters from Marquez’s “One Hundred Years Of Solitude” was equally absorbing with Hart again providing sensitive brushed support, his commendably delicate cymbal work complementing the melodic soloing of Parks and Street.

Parks’ own “Adrift” began with an extended solo piano introduction and added a hint of wilful dissonance among the doomy left hand figures but this was a richly atmospheric piece of music enhanced by Hart’s mallet rumbles and cymbal splashes, the tune subsequently gaining a fresh momentum when Hart picked up his sticks.

It seemed to me that Parks was enjoying himself far more in this second set, it’s always a sign that musicians are really getting into it when they stop bothering to announce tune titles. Next up was another beautiful ballad with Street providing a delightfully melodic bass solo alongside Parks’ piano lyricism and Hart’s tastefully brushed drums.

Also unannounced the next piece marked a return to the busier style of the first set but at this point in the proceedings it represented an effective contrast to the earlier balladry and seemed to make perfect sense. Street led off the solos at the bass followed by the leader at piano with Hart stealing the scene with a closing drum feature, Parks’ periodically stamping his feet in approval of the man he had introduced as “Sir Billy Hart”.

A leisurely investigation of the standard “Darn That Dream” lowered the temperature again and was the framework for another solo from the consistently impressive Street alongside Parks’ own piano meditations and Hart’s empathic brush work.

“We’re going to try something on it” said Parks as the trio stretched out on the closing “The Story Teller” with the composer’s extended solo piano introduction pointing the way.

The trio’s reward for a much more enjoyable second set was an enthusiastic reception from a sizeable but far from capacity crowd, with whooping again a feature, why does it only seem to happen with American acts?
Our reward was an encore of a standard, unannounced, “All The Things You Are”, as I recall, which saw Parks giving Hart his head as the veteran drummer delivered his final solo of the tour.

I was told that the trio were flying to a studio in Marseilles the day after the gig to record an album (not for ECM presumably, I don’t think they use a studio in France) and it will eventually be interesting to see how they sound on record. With the benefit of a producer I’m sure the resultant recording will be excellent.

Overall tonight’s performance was something of a curate’s egg, marred by the heavy handed drumming early on but improving immeasurably after the break as the trio achieved a greater degree of empathy and interaction and finally began to realise their potential. 

I’m now looking forward to seeing the modest, but hugely talented, Parks performing in the rather different environment of the James Farm band.

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