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Aaron Parks: piano; Ben Street: double-bass; Billy Hart: drums

On his second ECM album – following the solo release Arborescence, which JazzTimes praised as “expansive, impressionistic… like a vision quest” – pianist Aaron Parks leads a trio featuring Ben Street and Billy Hart. The bassist and drummer blend fluidity and strength and what Parks calls “an oceanic” quality, producing waves of energy to alternately ride and dive into. Find the Way has the aura of a piano-trio recording in the classic mold, from melody-rich opener “Adrift” to the closing title track, a cover of a romantic tune Parks grew to love on an LP by Rosemary Clooney and Nelson Riddle. Parks also drew inspiration for this album from the likes of Alice Coltrane and Shirley Horn (for whom Hart played); space and subtlety are a priority, with the pianist aiming to allow the music to breathe.

Parks recorded Find the Way with Street and Hart in the South of France, the trio working closely in the La Buissonne studio with producer Manfred Eicher. The pianist had previously played with Street in guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel’s band, and Parks was a longtime admirer of Hart, “from his days backing Shirley Horn to when he played with Herbie Hancock’s funky Mwandishi group to the Quest band with Dave Liebman to the Billy Hart Quartet on ECM, with Ethan Iverson, Mark Turner and Ben. I listened a lot to that quartet, really digging how he interacted with Ben. Ben and Billy have such a clear sense of where the ‘center’ is that they don’t even need to play it, just allude to it. But their playing has a centrifugal force – it’s like a whirlpool. Billy, in particular, has this special authority when he plays, this vital presence – and it makes you rise to the level of that engagement. He also has this subtle, poetic quality from his time playing with singers. He really is a poet of the drums.”

The trio plays the music of Find the Way with special elasticity, a push and pull between high lyricism and kinetic energy. Parks is particularly pleased with “Melquíades” (named for a character in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude). “That piece has a classic ECM feel to me,” Parks says, “and Billy just breathes the music, with its constantly shifting time signature.” Parks conceived “Hold Music” as a miniature drum concerto especially for Hart, but the pianist sprung “Unravel” on the drummer in the studio: “Ben and I had played the song before. It has this complicated 13/8 time signature, and even though Billy had never seen it on the page, he just started reacting when Ben and I started playing it – doing so with such individual color and vibrancy.”

Another highlight is “Alice,” which Parks initially patterned along the lines of an Alice Coltrane number like “Ptah the El Daoud.” He says: “It was a swinging tune with a cross rhythm in the piano figure, but it ended up opening out once we got through the melody, becoming something a bit more mysterious.” A key influence throughout Find the Way is vocalist Shirley Horn, who was also a distinctive pianist. “Shirley, when she took her solos, would leave notes hanging in the air, teasing with duration,” Parks says. “There was a sense with her piano playing of not needing to prove anything, but of a desire to let the music breathe. I think I’ve become more patient as my own playing has evolved, with my touch more resonant. I don’t feel as much of a need to grab the lead, to fill space. I feel free to let a note ring out and hang in the air, to hear what the sound does as it decays, to allow the pedal to work its magic.”

Aaron Parks was born in California in 1983 and raised in Seattle. By age 15, he was already attending the University of Washington with a triple-major in math, computer science and music; three years later, he was the champion Cole Porter Fellow of the American Pianists Association. Parks has recorded in the quartet collective James Farm with Joshua Redman, as well as contributed to albums by trumpeter Terence Blanchard, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, trumpeter Christian Scott, vocalist Gretchen Parlato, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, drummer Kendrick Scott, trumpeter Philip Dizack and guitarist Mike Moreno, among others. For ECM, the pianist appeared on South Korean singer Yeahwon Shin’s label debut, Lua Ya.     

The solo Arborescence, Parks’ sixth album as a leader and his ECM debut of 2013, earned him his best notices yet. The Guardian pointed out that the pianist’s “melodic sense is acute and original, his narratives and harmonies varied, and his pacing subtle,” adding that “Arborescence has a low-lights feel, but its musicality and lyricism glow brightly.”

© Studio Svengali, May 2022
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