Aaron Parks: “Invisible Cinema”

There’s an oft-cited statistic that jazz sales make up less than 2% of all record sales– the point being, one assumes, that jazz is something of a niche, a genre for musical elitists and sophisticates. All things considered, though, that’s a pretty narrow view to take of an American music idiom that has always been about openness and inclusion. If jazz is such a niche genre, one might ask, then how to explain the fact that jazz has always been at the creative vanguard of stylistic synthesis and integration? Be it Miles Davis’ adventures into funk and rock music, Wayne Shorter’s flirtations with Brazilian folk idioms, or even contemporary crossover artists like the pop-oriented Norah Jones and Jamie Cullum, jazz is a genre that’s all about expanding boundaries, not enclosing them.

And naturally that can lead to some pretty overt genre experiments, like Miles’ maligned hip-hop album Doo Bop or Herbie Hancock’s better-received but conceptually similar project Dis Da Drum. And it’s in that regard that Aaron Parks, at the tender age of 24, proves to have remarkable instincts as a jazz musician, incorporating diverse stylistic elements into his music in a way that’s all about inclusion and creativity, never about showing off or being too flashy. On his debut as a bandleader, Invisible Cinema, Parks reveals an impressive breadth of influences– jazz, of course, but also hip-hop, rock, and plenty of Radiohead— but not in a way that comes across as as a self-conscious attempt to prove his eclecticism or diversity. Rather, Parks is the rare artist who has absorbed a lot of different kinds of music and synthesized them all into his own unique style, resulting in an album that’s purely jazz while also pushing the envelope of exactly what jazz is in the first place.

It’s that sense of subtlety and modesty that make Invisible Cinema a compelling and remarkable achievement. Parks has spent a few years as the piano sidemen for a lot of jazz greats, including Terence Blanchard, and this is his first outing as the leader of his own band, but where many young upstarts would see this is an opportunity to show off, Parks instead uses it as a platform for modeling musical generosity and restraint. Working with drummer Eric Harland, bassist Matt Penman, and guitarist Mike Moreno, Parks creates music that quietly dances with jazz convention while also displaying a much wider musical background, all the while remaining rather amazingly focused, tuneful, and melodic.

Parks’ gifts as a pianist are never in doubt; in fact, he opens the album with two of its more modest songs, a shorter piece called “Travelers” and a long one called “Peaceful Warrior,” that essentially act as recitals for he and his band. Though they’re rooted in improvisation, the playing is smooth, sophisticated, and incredibly fluid, to the extent that they almost feel like instrumental pop songs more than they do modal jazz. Parks’ compositions reveal a true gift for melody, and he and his band are zealous to preserve that, keeping these songs tuneful and accessible even to non-jazz listeners.

As the album unfolds, though, Parks gets more adventurous, and a variety of moods and textures come into play. “Nemesis,” one of the album’s best songs, is a spooky piece that could have been composed by Radiohead at their most straightforwardly melodic and beautiful; Moreno’s guitar and some ghastly bells combine with Parks’ brooding playing to evoke a sublimely haunting mood. Meanwhile, Harland’s ethnic-flavored percussive work and Parks’ winding piano make “Riddle Me This” into a suitably coy piece; it’s a model of flirtatiousness and humor. A surprising country influence shows up in the lilting “Roadside Distraction,” but the album’s best song is the epic “Harvesting Dance,” a fiery, ferocious number that finds the chemistry and interplay of the four band members to be at a peak, with Moreno’s guitar bringing the song to arena-rock fervor.

These songs are balanced with some more straightforwardly introspective jazz number, of particular note being Parks’ spiritual solo piano on “Into the Labyrinth,” but what’s amazing is how well the album hangs together; because Parks and his musicians are so in-sync with each other and because the compositions are so tuneful, the whole album simply swells with melody and emotion. It’s a dynamite debut and a terrifically sophisticated and accessible work, an album that seems to stand at the intersection of dozens of different musical paths, making one think that, on his next album, Parks could end up doing just about anything. Hopefully, that will mean following the pattern of this record and doing a little of everything.

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