(ECM 374 4401. CD Review by Andy Boeckstaens)
Since I first saw Aaron Parks with Terence Blanchard in 2006, I have greatly enjoyed his performances with James Farm (the all-star quartet fronted by Joshua Redman), drummer Kendrick Scott and, most recently, alongside British saxophone player Will Vinson. His recorded output includes impressive collaborations with guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel; vocalist Gretchen Parlato; a Grammy-winner with Blanchard and, under his own leadership, the terrific Invisible Cinema (Blue Note 50999 5 09011 2 8).
Arborescence is Parks’ first CD for ECM, and it is a brave undertaking. Alone at the piano in Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts, he quietly ruminates and tinkers with little sketches in eleven pieces with a pastoral inclination. The opening Asleep in the Forest features gentle, repeated rising figures, then other motifs are briefly brought in, seemingly unrelated, perhaps at random. Nothing much happens, and this enigmatic approach permeates the album.
Almost everything is improvised. There is a superficial prettiness in a modern-classical vein, and listeners may enjoy the serenity and meditative feel of River Ways and the mysterious waltz, Reverie. The cleanly-executed arpeggios and changes of mood on In Pursuit are notable, and A Curious Bloom has a gorgeous ending.
Improvisation doesn’t have to be obscure, jarring or complicated, and none of this music is. But an absence of “song form” – which is no bad thing in itself – is matched by an apparently wilful avoidance of drama, movement and, in particular, swing. There is no tension-and-release, and the blues are miles away. During Squirrels and Past Presence, it’s as if Parks is toying with the piano, contemplating, wandering in vague directions, somewhat in the way of his inspirations Paul Bley and Ran Blake. The lack of many of the elements that make music entertaining may well be deliberate, but it is frustrating to witness. Branchings is the closest we get to a fully-realised tune.
Composed material is used as the basis for Elsewhere and Homestead yet, despite the aforethought and hints at European Romanticism, they ooze unfulfilled promise. Throughout Arborescence, I listened intently and longed for a moment to stimulate my intellect or capture my heart, but it simply didn’t happen. I really wanted to like it more, and hope that my lukewarm feeling about this recording will not be shared by others.
The production upholds all the customary ECM values: a clear sound that often captures little nuances – including Parks’ voice that gently and unobtrusively sings in the background – and a simple booklet containing a short poem, a couple of photographs and basic factual information.
Still only 30, Parks is one of the finest pianists of his generation and has demonstrated that he is capable of playing virtually anything he likes. He could have taken a safe route with a set of standards or a tribute to, say, Keith Jarrett or McCoy Tyner. That he chose to create something personal and different – as he says, “that quality of being open, of being open to possibility, wherever it took me” – is commendable. I look forward to hearing the next stage in his development.