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Aaron Parks

Mike Moreno

Aaron Parks Quartet

Matt Penman

Sam Knight

photos by Rudy Lu

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Skidmore Jazz Concert Series
Bernhard Theatre, Skidmore College
Saratoga Springs, NY
July 8, 2008

by J Hunter

Aaron Parks was a semi-disheveled teenager when he came to Skidmore with Terence Blanchard in 2003, but that doesn't even tell a third of the story: By the time Parks was 14, he had skipped high school and was carrying a triple major at the University of Washington, and he was studying piano with Kenny Barron at the Manhattan School of Music by age 16. Parks is now 23, and he is exactly where he should be – leading his own band and playing his own music, as he did last Tuesday at the Bernhard.

There was no trace of the just-rolled-out-of-the-laundry-pile college student Parks looked like on his first trip to Skidmore; his white button-down shirt (sleeves rolled up to the elbow) looked almost crisp, and his longish brown hair was definitely styled. Instead of hiding behind that hair (as he had in past years, Parks greeted us with a big smile and a deep, humor-tinged voice as he introduced a cool mid-tempo take on Dizzy Gillespie's "Con Alma."

We quickly learned that one thing hadn't changed – Parks' wonderfully light touch. The Seattle native's fingers practically caress the keys, shaping notes with a fluid dexterity that escapes many pianists who have been playing a lot longer than he has. Parks' moments in the clear on Miles Davis' "Solar" and the "soft and pretty" encore "Praise" were portraits in elegance, as Parks coaxed out every bit of nuance he could find. Even on "Nemesis" – a rock-inspired riff that had the faintest taste of Grunge (another Seattle export) – Parks never pounded the piano when sweet reason did the job as well. He wasn't removed from the action, though – during a shared laugh with Mike Moreno, Parks stuck out his tongue in a fair imitation of Gene Simmons. This wasn't work – this was having fun!

Moreno is a sight to see and hear, all on his own. The raven-haired guitarist made jaws drop throughout the evening, tossing off solos that preferred to lure you in rather than bash your head in as you walk by. Moreno was as comfortable cranking out Scofield-like licks on "Nemesis" as he was playing almost-acoustic flamenco on Parks' passionate epic "Harvesting Dance." Moreno's primary sound, though, evoked images of a non-synthesized Pat Metheny, particularly on Moreno's own "Road Song." This dovetails with the mind-melded chemistry he shares with Parks; their wordless communication created instances of intense beauty and creativity. Those of us who remember the original Pat Metheny Group heard similar moments Metheny made with longtime foil Lyle Mays.

"Con Alma" may have been chosen to open the set so drummer Sam Knight could have a point of reference; it was the Skidmore Jazz Institute alum's first gig with this group, all of whom have been playing and recording together for nearly two years. So when Parks segued from "Con Alma" to "Peaceful Warrior" (a multi-chapter piece Parks wrote for fellow Blanchard alum Lioel Loueke), Knight definitely went from the frying pan to the microwave. "This guy is just scared to death playing this music," Parks playfully informed us, grinning over at Knight; Knight just looked out at the audience and nodded slowly, not a trace of humor on his face.

To be sure, Knight held his own: He successfully navigated the roiling waters of "Warrior", and his closing solo on "Harvesting" had the power and drama the piece required. Unfortunately, everything looks like a nail when you think you're a hammer, and Knight's persistently aggressive attack washed out more than a few moments that some subtle brushwork could have improved. Matt Penman was the other side of the coin, though that wasn't by design in the beginning – Penman's bass was missing from the mix for the first two numbers. When the soundman finally found the range, we got ample servings of the urgent, pulsing sound that's been driving SFJazz Collective for the last few years. Penman's solo on "Memory of a Flame" was exquisite.

It's not always easy watching children grow up and "leave the nest", but Aaron Parks has shown how bright the future – and the music – can be if you learn your lessons well. The world will get to see that when Invisible Cinema, Parks' Blue Note debut as a leader, drops next month. (Insider tip: Clear some space on your iPod, because Cinema is an absolute monster!) Until then, though, Parks and his mates are winning hearts and minds one crowd at a time.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.