Aaron Parks Trio goes Zen at Kings Place

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I’m writing this with one eye on an article about the world’s most stressed-out cities. We need more green spaces, apparently, but while we’re waiting I suggest we all listen to more Aaron Parks. The Brooklyn-based pianist has always had a tranquil side. You can hear it on his 2008 Blue Note debut, Invisible Cinema, released when he was just 24, and on Arborescence, his softly-lit solo recording for ECM. But at Kings Place on Wednesday night, backed by his new trio of bassist Ben Street and veteran drummer Billy Hart (a former sideman to Miles Davis and McCoy Tyner), Parks was sounding particularly Zen.

The trio are midway through their first UK tour, road-testing new material before heading into the studio to record, so freshly minted Parks compositions were the order of the day. All dream-like melodies and softly treading chords, strobing vamps and flashes of icy impressionism, they’re so calming they should be available on prescription.

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The half-titled ‘Isle of…’ set the tone, its melody drifting over murmuring basslines and sibilant drums before blossoming into a piano solo full of phosphorescent ripples, pirouettes and bluesy whorls. ‘Song For Sashu’ arrived with a delicate, dancing groove; ‘Alice’ (a dedication to Alice Coltrane) was graceful and grace-note-full, propelled by a quietly insistent cymbal pattern; and ‘Adrift was beautifully mysterious with a curious, ambient glow.

Parks is most often praised for his lyricism but there’s always so much rhythmic interest simmering away beneath the surface of his playing, which is amplified by the trio, and on ‘Eleutheria’ and ‘Hold Music’ their sense of time was wonderfully elastic. A handful of standards got similarly flexible treatment. The unmistakable melody of Wayne Shorter’s ‘Marie Antoinette’ floated across a swing feel so ephemeral it could have been a mirage. ‘Find The Way’, taken from a Rosemary Clooney album called Love, was introspective, full of whispering bass pedals and piano blushes, and Alec Wilder’s ‘While We're Young’ saw Parks play with transcendent fluidity, as if in some enlightened state. You can hear how much he loves these old tunes and it makes his renditions a pleasure to listen to.

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Best of all of the covers was ‘Conception’, which brought a plucky bass solo from Street and some superb contributions from Hart; cymbal tattoos, bustling cross-rhythms and boomy tom-tom-work like distant war drums. While Hart’s fills are often abstract they’re never uncomfortably so and he coaxes a greater variety of textures from his kit than most percussion sections seem to manage. At times it’s like listening a fistfight in an ironmongers – the sound of skip diving for scrap metal – and it’s essential for balancing the trio. With the drummer onboard the music never gets too languorous or dynamically too one-note and Parks is free to be as Zen as he likes, knowing that the well-timed bosh of a crash cymbal will shake him from his reverie when he needs it.

“D’you think he’s a Buddhist?” asks a friend as we watch the pianist drift past us in the entrance hall and glide to the top of the escalator. “He sounds like he does a lot of meditating.” Whatever he’s doing I hope he keeps it up. I can’t remember a gig that left me feeling so relaxed.

– Thomas Rees

– Photos by Roger Thomas

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