“Arborescence” is the word for the way something grows, seeking and adaptive, like a tree – its roots and branches moving under and around things wherever they need to go toward water, toward the sun. Prize-winning young pianist Aaron Parks titled his ECM debut “Arborescence” because the album’s music is the fruit of a session of solo studio improvisation in which little was predetermined; the pieces developed in the moment like “living things,” in the artist’s words.
“The music felt as if it were coming into being and going where it had to go, in that sort of arboreal way.” It’s possible to hear fleeting echoes in this music of Arvo Pärt and Paul Bley, Erik Satie and Kenny Wheeler; but “Arborescence” is ultimately something deeply individual and intimate, recorded with the lights down low in the warm, clear acoustics of Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts. Listen close and one can hear Parks whispering part of a melody along with the piano, as if he were playing at home alone, for himself. This is contemplative instrumental poetry that “often felt less like conscious intention,” he says, “and more like something half-dreamed, half-remembered.”
Born in California in 1983 and raised in Seattle from age 3, Parks is a former prodigy now in full artistic bloom. 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 appeared on three Blue Note albums by trumpeter-composer Terence Blanchard before making his own album for the label as a leader with the quartet set “Invisible Cinema” – which BBC Online declared “one of the great albums of 2008,” describing the pianist as “a master of melody, and a composer and arranger of protean skill and dexterity.” Parks has also recorded in the ongoing collective James Farm with saxophonist Joshua Redman, as well as contributed to albums by guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, trumpeter Christian Scott, vocalist Gretchen Parlato, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, drummer Kendrick Scott, trumpeter Philip Dizack and guitarist Mike Moreno, among other leading musicians. The Guardian has lauded Parks’ “independent vision,” calling him a “fast-rising star.” The New York Times has praised the pianist for being “a step ahead of everyone else.”
Among Parks’ key touchstones for solo piano are Bartók’s re-imaginings of traditional folk songs, particularly as heard on the Hungarian composer’s 1908 piano-roll recordings. Then there are the jazz masters. “Paul Bley’s album Open, To Love” was an epiphany for me because of the record’s feeling of vulnerability and nakedness, as if he’s playing the piano just for himself – though he’s open to the listener sharing the music with him,” Parks says. “I also get that feeling when Herbie Hancock sits down to the piano at sound check. I’ve been lucky enough to be around a few times when he was doing that. It doesn't seem like he's thinking about any goal – he just puts his hands down and whole worlds come to life. Ran Blake is another inspiration for me when it comes to solo piano. He can evoke a sense of place like no one else. His music can put you in a dark alley or an abandoned shipyard or in a room alone. It's very rare, very special. And Keith Jarrett is an undeniable influence. I was at his solo concert that became the Carnegie Hall recording. The music was something that went beyond intriguing me intellectually or entertaining me or even touching me emotionally. It was a physical, resonant power – that’s something to aspire to.”
“Arborescence” winds its way with its own ruminative potency, moving seemingly concentrically, one beauty radiating into the next – from atmospheric album opener “Asleep in the Forest” and the epic “Toward Awakening” to the headlong “In Pursuit” and deeply, hauntingly melodic “A Curious Bloom.” Two tracks – the nostalgic meditation “Elsewhere” and big-sky ballad “Homestead” – had their beginnings in pieces that Parks composed prior to the sessions, though he ended up using the material as seed for improvised explorations on a theme. “Homestead,” the album’s concluding track, has “a simple, clear tonality but still some mystery to it, a feeling that it’s opening up in many directions at once,” Parks says. “Throughout the recording, that was a priority for me, that quality of being open, of being open to possibility, wherever it took me.”