Visionary jazz pianist brings a wonderful band to Old Lyme's Side Door

In Phoenix this weekend, rappers Post Malone, Lil Wayne and Young Thug performed before thousands and thousands at the Pot O' Gold Festival (more like Pot O' Platinum). Over in Pittsburgh at the PPG Paints Arena, country music Hall of Famers Alabama sold 19,000 tickets for a concert. And the 17,000-seat XL Center in Hartford was at full capacity when Fleetwood Mac came to town.

Big shows, big acts, big tours — and so it goes.

It was fascinating, then, that about 50 folks gathered Friday in Old Lyme's Side Door Jazz Club and saw one of the best bands in the world. It was in that tiny and hospitable space that Aaron Parks and his four-piece group unleashed 100 minutes of exhilarating modern jazz in what was, for all involved, a cumulative and collective experience of pure artistic joy.

Parks is an inspired and gifted composer, pianist and keyboardist who, starting at age 18, spent invaluable time with Terence Blanchard's band and has slowly but steadily established his own distinctive identity. Now 35, he's created such ambitious and creative works as "Invisible Cinema," the Debussy-esque solo piano recording "Arborescence" and last year's beguiling "Little Big," the latter of which, to me, is a signpost to the future of jazz.

In a perhaps telling indicator of things to come, the musicians — along with Parks, guitarist Greg Tuohey, bassist David "DJ" Ginyard and drummer Tommy Crane — all climbed on the bandstand carrying sheafs of musical charts like grade-schoolers shuffling their homework.

Indeed, at the outset, the charming and personable Parks, who throughout the night would stand from behind his grand piano to address the crowd, said, "Well, we just spent three days rehearsing new songs, so you guys are gonna be the guinea pigs."

In genres where a reliance on familiar or hit tunes is the norm, such a pronouncement might have been disappointing. Not so much in jazz — and I'm pretty certain that if Side Door patrons had any consistent opinions by the end of Friday's performance, it's only that a new album with this previously unheard material can't get here fast enough.

Early on, Parks prefaced one of them by saying he hadn't decided on a name yet. He then shared a trio of possibilities: "Go Along, Way Afar," "Solace" and "The Way You Never Go." Crowd response supported "Solace." Parks laughed and acknowledged the oddness of choices one and three, then asked the audience to wait to pass judgement until after we heard the song.

It was a stunning piece: A lullabaic, spectral work that caressed like the soundtrack to a waterfall. Tuohey's sweet, single-note melodies were full of longing but also a bit of fond playfulness. Parks countered with heart-melting and crystalline runs and arpeggios. It was like hearing a conversation between two old friends, reminiscing wistfully and affectionately because they know they probably won't see each other again.

Parks used the "applause meter" calibration when the piece ended to a standing ovation, and "Go Along, Way Afar" easily garnered the most enthusiasm because NOW it made beautiful sense. 

Other highlights of the new stuff included "Hey Friend" and "Error" and two whose titles I couldn't catch. The 12-song set also included one of his earliest, the lovely "The Eternal Child," and "Little Big" standouts like the burbling workouts "Digital Society" and "Kid" as well as the meditative "Siren" and the set-closing masterpiece "Small Planet." 

Throughout the night, Parks and Tuohey spun off each other in soaring and inspired fashion. Tuohey's tone bounced from Jeff Beck to Alan Holdsworth to wasp-sting, and his runs were like a spring-break youngster hopping high branches in a tree. Parks is a shatteringly pretty melodist — Bill Evans plays chess with Lyle Mays — who effortlessly spins evocative mental images. At times I could visualize colts running across a mountain snowscape (if colts can run in 5/4 time) or maybe — I was drinking Diet Coke, by the way, not absinthe — some lonely soul who ventures into a forest glade and encounters benevolent and forgiving pagan deities (if pagan deities can offer absolution in 11/8 time).

Behind all this? Crane is a musical and busy drummer whose fills and accents wove around and through in creative fashion, which means Ginyard capably and fluidly held the bottom with reliable, flannel-sheet warmth.

Between the four of them were seamless displays of intense and feverish virtuosity and intuitive interplay; there were atmospheric and slow-build soundscapes of breathtaking beauty; there were hints of bop, world music, fusion and even progressive rock — all filtered through the alchemical sorcery of a confident set of players not afraid to take chances but who are also happy to perform in service to the melodic themes of the song.

The whole evening was a highlight reel. Really, I can't think of a moment when I wasn't transfixed or amazed that four-dozen of us were lucky enough, in Old Lyme on a rainy Friday night, to see one of the best bands in the world. 

r.koster@theday.com

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