The definitions of what is and isn’t jazz and what jazz can and cannot do are so all-encompassing and strict in some circles and so laughable in others that it can be a challenge to know what to make of them. But in a unique way, jazz musicians limit themselves according to those boundaries more than musicians of perhaps any other orientation. Once musicians describe themselves as a “jazz” musicians, no matter the qualifier, they begin to let the definition seep into what they create. At least most do.
There’s an apartment on the third floor of a dreary looking tan building on Aberdeen Street. From the roof, the vast expanse of northern Brooklyn – Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Brownsville – stretches out in a maze of metal trusses, lazy plumes of steam and smoke, and ramshackle steeples. From the window, in the street-facing bedroom, the arch and crumbling stone facade of a convent are all that’s visible. That small bedroom wasn’t particularly functional as such, in that it was equipped with two amplifiers and a drumset, but only a mattress on the floor for sleeping.
One afternoon I held my guitar and leaned against the wall facing the window and adjusted my glasses. James’s fingers dashed across his unamplified blue jazz bass and Sebastian rattled out rudiments on the rim his snare drum. I situated my glasses on the bridge of my nose and began tuning my guitar, picking out the open E-string over and over again and adjusting its pitch in increments. Without notice James and Sebastian burst into an odd-meter rock groove, punching at irregular intervals against the rhythm of my tuning and howling in amusement. And so I met Aaron Parks and Invisible Cinema.
In the accidental rhythm of my tuning, James and Sebastian had heard the song “Nemesis” from Aaron Parks’s first album as a band-leader. In ten tracks, Parks utterly shatters any of those definitions of jazz that may have been imposed upon him. “Nemesis” collects the groove and timbres of 1990s rock and the harmonic inventiveness and improvisational freedom of jazz, fuses it into something bizarre, and knocks it all off kilter with the rhythmic mischief of a math nerd.
I probably listened to Invisible Cinema from start to finish over a hundred times over the next two months. I was intoxicated by the intricate machinations of “Peaceful Warrior,” the aggressive edge of “Nemesis,” and the dizzying pulse of “Harvesting Dance.” I went to see Parks play at a burger place in the South Slope with a drummer and a saxophonist and at a high-end jazz club in Manhattan with a quintet. I bought what little other music he had available and listened to that obsessively as well, but it never hit me like Invisible Cinema.
Invisible Cinema is pure music. It’s genre-less and original; simple in places and remarkably complex in others. It flows with the melodies and pays no mind to traditional forms, dissolving at times into one or two chord vamps that build toward a hypnotic crescendo and at others into an intricate web of programmatic miniatures. It doesn’t conform to any preconceived idea of what it should be.
I heard Invisible Cinema for the first time a year or so after graduating from college, at the peak of what was a six or seven year infatuation with playing jazz. With that album, Aaron Parks injected a little ambiguity into the whole thing and threw the windows open to a bit of fresh air. The definitions aren’t everything or really much of anything. People can make beautiful music that is unmistakably jazz, but in the coincidental rhythmic accents of a tuning session, I’m reminded that that’s not where it gets its value.