Pianist and composer Aaron Parks is best known as a member of trumpeter Terence Blanchard's excellent sextet that recorded Bounce (2003) and Flow (2005). In addition, he worked with Blanchard on the soundtrack to Spike Lee's Inside Man and score for Lee's Katrina: A Tale of God's Will. Invisible Cinema is his debut on Blue Note Records. Parks teams with Eric Harland, the brilliant drummer from Charles Lloyd's group, as well as bassist Matt Penman and guitarist Mike Moreno. This is an interesting group with interlocking histories, creating a sense of familiarity with one another that all comes together here. Parks and Moreno played together on former Blanchard alum Kendrick Scott's album The Source, as well as Moreno's own Between the Lines. Penman and Harland are members of the SF Jazz Collective, and Harland and Parks backed Penman on Catch of the Day. The name of the game here is in the title; this is imagistic music that is big on nuance, space, and beautifully constructed melodies made up of equal parts piano and guitar, underscored and articulately dramatized by Penman's pristine sense of time and pulse and Harland's dancing movement but yet very physical manner of inhabiting his drum kit. Melodic improvisation is the key in Parks' mysterious, strangely beautiful compositions, such as the elliptical, shapeshifting "Peaceful Warrior." Parks employs his elegant style to full effect, allowing his sense of restraint and economy to create tension and drama, which is pointedly accented by Moreno. The dialogue between them is uncanny even in sparser moments -- one can think of only two other piano/guitar pairings like this one, Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays and Ketil Bjørnstad/Terje Rypdal. Here the structured euphoric feel of the former and the spaciousness and haunting melodic sense of the latter are combined.
The sheer physicality of Harland's kit work asserts itself on "Nemesis," a track that, while not completely unhinged, is nonetheless more insistent and driving -- made more so by Penman's inventive stretching of the time signature while maintaining a rapid yet enveloping pulse. The repetitive single-chord piano theme (which changes abruptly in places) allows for Moreno to enter quickly and solo on the melody as Parks lets his piano engage his lines a few minutes in, with an ornamental but far from florid solo. Harland's addition of skeletal, expertly articulated breaks in between the two creates part of the tune's real escalation. Parks brings back "Harvesting Dance," originally on Blanchard's Flow album, with gorgeous work from Penman and Harland, while allowing his own gently ringing pianism a more speechlike articulation than it had in its earlier incarnation. The sense of movement, flight, and return on "Karma" is a real watermark that establishes an identity for this entire band. Harland and Penman almost steal the show, but that would have been OK with Parks. He and Moreno aren't about showcasing individual athletic abilities on their front-line instruments, but are indeed committed to their roles in the ensemble as they create space and angles and suggest shapes that play off one another as well as this smoking rhythm section. Invisible Cinema is as fine a debut as one is likely to hear in 2008. It has plenty of sparks in its communication; it establishes the leader not only as an excellent soloist, but as a fine composer and arranger who understands his strengths as well as those of his bandmates. This is the sound of an improvising artist that has arrived fully formed.