In the decade between Invisible Cinema, his 2008 Blue Note debut, and Little Big, an intentional sequel, pianist and composer Aaron Parks has covered a lot of ground. He cut two leader dates for ECM (one solo, one trio), and two as a member of the active James Farm collective on Nonesuch. In addition, Parks has worked as a sideman too, playing live and on recordings with more than a dozen artists including Kurt Rosenwinkel, Yeahwon Shin, and Gilad Heckselman. Little Big is the self-titled debut from his electric quartet with guitarist Greg Tuohey, bassist David Ginyard, and drummer Tommy Crane. The album shares its title with the 1981 award-winning fantasy novel by John Crowley. This 15-song set is the proper sequel to Invisible Cinema. Few artists in 2008 were bridging the aesthetics of post-bop jazz, hip-hop, and indie rock, let alone articulating them in a single compositional voice. Here Parks continues to create episodic, accessible, yet mysterious melodies, framed by layered textures, rock dynamics, and electro-acoustic atmospherics amid shifting harmonic narratives and solos.
On opener "Kid," a relentless piano figure contrasts with Tuohey's (Parks' foil throughout) electric guitar in direct tension. He follows the motif with a melody of his own. Driving it all is a skeletal but propulsive bassline and a series of tight, fleshy hi-hat and snare flourishes that push at the seams in roiling tension. There are subtle electronics hovering about the backdrop as various players solo, but Parks' pattern never relents, keeping the listener in circular time. On "Trickster," the pace is slower, and Parks' melody is at the fore as Tuohey's extends his vamp in jagged fragments as Crane's kit flits between rock timekeeping, elegantly funky breaks and jazz syncopations. In other tunes, such as "Professor Strangeweather" and "Digital Society," one can hear Herbie Hancock's pioneering keyboard-driven fusion ring about amid interplay between Ginyard's funky bubbling bass and Crane's drums ring canny and streetwise under Parks' layers of electric and acoustic keyboards in an exchange of edgy ideas with Tuohey. "Siren," "Mandala," "Hearth," and "The Fool," from the center section of the set, offer four takes on ballad forms; they echo everything from gentle fusion to a taut atmospheric dimension akin to Radiohead's Kid A without sacrificing Parks' inherent compositional lyricism. "Rising Mind," with its undulating hip-hop rhythm, allows the other players to build on a post-bop foundation while Parks' solo engages knotty Latin jazz, even as guitar rock chord changes add drama. Closers "Good Morning" and "Doors Open" begin mantra-like on the same note. The former amid a slow shuffle as a near euphoric melody revels in songlike interplay between guitar and piano, while the latter offers a near telegraphic drone that unfolds to reveal a crystalline, processional harmonic conversation from the ensemble. Though Little Big emerges from the aesthetic Parks employed on Invisible Cinema, it travels deeper and wider, forming a new intersection between song, inquiry, and improvisation.