Rick Parker: Finding His Own Space
“ I consider myself a musician and composer and then maybe trombone player. ”
All About Jazz founder Michael Ricci thought Rick Parker's second CD, Finding Space (WJF Records, 2006) was one of the best records of 2006. Parker is an energetic young musician and composer who also happens to play trombone. He's serious about writing his own music and finding his own way, even releasing his new album on a label he co-founded with Jesse Selengut, with whom he runs the Williamsburg Jazz Festival.
All About Jazz's Jason Crane spoke with Parker recently about writing, recording, and livin' in the city.
All About Jazz: Finding Space is your second record. Is this a self-produced record?
Rick Parker: It's pretty much self-produced. I had the option of doing a second one with Fresh Sound New Talent, and I decided because of the limited publicity and distribution, and [because] I felt really strongly about it and wanted people to hear itI decided that if I'm going to put all this effort into it, and money, I'm going to keep it under my own name. It's on WJF Records, which stands for Williamsburg Jazz Festival Records. Williamsburg Jazz Festival is a festival here in Brooklyn that I co-produce with Jesse Selengut, a trumpet player.
Right around September  when we were having the festival, both of us were coming out with CDs. I said, "Hey, we should start an artist collective and put our two CDs out together, and then maybe in the future try to get some more people on board." That's how the record label came to be.
AAJ: Do you have a plan with the Williamsburg Jazz Festival to put out recordings of live shows from the festival?
RP: Not necessarily from the festival, because the venues that we're playing in aren't that conducive to live recording. That might be something that we do in the future. Jesse recorded one of his shows at Tonic. He got a really good recording out of that, and he's definitely been thinking of releasing that on the WJF label. We might get some other people from the neighborhood involved and get a collective going so we can garner more attention.
AAJ: Just to stick on the business side for a minuteas you were learning the trombone, did you also think, "Someday I'll have to be a record producer and build my own website and do my own publicity"? Or was that a surprise to you?
RP: Not at all. It's not something I really wanted to do, but they say necessity's the mother. That's also how I started the band. It's funny talking about the business stuff because I was an economics major. I went to Georgetown. I was really playing more music there, but I was an econ major. Moving up to New York, I got here and thought, "I sound pretty good. I'll be able to get some gigs." After a couple months, the phone wasn't ringing and nobody really knew who I was. I had this music that I was working on, so I decided I had to do it myself. That's the way it is for jazz these days. I think jazz only makes up 2% of the records sold in the U.S. So if you want to make something, you've got to do it yourself and just really push hard and push constantly. That's not something I really wanted to have to do, because it does take my time away from being a musician. Sometimes when I'm involved in the business end of things, I don't feel like a musician at all. I'm just on the phone or writing things or mailing things out. It's not inspiring, musically.
AAJ: Although the alternative of writing all this music and having no one hear it is probably even less inspiring.
RP: Exactly. And that's why I did it on my own. As much as I love Fresh Sound, and the records they produce are just great, their distribution is so limited [that] they're not even on iTunes. The digital distribution thing is really starting to blow up, and it makes it a lot easier as an independent musician to get your music out there. I'm probably getting more sales on iTunes than I am physical sales.
Maurice Brown, the trumpet player on my CD, is a good friend of mine. I've known him for a while. He put out a CD on his own label called Hip To Bop (Soul'd U Out, 2005). It's a great CD. He's been just rolling with it for quite a while, and he's sold a lot of copies, gotten a lot of press from it and a lot of gigs. It's really facilitated his whole career. He's putting the effort into it, and he's getting the return. In the end, that's really how it should be. If you put a lot of effort into something, you want to see the return. This way I know what's going on, and it's under my control whether it happens or not.
AAJ: Before we dig into the music, let's fill in some biographical details. Where did you grow up?
RP: I was born in New York City. When I was about five, my parents moved out to Greenwich, Connecticut. It's a suburb about 45 minutes outside the city. My dad's worked in the city ever since. I went to Greenwich High School. I started playing trombone when I was in the sixth grade, but really I was more of an athlete. I played a lot of basketball. It probably wasn't until about halfway through high school that I started to get more serious about music. I always enjoyed playing it, but then as things developed, I started enjoying it more and more. As I got exposed to more music, I started really focusing on that.
AAJ: Was there something in particular that grabbed you?
RP: When I was going into my freshman year of high school, I convinced my parents that I had to have my own trombone. So we went into the city, around 48th Street, which is where there were a bunch of music stores. I got a trombone and got some help from a student at the high school. I think he was a graduating senior. So he helped me out, finding out what trombone to play. But also he asked me, "Have you checked out anything? Have you listened to any trombone players?" I didn't know anyone, so he let me hear some J.J. Johnson over the phone, and that kind of blew my mind. So after we bought the trombone, we went down to the CD store and I bought one CD. It was The Eminent Jay Jay Johnson, Volume 2 (Blue Note, 1954).
AAJ: Not a bad place to start.
RP: I'm kind of grateful that I had such a pure, wonderful beginning to the music. I don't think I bought another CD. That was in September, and I didn't get another CD that year until Christmas when my mom bought me Blue Train by [saxophonist John] Coltrane (Blue Note, 1957). I wore those CDs out. I listened to them constantly. I can sing every single solo. On Blue Train, my influence wasn't so much [trombonist] Curtis Fuller. My attention wasn't there, even though I was a trombone player. I was just listening to Trane, and I was really enthralled with his sound and everything about him. The passion. That's always stuck with me. I've been a trombone player, but that intensity, the way John Coltrane plays, has been a big influence on me.
AAJ: What caused you to choose the trombone in the first place?
RP: Another very funny story and a totally nonmusical reason. As I said, I was a big basketball fan and player. My father went to Georgetown also, and we would watch basketball games all the time. When it came time in sixth grade to choose an instrument, I was like, "I don't know what I'm going to play. I don't know anything about any musical instrument." [My family was] really not a musical family at all. I was just looking at the pep band playing at the basketball game. There in the front row was this instrument with a slide. I said, "Dad, what's that?" He said it was a trombone, and I figured, "I'll guess I'll try to play that." That's how it came to be.
AAJ: They're going to have to rewrite that part for the movie.
RP: Yeah, there needs to be something much more dramatic. "I had a vision..."
AAJ: "I was saved from drowning by a guy with a trombone."
AAJ: So you're grabbed by it in high school and decide to become more serious about it, but when you go to college you choose economics as your field of study. Why?
RP: I could play music and do that on the side, but it still wasn't my goal to be a musician. About a month or two in at Georgetown, which is in Washington, D.C., I had met this guy who was a really great guitarist. He was in the same situation that I was. He was in the business school at Georgetown, but he was an All-State guitarist from New Jersey. He sounded great and we would play duo all the time. We went down to a Starbuckswe were just bumming around Georgetownand there was a trumpet player playing with a quartet. We [had just been] at Blues Alley, and we had just finished seeing a Joshua Redman show there, and Brian Blade was playing with him. So we were in this Starbucks getting coffee and listening to this quartet, and who walks in but Brian Blade. Apparently he was a friend, and he was sitting in with them.
Afterward, I was talking to the trumpet player and said, "Would it be okay if I came by to sit in sometime?" He said, "What do you play?" I told him trombone, and he said, "Can you read [music]?" That was one thing I could definitely do, because the high school big band I played in was really a monster of a band and had a lot of difficult music. He said, "I have a big band that I just started, and we're playing every week at the One Step Down," which is one of the oldest jazz clubs. It's now defunct, but it was one of the oldest jazz clubs in the U.S. So I joined this trumpet player's big band. His name is Thad Wilson.
It was almost all original music, just great music. And he had the top improvisers in D.C. playing in that band for quite some time. And there'd be a lot of pretty well-known people coming through, too. That's where I met [trombonist] Frank Lacy. Steve Williams, the drummer for Shirley Horn, was there. And also Andrew White, the great saxophonist who transcribed all the John Coltrane solos. He was there pretty much every nightnot playing, but just holding courtand everyone would listen to him preaching about music. That was a really great experience, and that's what made me want to really play music. The desire was always there, but that facilitated everything.
AAJ: When you finished Georgetown, did you just decide to move to New York City and try to make a go of it?
RP: The deal was that I would finish my econ degree, and when I moved to New York, my parents would help me out with music school. So I ended up moving to New York and went to NYU [New York University]. I did two years there and got my Masters in music.
AAJ: During that time when the phone wasn't ringing, was this when you started to assemble the Collective?
RP: Right. I'd written some music before I moved up there. I was just starting. Thad encouraged me to write a lot of music when I was down in D.C. He helped me to form a group down there. In addition to playing in his band, I would just hang out with him a lot. So I really learned a lot about how to run a band, and how to do everything that's not necessarily playing music but is how to put music together. I wrote some pieces for his big band, and he would give me a lot of advice on that.
At NYU I met a saxophonist, Charis Ioannou, who plays on my first CD [New York Gravity (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2004)]. A couple other people that I knew from D.C. had moved up there at the same time: Andrew Haskell, the pianist on New York Gravity. I played with him in D.C. when he was still in high school, and then he moved up to New School [University]. And Matt Grason, who plays bass on the CD. He moved up to New York at the same time as me. He introduced me to Kyle Struve, the drummer, who's on both CDs.
When I was at NYU, I was studying with [trombonist] Conrad Herwig. The lessons that we were doing were more like extended hangs. I would go up to his house in Brewster, which is an hour and fifteen minutes north of New York City. I'd get there in the morning. We'd have some coffee, talk, listen to music. So one day I brought by a demo CD that I'd been shopping. He heard it and liked it and said, "Yeah, you really need to just go in there and record a CD. You've got the whole concept. You've got to go do it." That's what I did, and that's how the first CD came about. It was really from his inspiring me to do that.
AAJ: Did you send your demo to Fresh Sound?
RP: Actually, I did send the demo to Fresh Sound once and never heard anything back. Then I put out the CD on my own and had it out for about a year-and-a-half or two years. We had just started to get some better gigs. We did a couple gigs down at Blues Alley in D.C., and we did a jazz festivalthe Somers Point Jazz Festival [in Atlantic City]. I did some MiniDisc recordings and I had a lot more music. So I sent the CD along with the MiniDisc recordings to Fresh Sound. I sent them to a couple other places too. One morning around 7:30, I was fast asleep and my phone rang. It was Jordi [Pujol], the owner of Fresh Sound, calling me from Spain. The initial idea was to put out the CD New York Gravity and then about a year later, release a new CD, the one I ended up recording on my own. I put New York Gravity out with Fresh Sound and then after a while decided that it wasn't going to work for me.
AAJ: Before you were getting accolades for this new CD, you were winning awards for composition, including the ASCAP Young Jazz Composer Award just a few years ago. What is that and what did you submit to the competition?
RP: The ASCAP Young Jazz Composer Award is an annual award they give to musicians under thirty years old. They award about twenty musicians every year. I think they have it split up by age ranges. I submitted the second tune on my [second] CD, "Nervous Energy." I had submitted something before and didn't get anything, but I had a really good feeling about this tune when I sent it in. It's definitely a nice award. It's nice to be honored there. Maurice had gotten an award there also. [Saxophonist] Jaleel Shaw, who's also on the new CD, got an award the same year. It's a good thing and it definitely recognizes some musicians who are doing some interesting stuff compositionally.
AAJ: Let's talk about the Collective. You've already mentioned Maurice Brown, Jaleel Shaw and Kyle Struve. Tell me about the rest of the band.
RP: On tenor and soprano saxophones is Xavier Perez. He's a Cuban saxophonistMiami Cubanwho moved up here. We met at the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program that's run by the Kennedy Center. We had a great connection when we met, and we played a lotjust an instant bond that we have with our sounds.
On piano and some keyboards is Sam Barsh, who I also met at the Betty Carter program in D.C. He's a great pianist. He's also made a lot of noise playing with Avishai Cohen, the bassist. And then Gavin Fallow is the bassist. I also met him in D.C. and had my first group with him. Gavin moved up to New York a little before I did this CD. I'd always wanted to be playing with him. It was great that he finally moved up and we were able to reconnect.
Sam Barsh, John Ellis, Gavin Fallow and Rick Parker
AAJ: You wrote every composition on Finding Space except the final track, which was written by Kyle Struve. How long did it take you to write the music for this CD?
RP: I didn't write it for this CD. I just write, and everything I write is inspired by a person or something that happens to me. I never really write for the sake of writing. I think that's the reason some of my music comes out the way it does. The first track, "McKibbin," is the name of the street I lived on when I moved to Brooklyn. I shared a loft space with Sam Barsh and Kyle Struve.
Everything just came out organically. I don't try to force things, so I don't have any timeframe about how I write the stuff. I tend to take a long time, too. I'll hear something in my head and want to get it down on paper as fast as I can. Then I'll sit with things. I want to toy with things and change things around. I might take a note that's in the melody and try to extend it or shorten it. I just go with things until they feel good.
I had the benefit of having a band, and we played this music a lot before we recorded it. Everybody felt comfortable. Nobody was sight-reading on the session. People were playing confidently and really trying to make music out of it.
AAJ: That's really evident, because this music is not head-solo-head. This is music with a lot of shifting tempospieces that sound totally different at the beginning and end. It really sounds like these folks have played this music before, or it probably wouldn't be possible to hang with it.
RP: Definitely. Whenever someone can't do the gig, it can be difficult to get things together. Kyle, for instance, has been playing with me since the first CD, since I moved up to New York in 2001. So we've been playing together almost six years. He never needs [sheet] music on a gig. It's really complicated stuff. It makes sense, but you have to get into my concepts and how the melodies work. Otherwise when you're reading the music, it looks a lot more complicated than it really is. And Xavier, we just connected immediately, and he knows what's going on.
Sam's time with Avishai Cohenwe lived together right about the time that Avishai was forming the trio with Sam and drummer Mark Giuliana. They rehearsed in our apartment. Avishai never wrote down the music. He always teaches them by ear. Sam has a really uncanny way of learning music. He's a fantastic reader, but once he's got that down, he can just put the paper aside and really go with it.
AAJ: Are these tunes even more extended live? Many of them are seven or eight minutes on the record. Or are they composed with a set framework?
RP: Some of the things do get a little extended, but the focus on the CD is about composition. I consider myself a musician and composer and then maybe trombone player. I don't think of myself as a trombone player per se. I just want to be a musician, and as such, I go with the compositions themselves. When we perform them, it's the same thing. When I did this record, unlike the first record, I tried to let people stretch out. I tried to make it feel as organic as possibleas much like a live show as possiblebecause I felt like every person had a lot to say and something valuable to say on the songs. So I wanted to make sure that happened. I didn't want it to be "very intricate composition and then short solo." That's not what the music's about. It's about a melody and a tune, then the solo is really part of that.
AAJ: This album is anchored by the three-part suite "Finding Space." You mentioned that many of your tunes have a back-story. Take us to the DVD extras on "Finding Space."
RP: When I first moved to New York, I was living in this really tiny studio which was just so ... tiny. I was in the West Village, and I had to leave the space a lot. And I'm not the neatest person in the world, so that made it even more cluttered. The beginning of "Finding Space" is about bouncing off the walls and feeling trapped. You're just going in all these different directions.
Later on, it goes to a solo piano piece. That's more about finding the tranquility and finding a center where you can just be yourself and be calm. The final piece, which has no solos, is meant to be the triumphant feeling of getting through and overcoming obstaclesthe small spaces that you deal with in New York City.
All photos courtesy of Rick Parker