For Aaron Parks, expanding his career as a jazz pianist in New York City is a whirlwind at times, but Whidbey Island is where he feels most grounded.
After all, Whidbey will always be home, even if he does spend his time these days as a famous musician in the big city. Parks, at age 30, is described by some as one of the great composers of his generation, with a number of albums, awards and ensembles on his list of accomplishments.
“I always want to come back to the island,” Parks said. “It feels like home.”
Parks is returning to perform for this year’s PianoFest Northwest at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts. The festival begins Wednesday, April 16 with Parks headlining Saturday evening’s show.
That night, he will perform a variety of his music including songs from his latest CD “Arborescence” and improvisations.
“I will be doing a fair amount of making up something while I’m in the moment, in the vibe.”
Parks started playing the piano at a young age with his first few years of lessons on the South End. Here, he learned to play by ear from the beginning — not by learning to read music — and that was an ideal way to start.
“It creates an opening for curiosity. Reading music and all that can come later,” he explained. “I felt very lucky to have that be my entry.”
Parks’ family moved to the South End when he was 3 years old, and he fondly remembers collecting beach stones at his home overlooking Double Bluff and Useless Bay.
After about two years studying on the island, Parks began to take lessons in Seattle with one of his most influential instructors, Murl Allen Sanders.
Sanders was a “memorable fellow” to Parks, always encouraging him to explore and discover music.
Today, Sanders describes Parks as a fabulous musician and one of the top jazz players in the world. As a student, he said Parks was active and inquisitive.
“He was energetic, to say the least,” Sanders said. “We worked a long time on getting him to calm down and focus on the task at hand, then he became a wonderful student.”
One moment he remembers is when Parks started coming to class with his own compositions.
“The day Aaron came to the lesson and said, ‘Hey Murl listen to this’ at that point I said, ‘You’ve learned what you can from me.’ ”
Parks’ career then continued at an amazing pace, he said. At 14, he earned a spot in an early entrance program at the University of Washington studying science and music. The following year he participated in the Grammy High School Jazz Ensembles and later transferred to the Manhattan School of Music.
Listening to his music today, Sanders said Parks’ work remains soulful and beautiful.
“It’s amazingly intellectual and at the same time brainy,” he said, alluding to Parks’ interest in math and computers.
Parks said learning from Sanders was a time of discovery for him.
“That was really one of the moments when I realized the lyrical power of what you can do with the piano — the way you can make the piano really sing,” Parks reflected.
Since then, Parks said his music has branched out. He went through phases of learning traditional jazz, then wanting to rebel from that tradition and find his own voice.
Now, Parks said he has developed an appreciation for the whole history and language of “music that people call jazz.”
“I want to join that continuum without making individual expression the paramount goal. I’m not trying to make something new or original, just let it happen without regard to new or old — I’m just trying to make it good.”
Parks feels lucky to have grown professionally to the point where he now plays with many of the musicians he once looked up to.
At 13 years old, he remembers being asked where he wanted to be in 10 years. At the time, all he wanted was to live in New York and be part of the musicians he admired, such as trumpeter Terence Blanchard, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and saxophonist Joshua Redman.
“After five years, that was already happening,” he said.
Parks joined an ensemble with Blanchard and performs and records with Rosenwinkel, Redman and many more musicians in the industry.
Coincidentally, Parks, Blanchard, Rosenwinkel and Redman all played at the Kennedy Center in December for a tribute to pianist-composer Herbie Hancock, where they met President Barack Obama.
In the future, Parks wants to continue recording his music. This summer, he will travel to Copenhagen for a two-and-a-half-month residency program to study music.
“I’m just really looking forward to fully immersing myself in a different city,” he said. “So often my life is on the road and always on the move. It’s going to be nice to be in one place.”
He also is looking forward to visiting Whidbey.
“Every time I come out there it gives me a sense of grounding. New York is such a crazy town, it’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind.
“When I come back home I realize, this is life, this is what life actually is. New York, that stuff is cool too, but on the island — I want to keep my mindset there.”
The festival begins at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 16 and continues through Saturday, April 19. Each night features a different selection: locals night, classical, world and jazz music. Headliners include Nancy Nolan, Thirty Fingers, Jovino Santos Neto and Aaron Parks.
Tickets range from $15 to $25 per night; a festival pass is $75. For more information call 360-221-8268.