BY PATRICIA DUFF
April 15, 2014
Place an exquisite C. Bechstein grand piano onstage, add a diverse array of talented piano players, including a native son turned New York City jazz star, and the recipe for PianoFest Northwest is ready to cook.
Now in its second year, Whidbey Island Center for the Arts presents four days of piano concerts from Wednesday, April 16 through Saturday, April 19 in Langley. The shows feature a variety of musical styles and talent that welcomes such formidable artists as Brazilian native and three-time Latin Grammy Award winner Jovino Santos Neto, as well as the quirky, classical act of “Thirty Fingers,” with Natalya Ageyeva, Lisa Bergman and Deborah Dewey, combining their talents to play elegant classical music written for six hands all playing at once.
The festival also includes an array of local jazz and classical artists including jazz pianists Nancy Nolan and Maureen Girard; Fade Ensemble’s Grant Neubauer, Keegan Harshman and Alex Dugdale; classical artists Kathy Fox and Gloria Ferry-Brennan and Mark Findlay and George Henny adding their talents to Locals Night, which opens the festival with headliner Nolan.
But the biggest news for the South Whidbey community is the return of native son, Aaron Parks, the jazz piano virtuoso, who will come back to perform on the island for the first time in years. Because part of the thrust of PianoFest strives to embrace the developing talent of music students in the community, it’s fitting that Parks, who began his musical journey here, was asked to headline the final Saturday Jazz Night.
“I grew up near Useless Bay and whenever I put my feet on the island I feel centered,” said Parks recently on a phone call from his home in Brooklyn. “All the beach stones I collected over the years are all around my apartment. Knowing the island is there—its natural beauty—keeps me sane,” he said.
He started playing the piano at age 10 because, even though he played the bassoon too, he didn’t want to have to make reeds.
“You had to spend too much time woodworking,” Parks said, “With the piano, you just walk in and everything is right there.”
And sit down to play is what he did—a lot.
By age 15, Parks was already attending the University of Washington with a triple major in math, computer science and music; three years later, he was the champion Cole Porter Fellow of the American Pianists Association. In December 2013, Parks performed in a tribute to Herbie Hancock at the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors.
Parks is now a sought-after sideman in international jazz circles and appeared on three Blue Note albums by trumpeter-composer Terence Blanchard before making his own album for the label as a leader with the quartet set “Invisible Cinema.” BBC Online declared it “one of the great albums of 2008,” describing the pianist as “a master of melody and a composer and arranger of protean skill and dexterity.”
His most recent album for ECM records, “Arborescence,” is a session of solo studio improvisation in which little was predetermined and where everything is contemplative and beautiful—instrumental improvisation that “often felt less like conscious intention and more like something half-dreamed, half-remembered,” Parks said of the session.
Part of what’s remembered is having grown up on Whidbey Island.
“I connect to my childhood on the island in a lot of what I do; there’s something of that essence that’s always connected for me,” he said.
Parks talked about some of his very first performances, which were at the Island County Fair.
“My sister and I had a band at the time and the drummer was this old-time, big band drummer; he was like a mentor. We were the Jazz Bandits, or something like that, and we wore little masks,” Parks remembered.
“The drummer had told us that it was important to always throw the drummer a bone in every set, let the drummer have his solo, you know, give him his moment. So when we were onstage at the fair we threw this big, plastic bone at him onstage. I’ll never forget it. But that was one of those things that was the island—that guy mentoring us. I felt very much embraced from the beginning and that was hugely encouraging,” Parks said.
Although Parks no longer has family here, he still loves coming back to Whidbey and looks forward to his stay during PianoFest.
“I love going to Langley to make a few pit stops, visit some friends and my favorite places. I’ll go to Useless Bay Coffee Company and the one in the woods—Mukilteo Coffee Company. See which one is winning.”
Whidbey Island Center for the Arts is located at 565 Camano Avenue in Langley. The box office is open from 1 to 6 p.m. daily or two hours before a show. Call (360) 221-8268 for more information.
Schedule for PianoFest Northwest:
Headliner Nancy Nolan with Mark Findlay and George Henny
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 16; tickets cost $15
Headliner Thirty Fingers with Kathy Fox and special guest violinist Gloria Ferry-Brennan
7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 17; tickets cost $25
World Music Night
Headliner Jovino Santos Neto with Maureen Girard
7:30 p.m. Friday, April 18; tickets cost $25
Headliner Aaron Parks with Fade Ensemble’s Grant Neubauer, Keegan Harshman and Alex Dugdale
7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 19; tickets cost $25
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