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Aaron Parks and Samantha Rise reckon with loss, while imagining new futures, in 'Dreaming Home'

Aaron Parks and Samantha Rise, whose collaboration 'Dreaming Home' will premiere at the 2023 Hudson Jazz Festival.
courtesy of the artists
Aaron Parks and Samantha Rise, whose collaboration 'Dreaming Home' will premiere at the 2023 Hudson Jazz Festival.

As Aaron Parks and Samantha Rise mapped out their searching, ambitious new collaboration, the focus often returned to a cycle of loss and recovery. “We titled the piece ‘Dreaming Home’ aspirationally to some degree,” muses Parks, “as if by titling it that, maybe we would have a clear idea of how exactly to imagine the future. And there are definitely moments in the piece that move in that direction — but over and over again, we kept bumping up against grief, and things we haven’t really allowed ourselves to feel both on a societal and also on a deeply personal level.”

Parks, a prominent jazz pianist and composer living in New York’s Hudson Valley, has a longstanding kinship with Rise, who is a nonbinary singer, self-described “songcatcher” and community activist based in Southwest Philadelphia. Dreaming Home — commissioned by the Hudson Jazz Festival, where it will have its world premiere on Saturday — situates their creative partnership in a pliable new ensemble with the redoubtable Meshell Ndegeocello on electric bass, alongside Milena Casado on flugelhorn and J.K. Kim on drums.

Bart Babinksi

Earlier this week, in a joint interview shortly after their first rehearsal with the full cohort, Rise and Parks described their new piece in terms more suggestive of an open-ended process than a product nearing its launch date. “A lot of the music that I've composed for this — it’s sort of fragments and little situations and environments to be in,” Parks said. “So much of it really depends upon the communication and chemistry of the band members.”

A handful of rehearsal clips, provided before our conversation, underscore the point: Parks has applied his considerable gift for lyrical maneuvers and floating groove to a series of musical vignettes, mostly in a walking mid-tempo. A tune with the working title “Follow the Song” has some of the warm gospel sonority of vintage Keith Jarrett, while “Dream Invocation” hovers in a drifting, airy waltz time. The two-bar vamp that sets up a droning piece titled “We’ll Find Our Way Back Home” will ring true to anyone familiar with Parks’ jazz-rockish band Little Big. It will presumably provide the backdrop to Rise’s verse of the same name, which begins with a far-sighted assertion: “The transformation of our world is already happening, and our remembering has been the catalyst, many times over.”

courtesy of the artist

Rise offered more perspective on that sentiment, which can hardly be disentangled from their sense of place. “I moved to Philadelphia specifically to study jazz,” Rise says. “I also love to say that I was radicalized here. Everything I know about liberatory futures I learned in Philadelphia, In the sense that the music had much to teach, and also the communities here who have found mutual aid practices, who have been finding alternative economies, who have been imagining abolitionist features. You know: we’re all we've got, and I think there’s a really profound familiarity and kinship between that spirit of imagining and our musical capacities.”

The language in Dreaming Home reflects that conviction, forged in part by the spirit of protest during our first pandemic summer. Elsewhere in “We’ll Find Our Way Back Home,” Rise writes: “Uprisings would appear spontaneous, if it weren’t for the groundwork laid by imaginative action, mutual aid, freedom schools and community care.” The exhortative character of this and other passages in the piece, which sit beside more impressionistic imagery, led me to characterize the piece as a work of pragmatic idealism — a phrase that Rise was quick to embrace.

Cat Henry, curator of the Hudson Jazz Festival
David McIntyre
Cat Henry, curator of the Hudson Jazz Festival

“In the music that I make — but also the organizing that I I feel delighted to be a part of here in Philly — I try to remind people that it's not naïve to wonder and dream new worlds,” they said. “It’s tactical. It's highly strategic, and it's absolutely necessary. You know, we live in this moment where we are so boxed in by limiting beliefs that are really new, actually. They’ve been arresting us and debilitating us, and narrowing our paths forward at a really intense level for a very short period of time. So reminding us to let our ideas of what the world can be get a little weedier — it feels like a necessary tactic in this moment, and in this time.”

The Hudson Jazz Festival, which in its third year bears the theme “The Shape of Jazz Today,” seems likely to provide fertile ground for this sowing. Curated by Cat Henry, it’s a compact but inspired program of galvanizing talent in the modern mainstream of improvised music.

During its first three concerts last weekend — separately featuring the soulful vocal dynamo Michael Mayo, with his band; singer-songwriter and activist Sarah Elizabeth Charles, with her ensemble Scope; and trumpeter Marquis Hill, with New Gospel Revisited — the audiences were strong in number, and eager to engage. The festival takes place at Hudson Hall, a restored proscenium theater with excellent sound and lighting; over the course of those first three shows, a total of 655 people attended the festival, approaching a nightly capacity of 250.

Marquis Hill's New Gospel Revisited at the Hudson Jazz Festival, Feb. 18, 2023.
David McIntyre
Marquis Hill's New Gospel Revisited at the Hudson Jazz Festival, Feb. 18, 2023.

The Hudson Jazz Festival’s second weekend kicks off tonight with Ulysses Owens, Jr. and Generation Y, followed on Friday by vocalists Lucy Yeghiazaryan and Vanisha Gould. After Dreaming Home on Saturday, the finale will feature Endea Owens & The Cookout.

The day after our joint interview, Parks called to put a finer point on the unprocessed grief that found its way into the piece. “Just the pandemic, for one — the fact that we still haven’t really grappled with what that has been, and continues to be,” he began. “And the thing that I’ve found myself having a really hard time with: in those days when the world stopped for such a long time, it seemed like people were imagining different ways of doing things: organizing, protesting the nonstop violence in our culture. It seemed like there was a momentum.” I recall living through this moment, and often talking with Parks about it at the time, so I knew what he meant when he invoked the idea of a hopeful future that dissolved as the world got back to spinning, in what some have willfully taken to calling our post-pandemic age.

This sense of loss — not only for the actual losses we endured, but also the imagined progress that seemed to slip away — suffuses but will not stifle Dreaming Home, judging by the available evidence. Rise puts it succinctly in a piece titled “Vining Song,” with an admonition that also feels like a reassurance: “We must be willing to fall, and fall apart.”

For more information about the Hudson Jazz Festival, visit the official website.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.