Guest post by Phil Best

The great piano composers were all fluent improvisers. Bach, Mozart, Chopin and so many others are reported to have improvised to audiences regularly. Beethoven’s improvisation duel against Daniel Steibelt, which he won to become the most lauded improviser in Vienna, proves this point whilst it also demonstrates how many virtuoso pianists of the time were skilled improvisers. So when did improvisation cease to be part of the job description for classical pianists, and why?

First of all, I’d like to consider different forms of improvisation. The piano composers of the past were masters of real-time composition and this is a very particular kind of improvisation. Some people today might hear those words and conjure up notions of free, atonal, arrhythmic music. Perhaps the idea of creating complex rhythmic and tonal music that makes perfect sense over many minutes, without some kind of pre-existing framework seems impossible and atonality appears to be the only outcome of attempting such a thing. Another possible form of improvising is the simple, rather post-minimal and free-form explorations that many amateur pianists do these days – you can hear many examples on YouTube and often to great effect. The fact that this kind of activity is making piano improvisation something accessible and truly self-expressive is wonderful. But Beethoven’s or Chopin’s improvisations would have been far more complex and involved. Of course, jazz musicians do improvise but often around a framework of a song structure, with an outline of harmonic and rhythmic unfolding to guide them. When jazz pianists, such as Keith Jarrett do compose in real time, the results can be pretty spectacular. But what about classical pianists?

Well, there is a handful of famous classical pianists who improvise in public. The wonderful Gabriela Montero is an example of a well-known pianist who regularly improvises, usually creating a pastiche of a great composer’s style and Robert Levin is renowned for making improvisation an integral part of Mozart’s piano music, improvising cadenzas on the spot and fleshing out the barebones writing that is often encountered in slow movements. But this is still not quite the same thing as a pianist-composer creating new music in real time.

I believe this points to one underlying reason for the waning of classical piano improvisation in classical concert halls. Composers began to inhabit a distinct realm, quite separate from that of performing. Perhaps the increasing prevalence of atonality in composition or simply the fashion for hyper-intellectualism that was sweeping through the arts generally made the combined role of composer-pianist less valid. Rachmaninov really had two hats as many artists of the early part of the century did and he famously spoke of feeling uncomfortable at times when performing his own works. Later on, composers who were also great pianists, such as Andre Previn, have crossed into jazz in order to showcase their improvisation skills, once jazz had gained its status as an intellectual equal to classical music. I believe that improvising classical music on the spot may have appeared to cheapen its new brand as a very high status, intellectual activity that was not jazz. This branding also affected the way pianists sounded when they played classical pieces, in my opinion. Natural rhythm and phrasing were replaced by something altogether drier or more mannered-sounding. To play Chopin or Mozart without the perceived rigour of interpretative analysis, simply playing the melodies, harmonies and rhythms with full-blooded, natural expression was left to amateurs or perhaps the highly commercialised artist, Liberace. In this climate, attention turned towards a very different skill set from fluent musicianship: scholarship was regarded as the core of classical music studies, with interpretation, theory and historical or authentic performance knowledge being the key skills.

This competitive world of the classical piano virtuoso was of course dominated by recordings, which could well be another very important reason why improvisation was no longer part of the job of a classical pianist. In their new role as master interpreters of historic music, pianists in the last century had to battle it out for supremacy not only in the great concert halls of the world but also in the pages of music journals such as the Gramophone magazine. Highly regarded music critics would rate interpretations as being more or less worthy of esteem and of course purchase. I remember how my father and uncle would strive to acquire the most definitive interpretations of certain piano works. All of this is a million miles away from the idea of spontaneous music creation. It is much more difficult to offer any authoritative critique of the worthiness of music that just appeared instantly without the hours of careful scholarly study that has become expected!

Perhaps Beethoven’s dual was more like “Vienna’s Got Talent” than the modern idea of a classical concert, but somehow, I seriously doubt that! The dumbing down of classical music to the level of light entertainment seems like a modern phenomenon to me, and a knee-jerk reaction to the ivory tower quality that classical music sadly can appear to have. I imagine that classical music, before the 20th century, was intelligent entertainment for the educated classes and my hope is that it is moving steadily back into that realm once again. If so, I can see no valid reason why classical musicians who have fluent musical skills should not take to the stage and create music spontaneously. The immediacy and excitement of a live improvisation appealed enormously to Beethoven’s, Bach’s, Mozart’s and Chopin’s audiences and I think it can hold the same appeal today.


Phil Best is a pianist, composer, teacher and singer based in London. His artist website is https://philbestmusic.com and his teaching website https://playpianofluently.com.

 

What is your first memory of the piano?

My piano journey began more or less when I was 3 or 4 years old. Movers brought a 1932 5’3” Chickering baby grand to our house. It was a gift from my grandparents.

That piano eventually travelled with me from one coast to another in America, which is where I’m from. It came with me when I arrived in the UK 4 years ago.

Last summer I acquired a new Steingraeber Phoenix 205. It’s an amazing instrument. I looked at a lot of pianos in the UK and America  before I selected it. Some of them were very good but none of them had the special, personal “this is the one – this one is it” kind of feeling I was looking for. When I finally met the 205 at Hurstwood Farm Pianos in Surrey it did seem like the one. It’s definitely reaffirmed that to me since arriving in my house.

There are more than a few fascinating lessons I learned looking for a piano which I’ve written up on my blog. Meanwhile, the Chickering has moved to my neighbour’s house for new and more family adventures.

Who was your first teacher and what do you recall about your early days of learning about the piano?

My first teacher was a very nice woman in our town in New Jersey. But after not all that long I mostly taught myself. I wasn’t systematic or organised in what I learned. It was mostly the Chickering was in the house and I’d play by ear.

From the beginning I had an affinity for jazz. I don’t know why or from where or how because I remember hearing Liberace and Victor Borge but not jazz. I also recall trying to pick out bits of the ‘Rite of Spring’ after hearing a recording of it. But picking out tiny bits of the ‘Rite of Spring’ was about all I could do.

Do you remember what you liked to play?

The Joy of Boogie and Blues’ was the book that had my interest. When I played the pieces in it with the right spin they sounded like boogie and blues. But I hadn’t yet heard real boogie boogie such as Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson used to play. And I didn’t know about New-Orleans-style piano playing even though ‘The Joy of Boogie and Blues’ had pieces in that genre. And of course I didn’t know of the great jazz pianists like Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans.

My parents and neighbours used to say I had a “nice touch” when I played boogie-woogie-type things. That phrase resonated with me. I could feel what it meant in my hands. And I could hear how that feeling translated into sound.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

While working towards a PhD in composition at the University of Pittsburgh I taught courses in basic theory and musicianship, jazz history, class piano, and a seminar on Mozart. Teaching was part of what PhdD students did while working towards the degree. So that’s where I began with students and learning about teaching and how to do it – and finding that I really liked it.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

The important teacher who fastened my wheels to the track was Floyd “Floogie” Williams. I met Floyd in the second semester of my first year at university which was mid-1970s. He had recently moved to the area from New York City where he had been a drummer and a percussionist in jazz and studio worlds.

Learning with Floyd was immersion all things musical. I couldn’t possibly have had a better teacher. He had experience in the world I wanted to enter. Essentially he put one on the path towards that world.

Lessons with Floyd always included stories and more stories, all them colourful, about how this or that musician practiced and learned. And there was always an important point that came out of it all. With the piano Floyd boiled it down to one essential: Practice and practice some more.

What he meant was put in time and effort. Serious time and effort – as a method it was brute-force “put-your-back-into-it.” I spent virtually every hour of the day playing Bach, and Chopin, Beethoven, and Oscar Peterson piano transcriptions or picking excerpts out of the Dover editions of scores.

Another big lesson from Floyd was to the importance of being around great pianists – to see and hear firsthand how the did what they did. So Floyd arranged for me to visit to New York City to meet John Lewis, who had who played with Charlie Parker and later formed the Modern Jazz Quartet. A few months later Floyd sent me to New York City again. This time for lessons with Jaki Byard.

Jaki is among the great pianists and teachers in jazz. He played like a one-man jazz repertory orchestra, always with allusions to different pianists and styles, all of which he juxtaposed with wit and great humour.

So for example Jaki’s left hand might play in a stride piano style. But his right hand would play over it in very free bebop style – and perhaps in a different key. But the thing was, no matter what Jaki played he sounded uniquely like Jaki and never like he imitating something. Jaki was postmodern long before postmodernism was a style.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

At New England Conservatory I continued studying with Jaki and then I switched over to William Thomas McKinley who’s a composer and a jazz pianist. Whereas Jaki’s approach to the piano was based on play, play, and play Tom’s way – because  he was a composer – was write, write, write. So I wrote excerpts and examples – I filled notebook after notebook – of what I wanted to improvise.

I also took lessons outside of NEC from Charlie Banacos who had his own fascinating teaching niche. Charlie was a great jazz pianist but he gave up performing to focus exclusively on teaching. And he was well-known as a teacher – as perhaps “the teacher. All his students first went through his two-year waiting list before lessons began. Many of Charlie’s students went on to play with fabulous jazz musicians. And Miles Davis said he wanted to study with Charlie!

Most of what Charlie taught was simple in concept – for example transcribe a McCoy Tyner solo. But to do that required a lot of focused work with a tape recorder. Once the solo was transcribed, the next step was to play it at speed.

With Charlie simplicity of concept definitely wasn’t the same as ease of execution. Some  of the “simple stuff” Charlie showed me a long time ago is still among what I practice now.

The big picture I synthesised from all of that which is right at the centre of how I teach is “Experiment: cast the net freely and widely.” In other words explore, explore, explore – as Robert Frost said very well:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

I moved to New York City in the early 1980s after New England Conservatory and Boston. New York was exhilarating because it was populated to beyond bursting with fabulously-skilled musicians. If there’s a genre or a style of music anywhere in the world someone in New York is exploring and playing it at some unbelievably high level. Probably along with an entire community of equally-skilled practitioners.

After several years of freelancing there and all sorts of gigs I completed a Masters’ degree in Jazz Piano at the Manhattan School of Music. One of the classes I took there was an introduction to composition. The solo piano piece I wrote for it – along with Tom McKinley’s prescriptions to write, write, write – launched me on to composing.

So I went from the Manhattan School of Music to the University of Pittsburgh for PhD studies in composition and theory. But at the time – mid-1980s – composition there was focused narrowly on serialism through the lens and teaching of Milton Babbitt. Which wasn’t uncommon at that time. But it wasn’t the direction the interested me so I moved on to the Hartt School of Music where there was more plurality of approach and style. That’s where I completed the doctorate.

Beginning in the 1990s I taught composition, music technology, and jazz piano at the University of Maine at Augusta. From there I went to Central Washington University where I directed the music composition and theory programs. During that period I had short and long-term residencies in the United States and Europe – at the Crakow Academy of Music, STEIM in Amsterdam, the Banff Centre in Canada, and the University of California Santa Barbara, among others. And I was always playing jazz.

How do you teach?

Everyone comes to the piano and improvisation with their own interests, strengths, and abilities. So how I teach depends on the interests and experiences my students bring with them. It’s very much based on what they want to learn.

I’d say what I do as a teacher is help students acquire a musical voice. That means on the one hand exploring what, why, and how we do music- and piano-related things. And being creative with whatever comes back from those questions. On the other hand it’s about building as much technique as we can to support creativity. Creativity and technique are the two sides on the same coin.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

I’m keen on teaching improvisation through Skype to students around the world. What’s amazing to me about Skype is it works without getting in the way. So looking into my studio from a distance literally means looking through Skype.

For me, there’s magic and the miraculous in working with students who literally are all around the world. Because with Skype connections to distant places don’t feel distant.

From time to time I’ll think “Well we’re working together in realtime but there’s a 12-hour time difference between us.” Which to me is mind boggling. I’ve had some improvised, interesting two-piano duets with students on Skype.

I’d say what Skype brings out is it’s the creativity and enthusiasm we bring to the learning process that counts. Which is the same for everyone really – without or with Skype. Creativity and enthusiasm are essential.

The biggest challenge with Skype has been managing clock shifts and timezones around the world. So, for example, I’ve since learned some countries – Iran is one and I have a fantastic student there – set their clocks to the half-hour rather than to the hour.

What do you expect from your students?

The first thing I teach is relaxation helps improvisation and playing the piano enormously. Because when we’re relaxed it’s easier to play and make music.

But after that expectations can easily become “it-has-to-be-this-way” or “it-has-to-be-that-way.” If we can reduce “it-has-to-be-this” to as few instances as possible we’re that much closer to relaxation where music and everything can seem easy. So removing expectations is about learning to play and practice in the moment with the skills we have instead the skills we wish we had.

A different example of a removable expectation is the idea that knowledge of theory – scales and chords  – precedes meaningful improvisation. The reality is thinking about theory when improvising is about as helpful as applying theory to playing anything.

Of course later or sooner theory is among the great extra stuff that broadens and deepens how we play. But as a prerequisite to improvisation – and particularly for students who come to improvisation with technique already – it’s not the start point.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

I’m mostly interested in the quality of experience of the individual – instead of the quantity of quality competition judges have to quantify. The thing is, quality of experience doesn’t depend on prescribed skill levels. A different way to say that is I’m focused on processes of music-making – because experience is process.

On the other hand I competed in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition which is the huge international one of the jazz world. I was a finalist in the the Great American Jazz Piano Competition. My Robots-in-Residence installation which I built in Denmark was a prize-winner in a competition in France. I learned a lot by being in those events and I’m glad I had those experiences.

And many pianists know competitions and such to be exactly what they want to enter into. In that case of course I’m happy to assist and support. But to the question of “are competitions and such things fundamentally part of learning to play an instrument?” my opinion is, no, they’re not.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

Being in the moment with the music we’re making. Focusing on right now. To do that we have to relax. Which isn’t a question of “Are we relaxed? Yes or no?” It’s that relaxation is a continuum. Which means we can always bring it to deeper and deeper levels.

Also important is listening to the sound that comes from the piano. Listening to how the piano resonates. How it projects. One way forward with this  play and listen to single, sustained notes – long tones at the piano.

It’s like magic but ears and mind usually then go right to the moment – because they’re listening to the attack, sustain, and decay of each note and then each note after that.

How do you approach the issue of performance anxiety/tension?

We all deal with it in one way or another. I wish I knew how to banish it once and forever. But the reality probably is that’s just part of music making and not really all that unusual.

My approach is to work with it in small increments – instead of looking to conquer or suppress it once and for all. Small increments could mean learning to use specific relaxation techniques of which breathing is one of them.

Breathing meaning focusing on and recognising the importance of breath while we’re at the piano. And of course listening to the sound of the piano. Focusing on sound as it floats out of the piano. The more we focus on breath and sound the more we go to those worlds and then on to relaxation and the moment of “right now.”

Differentiating between “practice” and “performance” mode can be helpful. Practice mode is about working out details and looking to improve “this thing” or “that thing” or both things or all things. It’s intentionally focused to things such as “play these notes” or “perform that passage softly.”

Performance mode on the other hand doesn’t require analytic thinking. It doesn’t require that we try to do something better today than yesterday. It’s sitting down at the piano and being in the moment: Comfortable, and relaxed with the music we make, the sound we hear, the ability we have. Then “letting” everything flow together into a performance. Instead of “making” it flow together into the performance.

Are there any books you’d recommend to pianists or musicians or anyone interested in improvising?

The book for the desert island, assuming the piano’s already been delivered, is The Listening Book: Discovering Your Own Music by W.A. Mathieu. It has listening exercises and philosophy for everyone at every level of ability and experience.

How can we contact you?

My Mark Polishook Studio website is a blog about improvising, jazz, and all things of interest to pianists. My email address is mark@polishookstudio.com.

Dr. Mark Polishook, a pianist, composer, and music technologist, teaches improvisation in his studio in Leicester and on the internet through Skype. Among his compositions is Seed of Sarah, an electronic chamber opera that was made into a film seen across North America, Europe, and Australia. As a jazz pianist Dr. Polishook has performed with many eminent artists. 

To the experimental side of sound art Dr. Polishook has worked with graphics tablets, robots, and open-source software. His Robots-in-Residence installation which he created in Denmark was a prize winner in the 2004 International Bourges Electro-acoustic Music Competition in France. 

Dr. Polishook directed the music composition and theory programs at Central Washington University. He’s been a professor of jazz piano at the University of Maine at Augusta and a Senior Fulbright Lecturer at the Crakow Academy of Music in Poland. Dr. Polishook has been a resident artist in the Aarhus Computer Science Department, at STEIM in Amsterdam and at CREATE at the University of California Santa Barbara. 

He has a DMA in Music Composition from the Hartt School of Music, a masters’ degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and the Manhattan School of Music. His undergraduate degree is from the New England Conservatory of Music.

On Saturday afternoon members of the London Piano Meetup Group met at Peregrine’s Pianos for a masterclass on improvisation with Dr Mark Polishook.

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Generally considered nowadays to the the preserve of jazz musicians, classical improvisation has become something of a lost art, but prior to the 20th century, pianists routinely improvised and there are accounts of Liszt and his contemporaries offering improvisations on suggestions from the audience at the end of concerts. Mark presented the activity of improvising not as something new or novel, or to be confined to the world of jazz, but as the reclaiming of a lost art and a necessary skill for pianists of all levels.

Four members performed works by Bach, Debussy, Menotti and an own-composition, and Mark worked with each person to guide them into improvising from a fairly basic starting point. For example, José, who played the Prelude in C Major from Bach’s WTC, used a basic C major arpeggio for the starting point for a simple, yet rather arresting, improvisation which encouraged us all to think about the sound, and the silences in between, as well as the harmonics the piano can create, which can be used as inspiration for further improvisation.

After David had played Debussy’s Jardins sous la pluie (from ‘Estampes’), he began his explorations into improvisation with a straightforward diminished 7th arpeggio. Mark demonstrated that by placing one arpeggio on top of another, or using scale patterns, some interesting and unusual harmonies and colours could be produced quite simply, creating an improvisation that suggested both Debussy and looked forward to Messiaen and beyond.

Petra then gave us a lively and assured account of Menotti’s Toccata. Mark encouraged her to think about an improvisation based first upon a repeated rhythm deep in the lowest register of the piano, thus demonstrating that rhythmic impulses can be the source of improvisation, as well as melodic or harmonic ideas. At this point, we also had a discussion about the ‘mystique’ of the performer and the idea of creating a ‘performance’ before one has even sat at the piano, playing on the audience’s expectations and “creating magic” within a performance.

Jennie was the last person to play, one of her own compositions. Mark introduced us to an iPhone app called Drum Genius, which allows you to play any number of drum beats, and showed once again that rhythm can be the starting point for improvisation.

This was a fascinating class which left everyone feeling very inspired and energised. It was as if we had all been given permission to go back to our pianos and free ourselves from our rigid classical training and simply enjoy the sounds and colours available from the instrument. Mark’s teaching style was engaging and friendly, endlessly positive and enthusiastic, and his tuition was peppered with interesting anecdotes about jazz musicians which more than added to the overall enjoyment of the event.

Details of other London Piano Meetup Group events can be found here

Dr. Polishook, who is from the United States, has had a varied career as a university professor (composition theory, music technology, and piano), a jazz pianist, and a multimedia and sound artist. He currently teaches through Mark Polishook Studio (http://www.polishookstudio.com) in Leicester and world-wide through Skype . Dr. Polishook writes about pianos, pianism, jazz, and improvisation on his Blog of the Improvised Line, also at http://www.polishookstudio.com.

***NEWS***

Greg Kallor will be performing at Subculture in New York’s NoHo on 26 September, with cellist Laura Metcalf, as part of the venue’s first annual ‘Piano Fest’ and to promote his new music video Broken Sentences, and premiere a new work ‘Undercurrent’. Further details here

 

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career? 

I’ve always felt a sort of inexorable pull toward music – almost as soon as I could walk I made my way to the piano in my parent’s home. A piece of string was thoughtfully tied around the length of the instrument to prevent the fallboard from crushing my fingers. My older brother studied with a piano teacher whom I begged for lessons every week for a year; she finally relented when I turned six – and I abandoned my assignments almost immediately. (Improvising was more fun than playing, say, “The Typewriter”.) I’ve become somewhat more disciplined. Supportive parents, wonderful teachers, encouraging friends and colleagues – a career in music just seemed… right.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing/composing? 

When I was nine or ten I heard Brad Mehldau play in the jazz band at the high school I would attend a few years later; I was absolutely blown away. (I added jazz piano lessons to my music curriculum so I could play the way he did – but it doesn’t quite work that way, I quickly discovered.)

In college I began studying with Fred Hersch – who, in addition to being a master improviser, produces one of the most beautiful sounds from the piano I have ever heard. He encouraged me to explore the full range of the piano’s sonic possibilities, to pay attention to the sound.

After I moved to New York City, Fred introduced me to his piano teacher, Sophia Rosoff, and to composer Herschel Garfein. I’m so grateful to Sophia and Herschel for encouraging me to draw upon my background in jazz and improvisation in my classical playing and composing – working with them has helped me to embrace all of those elements, and my playing and writing has become much more personal as a result. I’m a musical mutt, I suppose.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

It’s taken me a little while to reconcile all of my musical passions – playing and composing, classical music and jazz – into a professional trajectory that makes sense. Audiences and friends who’ve watched my development have been super-encouraging, and more and more presenters are getting excited by the mix of things that I do.

Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of? 

I’m really proud of my recording of my piano suite, A Single Noon. It’s a tableau of life in New York City – moments of caffeinated bliss, embarrassing subway mishaps, etc. The interplay of freedom and structure is something I think about a lot, and I wanted to write a piece in which both composition and improvisation would be significant in shaping the musical narrative. (Note to pianists: A Single Noon can be performed with or without improvisation. The sections for improvisation are sort of like scenic detours on a highway; the musical narrative won’t be compromised if you stick to the paved road – you’ll just arrive a little sooner.)

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

Wherever I’m playing next.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

Ginastera’s Argentinian Dances are a blast to perform – brief, but potent miniatures. The second dance has that sort of sad/happy vibe. Seductive. And the last – “Dance of the Arrogant Cowboy” – feels like the musical id of a crazy dancing gaucho on amphetamines. (Probably not what Ginastera intended, but there you go.)

I love performing Rachmaninoff’s Preludes and Etudes-Tableaux, and his Corelli Variations. Gorgeous, and super-pianistic. Rachmaninoff was a master of both the short form and of the long, singing line.

Speaking of which, I love playing songs – particularly those delicious German Romantic lieder. Schumann. Schubert. Brahms. Wolf. It really doesn’t get much better than that.

And Elliott Smith songs. They’re like the Schumann of the (19)’90s.

I had a lot of fun playing Janacek’s Violin Sonata last fall – strange and wonderful piece. Still not entirely sure that I totally get it.

At the risk of sounding egocentric, I’m rather fond of performing my own music – I feel greater freedom to take chances with it than when I play other composers’ music that I love. Of course I try to play their music with the same freedom, but I always feel a little bit like a guest in a friend’s home – no matter how close we are, it’s still probably not a good idea for me to walk around naked just because it’s more comfortable. In my apartment, it’s come as you are. (Maybe I need some new friends.)

Favorite listening? This could take all year…..

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Martha Argerich. That woman must be from another planet.

Brad Mehldau has been an enormous influence since the first time I heard him play, and he continues to inspire me.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin – I’ve heard him conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra twice this season (Verdi Requiem, Stravinsky Rite of Spring). Phenomenal! And such a generous leader/conductor.

Dawn Upshaw. I wrote my Dickinson and Yeats songs with her voice and artistry in mind.

I heard Anthony McGill perform the Copland concerto last year – big fan. Gorgeous tone, soulful playing.

Thomas Quasthoff and Justus Zeyen – left every one of their recitals without tears in my eyes.

Gil Shaham – incredibly beautiful player. Never an impersonal note.

James Levine conducting the MET orchestra = perfection.

Radiohead – one of the most energetic and exciting group of performers I’ve seen/heard.

Alisa Weilerstein, Chris Potter, Byron Janis, Maxim Vengerov, Larry Grenadier… so many. I’m very lucky to live in New York where I get to hear all of these extraordinary musicians.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

My first Weill Hall solo concert in 2007 was incredibly special. Entering the stage door at Carnegie Hall was surreal (Rachmaninoff walked in this way!), and I giddily assumed that my concert was as momentous for the security guard and the stage manager as it was for me. (They graciously indulged my newbie delusion.) I premiered my Dickinson and Yeats songs with mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala, and played solo pieces by Ginastera, Scriabin, Bach, and Rachmaninoff. Kind of a big night.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

Beware of people offering unsolicited advice!

Here’s something that’s not too offensive: take care of your body. Hike, stretch, run, play basketball, swim, lift weights, whatever brings you joy – but be active. It’s good for the long-term health of people with sedentary vocations (um, hello musicians), and it really helps me out of my head. (Not a whole lot of thought going on when veins are popping out of your neck as you struggle to finish that last pull-up.) I used to LOVE rock climbing, but I gave that up when I realized that a cavalier attitude towards injury probably wasn’t recommended for a pianist.

What are you working on at the moment? 

Playing: I’m digging into some of Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch – absolute gems. I’m performing them with mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala at the end of the month, along with my settings of Dickinson and Yeats poems. Also, Faure’s insanely beautiful D-flat Nocturne is on my stand, calling to me…

Composing: I just finished my piano concerto! Super excited about that – and about some new chamber music sketches I’m working on for cello and piano, and piano trio. I’m almost ready to play through some of them with friends and see what works and what needs to be burned.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

Doing exactly what I’m doing right now – except more of it. And, hopefully, better.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

A beautifully-pulled espresso.

Gregg Kallor’s new album A Single Noon is available now, a musical tableau of life in New York City, told through a combination of composed music and improvisation in nine movements that coalesce into a more complete story like an album of postcards, or memories. Each movement develops an aspect of the Single Noon theme, and improvisation is incorporated throughout the suite as a commentary on and development of the themes in the music.

My review of A Single Noon

Gregg Kallor’s biography

Described by composer, pianist and improviser Gregg Kallor as “a love letter to this incredible city”, ‘A Single Noon’ is a pianistic hommage to New York City. It presents a tableau of life in the city through a combination of composed music and improvisation in nine evocative snapshots with titles such as ‘Straphanger’s Lurch’ and ‘Espresso Nirvana’.

Largely jazz-influenced, the music also takes inspiration from earlier American composers and musicians, such as Gershwin (in the fragmentary suggestions of the honking, dissonant New York traffic and bustling streets and cafés in ‘Broken Sentences’), and the toccata-like elements of Brubeck and Adams (most evident perhaps in ‘Espresso Nirvana’ and ‘Straphanger’s Lurch’, which was inspired by Gregg’s “stubborn refusal to hold onto the convenient handholds in the subway cars”). In slower movements, such as ‘Found’, ‘Here Now’ and ‘Giants’, there are nods to Feldman, Messiaen, Debussy and Takemitsu in both the use of chords for timbre and colour rather than strict harmonic progression, and defined, atmospheric pauses and silences, which give the music a sense of repose, and anticipation. ‘Giants’ is, by Kallor’s own admission, his personal paean to “the musical titans I have been privileged to know, and to those who came before”, who, like the imposing skycrapers of the New York skyline, cast huge shadows across the musical landscape.

The entire album resonates with the contrasting energies and vibes of the city, from the sun breaking over the park in the morning, to subway journeys and sidewalk strolls, caffeine-fuelled conversations, and mellow evenings. Played with technical assurance, dramatic flair and sensitively nuanced shadings, Kallor subtly blurs the edges between improvisation and composed sections, classical and jazz, to provide a haunting and vivid portrait of “a life in the day” of the buzzing metropolis.

‘A Single Noon’ is available on CD or to download from iTunes

Listen to a sample here

Meet the Artist……Gregg Kallor

www.greggkallor.com