Dig Bunny Beck!

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Outstanding jazz talent can sometimes appear in unexpected places, and for me the discovery of pianist Bunny Beck was one of those. Her online resumé is scant, giving only a few details of her background: “A native New Yorker, Bunny is a graduate of the High School of Music and Art and SUNY Potsdam….Her dad—banjo player, guitarist, singer Larry Sideman—had a band that played hotels, her aunt played vaudeville violin, and her grandmother sang opera.” So who was her grandmother, and what opera company was she with? Enquiring minds want to know! It also seems that, although Beck has played some posh hotels and conventions in the New York area, she seems to be relegated to the restaurant-cocktail lounge-convention-birthday party-fundraiser-special event circuit.

Having listened to both of Beck’s CDs, her earlier Sound Tapestries and this disc, I can honestly say that this is a shame. Beck is a first-rate talent hidden away in the party-fundraiser-lounge pocket of the entertainment industry, and she deserves to be better known. She features rich, deep-in-the-keys playing with interesting chord progressions, including a great many “rootless” chords and a style that seems to combine bits of Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, and Dena De Rose. She never coasts; she is always thinking as she plays; and the end result is a mature style that can stand comparison with nearly any non-avant-garde pianist in the New York area.

Please scroll down for the Review of the album.

I caught up with Beck via email for the following interview, in which I tried to expand on her biography and influences.

So Bunny, tell me something about your background. Did you start as a classical pianist and then switch over to jazz? Or had your father’s enthusiasm for the music bitten you early, and you started out playing pop and jazz?

Hi, Lynn, yes—I started as a classical pianist and evolved into a jazz player. Most of my life I played classical music since that was my training, but even as a kid, I secretly jazzed up the rhythm of classical pieces for my own fun because “you were not supposed to do that!” Frequently my sister, mother, and I sang along with my dad while he sang and played banjo and guitar, or we played along with my sister on flute and me on piano. I guess these were home-grown jazz sessions! Dad was a self-taught musician who ideally should have continued with a music career, but had to make a living and support our family.

Did you have any siblings, and if so did any of them go into music as well?

Yes—my sister became a professional flutist playing in community orchestras, e.g. the Bergen (NJ) Philharmonic, as well as teaching flute privately and in public high schools, where she also conducted the chorus. No other siblings.

Who are some of your strongest influences among professional jazz pianists?

Although I don’t consciously copy other pianists’ or composers’ styles, what does attract me is hearing a particular phrase or riff that is exciting or intriguing; it can be a four or five note sequence that’s part of a run. It can come from jazz or classical music. What I love to do is figure out the construction of those sound sequences and see where it takes me. Doing that suddenly opens up new doors of sound development and composition. I don’t consciously play in the style of anyone else, but maybe there’s an unconscious process happening. Although I don’t emulate, I have terrific admiration for the awesome talent, sound, style. and creativity of Keith Jarrett, Bud Powell, John Hicks, Ray Bryant, Sonny Clark, Red Garland, Billy Strayhorn, Tadd Dameron, Antônio Carlos Jobim, Horace Silver, and Thelonious Monk. I also love the sound and genius of Miles Davis, Lester Young, Lee Konitz, Stan Getz, and John Coltrane. Richard Strauss is my favorite classical composer, Mahler next, and I love Kurt Weill.

When and how did you break into the New York jazz scene? Did you have any mentors who encouraged you, influenced you, or helped you along in your career?

Breaking into the NY jazz scene was a slow process. I sort of eased into it rather than breaking into it. Early on, I landed a weekend gig at the (now defunct) Riverdale Garden, Riverdale, NY—a charming restaurant that had a decent electric piano. An entertainment producer heard me there and booked me to play numerous gigs at hospitals, nursing homes, community centers, and corporate events. Other gigs also came from the restaurant clientele listening to the piano as they dined, and who hired me for private events. I was lucky—referrals developed through word of mouth. Very few people actually helped me along in my career. But one of the few was a terrific vibraphonist, Mark Josephsberg. I was looking to put together a trio for my demo. I had heard Mark’s group and thought his bass player was good, but Mark said, “I have a much better bass player for you,” and referred me to Tom Hubbard, who as you know is on both of my albums, and we play gigs together as well.

Another, Dolph Traymon, who was Julliard-trained and was Peggy Lee’s accompanist, is the owner and resident pianist of the legendary Fife & Drum Restaurant in Kent, CT. Dolph encouraged me by asking me to sit in for him occasionally, which enhanced my visibility and credibility. Dolph also gave me miniscule suggestions about playing, which were like the gift of gems. We also played duets, which was great fun.

My mentors were primarily teachers or coaches who helped me develop my playing and had faith in my ability. No-one actually took me under his or her wing and promoted me. When I was living in the Washington DC area—before I evolved into a jazz player—I was asked to teach piano students classical music. I knew I needed to find a coach to work on brushing up my skills. I auditioned for Madame Tamara Dmitrieff by playing Chopin’s G-Minor Ballade (No. 1). Madame said, “You play this like my dear friend Vladi!” (It was obvious to whom she was referring!) I was stunned … she thought I had listened to Horowitz playing the piece, which I never had done. So, Madame was a mentor because her extraordinary praise was such a huge encouragement and surprise, that I walked on air for days—and yes, studied with Dmitrieff.

Fernando Hernandez, one of my jazz teachers and a brilliant pianist, told me I “have a very good ear” and “You want people to sit up and take notice and say hey! That sounds like Herbie [Hancock]!” These observations were very encouraging because Fernando had faith in my potential. Lee Evans, the wonderful teacher, pianist, composer, and arranger, taught me all the elements necessary to play jazz, which provided a great and essential foundation. Upon my completing composition assignments, Lee said, referring to himself, “I couldn’t have done it any better.” High praise, indeed!

I know that you’ve played some very prestigious events, but I’m also wondering if you have also played any jazz clubs in New York as well, and if so, where?

No, I haven’t played any NY clubs, but I would love to. You really have to develop a following, because the club owners need to make it worth their while to book you. One way to play clubs is to have a record (CD album) release launch and invite everyone on your list who knows and likes your playing. But the artist is responsible for renting the club and paying other expenses. I don’t have a manager but it would be wise for me to investigate once again those who other jazz pianists recommend. Although it’s not a club, I did play at Saks Fifth Avenue for several hours for a public merchandise promotion. Roberta Flack was the next performer. For public exposure and fun, I’ve played outdoors in front of a restaurant for Make Music New York, an annual June 21st event throughout the city.

Who would you say were the most inspirational musicians you ever worked with in a live setting, at any point in your career?

Dolph Traymon and I would play duets, and his piano energy and personal energy were infectious and inspirational. For years, Lee Evans played the main Lord and Taylor department store in NY for weeks at holiday season. This was inspirational because I saw with relief that it was acceptable to use music when he played this very public venue! Tom Hubbard is inspirational in his really focused attention to his playing as well as where he wants to go in a solo. Vince Corozine, an excellent sax player, arranger, and composer with whom I’ve played duet at gigs, creates unique introductions to tunes from the standard jazz repertoire, which inspires me to hear and create beyond the obvious. As a child, I played duets, e.g. Beethoven symphonies for two pianos, with my teacher, concert pianist Selma Kramer, at her student recitals (performed solos as well). All the other students were adults. Kramer was very inspirational in that she had faith in me and respect for my ability, and treated me like an equal performer as we played for live audiences.

In listening to your CDs, I was really impressed with both the way you construct your own solos and the chords you feed to the other soloists when their turns come. Do you “think ahead” when playing a tune, do you conceive the performance as more or less a continuous entity?

I usually use the chord tones as a foundation for my solos. That process includes all tones related to the scale of the chord, the key center of the chord, the use of alternate and substitute chords—e.g. the tritone substitute for a dominant 7th chord—as well as the chord extensions, also called upper chord voicings—i.e., the 9th, 11th, and 13th of the chord—as well as using meaningful passing tones to arrive at a note. I frequently use flatted 5ths, (#11) flat13th (flat 6th), and flat and sharp 9ths. As “they” say, there are no wrong notes in jazz. I say, as long as you know what to do with them and where to make them lead.

I also solo on the melody at times, but primarily on the harmony. When soloing on the melody you use a lot of leading tones, and frequently change the note values. I see soloing—improvising—as both analytical and creative. You must have a solid foundation in music theory to play comfortably and fluidly and to create.

I’m not really “feeding” the chords to the other soloists; the musicians know the chordal harmony of a piece and they work off it, in the same way I do. The chords I play during others’ solos are the accompaniment or “comping” to their solos. On From the Spirit you’ll hear guitar comping during the piano and sax solos. If there’s a vibraphone in a group, you’ll hear that instrument comping behind the piano and other instruments. Comping is support for whatever instrument is soloing at the time and can reflect and embellish a phrase of the soloist without stepping on the soloist’s toes.

As for thinking ahead, sometimes I happily anticipate a particular passage coming up that I love to play because the chord progression is unique there and opens up a creative movement. Typically, when I’m soloing, improvising, I don’t think ahead; the notes just come from somewhere. I’m actually in the moment something is happening—you’re creating in the moment. When I’m practicing a piece and exploring how I can improvise, certain phrases or note combinations, or note placements, or rhythms reveal themselves. Sometimes I write them down because I like them and want to remember them, and a touch of this or that will act as a springboard as I play the solo. If while soloing, an effective note sequence suddenly emerges, I will repeat it with some variation, either a subtle tone change, or a 5th up, or reverse the notes (retrograde), or keep the tones and change the note values. All of this is spontaneous and it comes from knowing your theory and letting things flow.

I had never thought of consciously conceiving the performance as a continuous entity.That’s a great question! Food for thought! But yes, the performance of an entire piece that includes musicians soloing, does become one solid entity. I guess it is a continuous entity in that the improvisations reflect, build on, and are related to the original piece, and develop until closure with the original theme played once again. Jazz performance has a structure, essentially theme and variations. In jazz, the theme is called the “head.” The head is a defined, complete piece of music that is played in ensemble; then the musicians take solos, sometimes sharing solos, and then return to the head again as the same complete piece of music heard at the outset. The musicians have the freedom to solo on more than one chorus.

I’m assuming that the majority of your gigs are either piano solo or piano trio, is that correct? Or have you played with a combo similar to the one on this record in some instances?

My gigs are solo piano, duo, trio, or combo. I play duos with vocalists, bass, violin, and sax. I play trios and combos with bass, drums, sax, guitar. Typically, being hired for events requires the client to stay within budget, so most clients will book solo piano, duo, or trio. It also depends on the size and purpose of the event.

Another facet of these performances that I really enjoyed was the fact that you seemed to let your bassist (Tom Hubbard) play the root notes while you fed the others what are normally called “rootless chords,” i.e., inverted chord positions without the tonic at the bottom. Is this a normal feature of your playing?

You are absolutely right, Lynn. Tom typically plays the chord roots during the head, as well as playing other chord tones that are effective as roots depending on what the melody note is at a given point. For example, if a 4/4 tune has chords on beats 1 and 3, Tom will play the chord roots as well as related chord tones on beats 2 and 4. Actually there are many different ways Tom supports the head. When I am comping, then yes, I play rootless voicings and typically Tom plays the root. When I am soloing, Tom will vary his support by playing roots, chord tones and passing tones. As a solo pianist, although I play chord roots, depending on the nature of the piece and my inclination/instinct at the moment, I will play and build on the 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th, or flatted 7th or 9th as a root, as long as it makes musical sense. Also, what’s great is that by using rootless voicings, you’re able to transition to the next chord with a minimum of movement (unless you’re playing stride piano or ragtime, of course!) and create wonderful, unexpected tonal sequences. Yes—this is a normal feature of my playing, and I’m always exploring how to make it sound effective and interesting.

Let’s talk about your compositional style. I found your writing to be truly unique; although I felt there were some elements here and there of Tristano, Monk, and Herbie Nichols, I couldn’t really say that your music resembled any of them, yet in a way it had references to them. I’m wondering if the legacy of any of those pianist-writers rubbed off on you somehow?

Thank you for putting my compositions in such illustrious company! I wish I had been able to study with Lennie Tristano. I think any musical elements that resemble any of these composers must have quietly entered me by osmosis. Honestly, I haven’t consciously studied and analyzed their works. I’m attracted to the performances of Sal Mosca, who is the premiere protégé of Tristano, so maybe some of his concepts have rubbed off on me!

I realize that, as a professional musician playing in different venues, you often have to tailor your music to the atmosphere of the event, but I’m wondering which particular genre or genres of jazz attract you, personally, the most? Is it bop, cool, swing, modern, or a little bit of all four?

I love bop—the bop of Bud Powell. I love the groove of swinging: usually much easier and more effective to do when playing with bass and drums, but I do swing the piano at solo gigs. It’s fun to play bop because I’m comfortable with fast tempos and am able to use classical training fast-finger technique. I’m working on developing the rhythms and riffs of my solos to a higher standard of bop. I like cool jazz—I like the tonality and kind of an eeriness in, say, Chet Baker’s performances. I like the relaxed tempo and laid-back tones and approach. It’s a little bit of all four; it depends on the piece, my mood or inclination, the instruments involved, and the musicians’ performance.

I listened to your online interview (vimeo.com/60167992) discussing the initial “brainstorming” session for this disc, and was fascinated by the range of discussions you had with the band regarding the sequencing of solos. I’m wondering if you think of different choruses of your compositions in terms of “color,” i.e., not just what the order of solos would be but how they relate to the piece as a whole?

Actually, the brainstorming session was not with the band. It was at PARMA Recordings headquarters in North Hampton, NH, February 2013. Only three people were involved: Bob Lord, who is PARMA’s CEO and the producer of the disc; Mike Juozokas, who at that time was PARMA’s A&R representative; and myself. PARMA has a baby grand piano and I had played through all of my tunes (including two with lyrics that I had decided not to record), so that Bob and Mike would get a sense of them. I had sent Bob the sheet music (known as “charts” in jazz) in advance.

Our purpose was to decide what kind of instrumentation would be most effective for each tune. We tossed around ideas—even thinking of using a bandoneon (!) or violin—eventually winnowing it down to the instruments you hear on the disc. During the brainstorming session I decided to change the rhythm of Dark Feelings from tango to swing and speed up the tempo of Spirit . Lynn, this was so much fun! A collaborative creative experience.

We recorded May 27 and 28, 2013, a half day each at Park West Studios in Brooklyn, NY. Bob came down for the recording sessions and all of us briefly discussed and quickly agreed on the soloing sequences for each tune. Matt decided which sax would work best on what tune, and Ed decided the most effective way to comp on Emanon Two , sort of a Gypsy-jazz rhythm guitar sound. Vinnie decided what drum riffs would be most effective at given points on various tracks, and Tom and Vinnie discussed what tracks leant themselves best to trading 4s on their solos. We decided which instrument(s) would play the melody of the head, and which instruments were best for a particular introduction.

We automatically strove for variety and color, for active and quiet, for laid back and intense. All the music moves forward, no matter what the tempo. Each musician knew what he or she wanted to do with their part and it all blended beautifully, I’m happy to say. Color is created organically by the nature of the instrument and the creative expertise of the performer. I think the choice of instruments used, and their placement in a piece provided a harmonious color balance.

We had no rehearsals! Naturally, I sent each musician the charts of all the tunes well in advance of recording. We became an ensemble on the spot, and although I had played with each musician at one time or another, Vinnie and Matt had never played with Ed and Tom! When I’m soloing and when the other musicians in the ensemble are soloing, each of us is aware of how his or her solo relates to the piece. I think we all had similar orientations and instinctive approaches toward each tune—I chose the musicians carefully, knowing that each person’s approach to the music would be the sound I was striving for as a whole.

I’m just curious: In my review of your CD I mentioned that, to my ears, Matt Blostein sounded (at least within the context of these particular tunes) a lot like Lee Konitz. Do you happen to know if Matt is a Konitz fan?

Yes, he is! You have keen ears! Matt told me that Lee Konitz was one of his many influences. Matt met Lee at the Montreux Jazz Festival and later took a lesson with him in NY. Matt said Lee is a great guy and he loves Lee’s sound and melodic style.

Are there any other upcoming projects you’d like to share with our readers?

Thank you—yes. I’m compiling another body of work. I’m continuing to work on several pieces that are in various stages of development. Once that body of work is completed, I’ll embark on a new recording project. It takes a long time. I’ll go in to the studio and record a rough copy on the piano only, and hear how I can improve each piece. That’s basic information that’s an essential guide for me. I will continue to explore new musical ideas. I’ve also written some ballads with lyrics which I’d like to record, but I need to find the right voice(s) for those tunes. Part of the fun of creating compositions is you can change anything you want because it’s yours!

BECK Our FantasiesSpiritThe Night is LongDark FeelingsEmanon TwoMy HeartPunch OutH. WILLIAMS Your Cheatin’ Heart • Bunny Beck (pn); Matt Blostein (a-sax, t-sax); Tom Hubbard (db); Ed MacEachen (gtr); Vinnie Sperrazza (dr) • BIG ROUND RECORDS 8934 (40:47)

This disc, titled From the Spirit, is the second CD by jazz pianist Bunny Beck. On this disc she plays a set of mostly originals with a fine combo of musicians. Matt Blostein’s alto sax, to my ears, sounds a lot like Lee Konitz, which fits in well with Beck’s modern-but-tonal style. In fact, throughout most of the opening track, Our Fantasies , the playing comes from Blostein and guitarist MacEachen, until Beck enters with a single-note solo of fine construction—but not for long, as she then turns the proceedings over to bassist Hubbard and drummer Sperrazza. A very democratic combo leader, indeed! Compositionally, Beck’s music fits into that category of early-to-mid 1950s cool, sounding a great deal like some of those Lennie Tristano or early Mingus discs. This is particularly evident in Spirit, which has an ambiguous melodic line and a harmonic base that rises and falls in a strange pattern, very much like Tristano’s Wow or Mingus’s Extrasensory Perception. I should also give tremendous credit here to the sensitivity of Sperrazza’s drumming, often varying the beat oh-so-subtly, in Spirit almost playing a shuffle or backbeat behind several of the solos, which adds variety to the sound.

I particularly loved her song The Night is Long, a tune that almost has a retro-Swing feel to it, but a good retro-Swing feel—think of Teddy Wilson’s remarkable Blues in C Sharp Minor. Beck has the gift of creating music that has a romantic feel to it without romantic mawkishness. On this track, MacEachen is in a Tal Farlow mood, playing long, clean lines with minimal vibrato and only a very light touch of electric sound to them, while Blostein switches to tenor sax, giving us a Joe Maini type of sound. Beck’s solo creates the illusion of “stretching” the time, when in fact what she is doing is slightly dragging the beat. Dark Feelings alternates a semi-calypso feel with a straight 4/4 beat, going back and forth between them. Again, Beck’s unusual sense of structure keeps the listener on his or her toes. Blostein’s tenor solo here eschews the Konitz-like fragmentation of line in favor of a surprisingly long new melody based on the tune’s chords. Beck is typically inventive and surprising, but again tantalizingly brief in her solo. It’s almost as if this disc is really a showcase for her composing talent, her pianism being secondary.

Emanon Two is an uptempo swinger, something a bit rare for Beck. Harmonically, it is mostly in C Minor alternating with C major. For all the brevity of her solo, Beck practically steals the show on this one, as she—like Thelonious Monk in his own tunes—knows exactly how she wants it to go, but Hubbard’s bass solo acts as good connective tissue within the structure of the tune as well. One thing you notice as this album progresses is that Beck is really a jazz composer, not just a “tune writer.” Her music has a beginning, a middle, and an end, sometimes with alternating themes, all pulling together and making musical sense.

My Heart starts out with a cymbal wash before moving into a medium-tempo melody, again sounding somewhat “regular” and semi-romantic but not quite. One passage in 3/4 time comes and goes, rather slyly. As is the norm in this session, Beck feeds some great chords to her bandmates and lets them solo, often at greater length than she. In this tune, I almost felt as if her playing had a bit of a Herbie Nichols sound to it (but then again, so does the composition), and for once she stretches out a bit. One delightful feature of Hubbard’s bass is that his solo sounds like a continuation of hers, a completion of the thought, so to speak. Punch Out is not quite as uptempo a number as I expected, but it, too, is interesting and well constructed. This is more of a relaxed romp for the quintet, something of a break from the concentrated brilliance of the preceding tracks, though again Beck plays with the harmony and the time a little. MacEachern plays some of his solo in a chordal style here, and Beck’s solo again brought Herbie Nichols to mind. (Am I imagining this? No, I don’t think so; some of Beck’s compositions have that same odd construction, as if the melody was lacking a beat or two every few bars and the harmony is moving sideways rather than in a linear fashion.)

The last track is Beck’s own arrangement of Hank Williams’s Your Cheatin’ Heart, and if there was ever a tune that one would think doesn’t fit this band, this would be it. The first chorus is played in a straight country style by Blostein and Sperrazza, the latter playing his sticks on the rims, then switching to cymbals for the break in the middle. MacEachen doubles the time here and there in his solo, then back to Blostein playing the tune straight. Bunny is hidden in the background on this one.

What a find Beck is, and what a splendid CD this is! This one is a real gem.

From the Spirit  with the Bunny Beck Jazz Ensemble

“‘From the Spirit’ is (Beck’s) second full-length release on the Big Round label, and it’s a winner. Featuring seven original compositions and a cover of Hank Williams’ ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, the album is a pure delight from start to finish. If you love classic jazz artists from the 1940s and 1950s, you will find a lot to love here….These musicians play with a fluid confidence that is warm and appealing. Top pick.”  Reviewed by babysue.com

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