DIFFERENT TRUTH - ERIC MUHLER
by Scott Yanow
Jazz has always been full of colorful individualists, and characters whose music is as unique as their lives. Eric Muhler, a pianist inspired by Keith Jarrett and McCoy Tyner yet with his own personal flair, , has had an unusual life, and the result is music that would not be mistaken for anyone else.
Eric Muhler, whose music is accessible, melodic and often bluesy, is a true original.
While Eric Muhler’s style remains recognizable, he has grown in depth and feeling due to his life experiences. “I create original music that is not fusion, bop or retro. I am not into recreating Miles Davis or bringing back bebop, gypsy jazz, or swing. Although I’m still writing complex pieces, I’m also enjoying utilizing simplicity more. These days I only play acoustic piano, performing with a trio or a quartet rather than having a five or six piece band with percussion and guitar. I have a much broader view now of people and I’m much more accepting, which is displayed in my music.”
Born in Oakland, Eric was surrounded by the pop and jazz standards of the 1940s and ‘50s as his father played popular numbers on the piano while Eric and his baby sister were doing the “Wolf Dance” around the room. Eric gravitated to taking piano lessons when he was six, after both his older brother and sister balked at the idea. And gravitate he did, as he then stuck with those classical music lessons for 11 years. However Eric, who also played clarinet and bass clarinet through eighth grade, had no plans to become a classical pianist. “I was a professional rock and roll pianist by the time I was 12, starting a rock band, so the clarinet went by the wayside. I preferred Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. We played fraternity parties, society parties, sixth grade graduations, high school dances, and any gig we could get. I used to make $75-100 a night, which is the same amount of money they pay these days”
Influenced by the Beatles and R&B, Eric played music regularly through his teenage years. One of the big turning points of his life was when he was Jimi Hendrix’s chauffeur at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. “I picked him up at his hotel, but just as we got to the Fairgrounds, he said that he forgot something. I drove him back and he emerged with a six-inch yellow and blue can of Ronson lighter fluid which he used to light his guitar on fire at the end of his performance! I watched the warm-up set and saw the performance that night. After that, I knew I was going to be a musician.”
Eric Muhler listened passionately to hard-core Chicago-style blues during that period including Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, the Butterfield Blues Band, Little Walter and all of the Chicago players. A few years after graduating high school, he played all over Lake Tahoe and Nevada with the rock group Edge, but at 22 became much more interested in jazz. “I had been playing loud rock and blues on a Fender Rhodes, but decided that I wanted to play more challenging music on a real piano.” Returning to Oakland, his new upstairs neighbor at the flat he rented was the brilliant guitarist, Miles Davis sideman, (On the Corner) Dave Creamer, and soon Eric was jamming regularly with him in addition to studying jazz harmony, theory and improvisation with Mike Nock, Bill Bell, and Don Cardoza. Although he frequently traveled with Top-40 bands during 1976-80, Eric’s main interest was jazz. “While on the road, I would write something that I could not play and then learn to play it and improvise on it. I still do that.”
During his wild and disparate youth, Eric did anything he could to keep body and soul together so that he could pursue his love of music for it’s own sake. He worked as a mailman, Fuller Brush salesman, steel worker building cranes, shop keeper, and chocolate factory worker while practicing and honing his craft for ten years.
In the early 1980s he co-led the jazz quintet Mobius Band with guitarist Jim Slick. During 1982-85, Eric co-led Quiet Fire with Dave Creamer, a modern jazz group that featured tenor-saxophonist Larry Schneider. Their one recording, Red Daze (which has been recently reissued), features Eric’s originals and playing, displaying his interest in the music of Keith Jarrett, Art Lande and the ECM label in general while offering a fresh approach to jazz. He also recorded eight of his songs as unaccompanied piano solos on Other Worlds. In addition, Eric became involved in providing accompaniment for jazz, modern and ballet dance classes which evolved into him working with the Bay area choreographer Margaret Jenkins, at Peralta Colleges, UC Berkeley, CSU Hayward and the Contra Costa Ballet, and as the Company Class Accompanist for the Oakland Ballet. In 1984, he began a successful career working with video animation. “My improvisational and writing skills made it easy for me to make up tunes for background music for animation, children’s videos and feature films.” He also composed the score for Of Men And Angels.
In 1988, Eric Muhler’s life took an unexpected turn. “I got married, we started a family with two gorgeous and brilliant daughters, and I became a fulltime parent. My wife travels a lot and has a very good job and, since I loved parenting, I became a fulltime parent. It was the best thing I ever did.” For the next 15 years, parenting was his main job although he still played for dance classes, wrote music, and also went to college, earning a degree in English literature.
In 2003 with his daughters developing into increasingly self-sufficient teenagers, Eric returned to live jazz performance. He has since formed the Eric Muhler Trio with bassist Michael Wilcox and drummer Rob Gibson, recording Live At The Jazz School and the solo CD Something New. Eric can be heard playing solo, duo, and with his trio and quartet (featuring local great, Sheldon Brown on saxophones) in jazz clubs, restaurants, bars, a country club and parties in Northern California from Calistoga to San Jose. He has composed over 50 original compositions and this summer will be recording a new quartet CD scheduled to be released in the fall. As with his four previous recordings, all are available from his Slow Turn Records label.
Pulling in his varied and diverse life experiences, having the incredible luck to meet and play with such far-ranging musical luminaries as Jimi Hendrix and Dave Creamer, Eric has always pursued the path of seeking a higher truth through his music and the result is as rich, original, and complex as the man himself. One of a kind.
- Scott Yanow is the author of ten books on jazz including The Jazz Singers, Bebop, Trumpet Kings, Jazz On Film and Jazz On Record 1917–76