Mentorship takes different forms, and I have had the good fortune of numerous great mentors. Some of them have helped me with the musical development that gave me the foundation for playing the way I do. Others helped me to develop personally, physically and emotionally, which is hard to separate from the music. I can admit now that the idea of recording a solo piano album was daunting. It is a physically and musically challenging format (nowhere to hide and nobody to pick up the slack) and I had not played solo piano with any regularity for over ten years. That’s where the mentorship comes in, as years of support from these amazing people gave me the strength to take on the challenge of dusting off the solo chops and recording a whole program in that format. Steeped in gratitude for this, I decided to come up with a whole program dedicated to some of the most significant mentors responsible for my present-day musical identity.
“Gorpy” was written for JoAnne Brackeen, with whom I took some life-altering piano and composition lessons in college. Her tunes are often very challenging harmonically and metrically, but they never seem intellectually contrived, instead flowing in a manner that is totally organic. First and foremost this is what I’ve tried to absorb from her and aimed to capture in this piece.
My solo arrangement of “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” was conceived as a tribute to the great saxophonist Jimmy Greene, whose encouragement and musical inspiration gave me the push to make the leap and pursue a life in jazz. I may not be a Christian myself, but Jimmy’s faith and his genuine and steadfast commitment to living a virtuous, positive life are as inspiring as his music, which is really saying something.
Many have been subjected to the story behind the genesis of “Since the Blues Walked In,” so in this setting I’ll spare you both that story and any poetic-waxings about my most significant musical mentor. I’ll simply point out that it was one of dozens of tunes I composed to fulfill composition assignments for Kenny Barron, and on this version I try to capture the balance of elegance of lyricism and soul that typifies Kenny’s ballad playing.
Lewis Porter is a remarkable musician, but it was his influential work as a teacher and historian that first impacted me and deepened my sense of responsibility to be thorough in doing the legwork to be able to do or speak about things with legitimately-earned authority. He used multiple versions of “Tiger Rag” to demonstrate the diversity and evolution of jazz, and that is the spirit I brought to this multiple-personalities” rendition.
My brother Matthew has influenced me in many ways, including exposing me to non-Western music years before I had any other such opportunities. This quasi-Eastern piece was improvised at the recording session, and the title “Stevens Bar” refers to the lap-steel guitar slide that I used on the strings of the piano.
When I began studying classical piano with Clara Shen, I cried, as my first teacher had moved away and I was intimidated by the material I was presented, beginning with Chopin’s “Minute Waltz.” Eight years later I had acquired much of the technical and interpretive foundation for my relationship with the piano. And no, I’ve never played it in anything close to a minute, but playing it in 5/4 allows me to come a little closer.
What can I say about Kate Ten Eyck, the single biggest positive influence on my life? Well, Samuel Taylor Coleridge said it better than I could in “What If You Slept,” the poem upon which I based this song. Look it up.
George Raccio is the teacher responsible for my discovery of jazz and for the growth I made as a jazz musician as a teenager – that I could be accepted to jazz programs at conservatories without ever having had a jazz piano lesson is primarily attributable to the foundation he gave me. “After You’ve Gone” is just one of the many standards that I first learned from George.
When I first met Rachel Green I was an infant – I can’t say I remember that. What I do remember was that her work as a singer-songwriter in the 1980s influenced me deeply at a critical juncture in my adolescence (“The Dance” being one of my favorites) and her personal guidance has helped me along the path ever since. She has also been a great role model for continuing to grow and evolve throughout life.
My daughter Rebecca, in addition to being an inspiring person on multiple levels, has also been a sort of truth serum, both through her candor and insight and through my responsibility to step up to the plate and embody the traits that it is my job to help her develop. “Maqqwoe’s Boogie” is not a tribute to her, however, but rather a portrait of an important influence of hers, a seven-legged octopus (septapus, to be accurate).
I believe that sometimes the universe places a person in your life to teach you things you didn’t even know you needed to learn or things that you might otherwise resist. So it went with my daughter Tiana, and it has been an incredible blessing to see her grow into a remarkable young woman and an honor to have been along for the ride. “Home” is a humble attempt to depict my open arms and open door.
In the fall of 1992 I was at the end of my rope. My wrists had crapped out to the point where I could not lift a dining hall tray, much less play the piano. It looked like the end, and then I met the hand therapist Caryl Johnson, whose methods are so totally rational that they belie her brilliance. That was the first of multiple career-saving interventions from Caryl, and while “Mynor Myracyl” is the song I wrote at that time as a tribute, every time I play the piano is a testament to her work.
Dawn Revett is a talented and accomplished author, illustrator and painter, all of which you could (and should) read about elsewhere. She is also one of the toughest and most resilient people I have ever met. We should all be as lucky as I have been in having a friend and role model equally able to make me laugh and to wrestle the lion coming toward me when I can’t do it myself (that’s a metaphoric lion, by the way). I have recorded “This Little Light” before, but have re-interpreted it here in a manner inspired by the work of Alice Coltrane.
Mo Sila is the least musically inclined person represented here (sorry Mo) but I have a hard time imagining that I could have made this album (or, for that matter, “Know Thyself”) without her. The cumulative effect of the “Turtle Steps” she has helped me take over the last four years has been a full-scale reclamation of parts of my soul that had been on ice for a long time. What a blessing to have such a wise guide come into my life at just the right time.
In his book African Religions and Philosophy, John Mbiti discusses the difference between the concepts of time between the western world and traditional African cultures. Instead of past, present and future, there is the Sasa, which includes the present, the foreseeable future and any part of the past that living people still remember, and the Zamani, which represents the more distant past, kept alive only through history. The rest of these tributes are for living mentors, but with the album's final song I must pay at least some tribute to Wanda Maximilien, Ted Dunbar and the other important figures in my life who have since gone on to join the ancestors yet remain with me every time I play the piano.
In a sense, then, we are looking at the paradox that this solo album is one of the most broadly collaborative efforts I have ever recorded. On every piece, even if my body threatened to falter, there was a person inspiring me to keep going and a chorus of others affirming the strength they had helped me to achieve through the years. I thank all of them (and many others who have also helped along the way), and I encourage all of you to remember how broad the ripple effect can be whenever we show the willingness to help another or to model strength and integrity even when we’re weary. And if all that just seems too far-out, I simply hope you enjoy the tunes!