Talking with Aaron Diehl, a man who claims to be more of listener than a talker at times, was an opportunity to observe a reflection of his education and commitment to the music and its traditions. He continues to evolve and unite audiences as well as composers. I am excited to see where the future takes him -Vicki Thompson
When did you find your own original jazz voice and how did you know it was that light-bulb moment?
I would imagine it was when I was about 13 or so. It was at Interlochen Summer Arts Camp. I heard a man, his name is Eldar Djangirov. He’s sort of a jazz prodigy. I thought maybe I’d like to give a shot at playing more jazz because my grandfather’s a jazz musician. That’s when I started listening to more of it and ultimately, from listening, trying to discover how to play it. But I didn’t really start until I was an early teenager.
Who will be joining you for your Trio for the show October 18th?
It’ll be a quartet. This is an annual series that we started called Masters on the Mountain Top, so it features some sort of jazz masters. Last year it was Lew Tabackin, this year it is Steve Nelson. He’s this tremendous vibraphonist and is probably most notable for playing with Mulgrew Miller, another jazz-pianist, in his Wingspan group. That will also feature Dezron Douglas on the bass and Pete Van Nostrand on the drums.
I was watching this episode of Young Arts Master Class with Wynton Marsalis and he did this really cool thing where he divvied up the roles within a trio of students he was working with. He designated the piano player to be like congress, because the piano has all the notes, the bass is the judicial branch with the final word, and the saxophone is like the president. For people who are less acquainted with you, your trio and special guest, would you say the roles are similar to this description?
When you’re playing with somebody older, automatically, whether it’s a group that you put together or not, you’re always going to defer to the older person. This weekend I’m playing with Lew Tabackin and Matt Wilson. They are older than I am. It’s important when organizing a group that they have the final say on what they would like to do. Most people are cooperative so when you have a suggestion and you’re younger and say, “Oh, we can do this,” they’re going to say, “Oh, that’s fine, we can do that.” So you always give deference to the older person. Now, Steve Nelson, who’s probably in his sixties now, I’ll call him up and ask him, “Steve, what would you like to play? What tunes do you want to do?” Then I make the determinate of how the repertoire is going to be organized. After, when we get up onto the band stand, we’re all pretty much equal in terms of all wanting to be empathetic, listening to each other and simply making music together.
I wouldn’t have guessed that, you’re courteous to the eldest musician and I think that’s really cool.
Yeah, it’s like an unspoken rule.
It’s like when you get on the bus.
How did you get involved as the Artistic Director of the Catskill Jazz Factory?
I met Piers Playfair through Stanley Krauss, who’s a great writer and critic. Stanley had recommended me to help Piers with constructing some sort of program for jazz in that region.
Will you be performing some pieces from your latest album, The Bespoke Man’s narrative?
I probably will play one or two compositions.
“Generation Y” from your album The Bespoke Man’s narrative is lively, upbeat and fast. I listen to it and I feel like I’ve run a marathon, the daily free-spirited marathon of the Y generation. Can you describe your inspiration behind “Generation Y” from that album?
My inspiration, I suppose it was the face of the band that I work with; it’s comprised of Generation Y musicians. So, I suppose that’s why I wrote it or why I came up with the title.
In the New York Daily News published on December 16th, 2012 in an article called “Young Jazz Piano Star, Aaron Diehl, is Happiest in a Group Setting” you stated, “It’s not just about me, it’s about bringing together people who are younger, people who are older and, ultimately, people who are listening to the music and figuring out how we can speak together.” Now I know that you don’t have 5 decades of playing underneath you, but have you noticed a change in the audiences from when you began playing? Are people figuring out how to communicate?
There’s a misconceived notion that one has to be an expert in jazz in order to enjoy it. The truth is that the music has to be good to enjoy it. If the musicians who are playing have a powerful enough command of playing it and an approach that is artistically potent but also accessible to people, then it’s a no-brainer in terms of the enjoyment level. But many times you’ll hear musicians that don’t necessarily have that kind of combination, so the listener can get lost. So, I find that audiences simply have to find the right musicians to be able to enjoy jazz music because it’s certainly there for people to enjoy.
You’ve been to our Piano Performance Museum before; did you feel like a kid in a candy shop?
It was great! I remember playing a piano from 1789, piano from the late 19th century, turn of the 20th century and then of course modern pianos as well. To play repertoire that was written for these specific instruments because the piano has gone through a series of development though the past 200 years. And playing Beethoven or Mozart on a modern Steinway piano is very different from playing on a piano that existed in the mid to late 18th century.
I just wanted to touch on your muse and creative process. When is your favorite time and place to compose?
I compose after breakfast. The best time of the day.
In what direction do you see your personal music style developing over the next ten years?
I want to continue to just absorb the traditions of music that’s been established, the mystery that finds my own unique approach to playing and to writing. So many times we talk about the music in eras, we talk about the swing era, we talk about early New Orleans music or we talk about bebop. We have a lot of names for jazz. But the truth is, all of these styles or eras, if you want to use that word, have something in common; there’s a common thread. And, I always think of myself as a weaver, or sewer. You’re connecting the dots between the various lineages, the various times, eras, if you will, of the music. You’re using all of that to create an arsenal for an individual unique way of playing. I never see the music as being separated in boxes, they’re all connected, woven.
Interview done by Vicki Thompson on September 5th, 2014
To purchase tickets to Aaron Diehl’s performance on October 18th at the Doctorow Center for the Arts go to http://www.catskillmtn.org/events/calendar.html?date=2014-10-18