Larry Goldings: The Jazz Pianist Who Plays Organ

In an excerpt from her Jazz Inspired radio show, Judy Carmichael speaks with the pianist and organist about his influences and about learning how to play the organ

Keyboardist Larry Goldings has brought his jazz sensibility to collaborations with musicians as diverse as Michael Brecker and Madeleine Peyroux. Larry’s spent the last few years touring with James Taylor as what Taylor refers to as his “one man band.” His latest album, In My Room, features Goldings playing solo piano on a mix of covers and originals.

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Larry Goldings
By Till Brönner
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Larry Goldings
By Till Brönner

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Larry loves it all—whether swinging hard with Hammond organ or playing beautiful ballads on piano. What he especially enjoys about the variety of projects he tackles, is finding exactly what enhances and stimulates the musicians with whom he works, playing his musical role as well as he can, and making everyone sound better.

Larry and I met in 2008 and, in our conversation for my Judy Carmichael's Jazz Inspired radio show, we talked about his broad career activities and favorite musicians. One of the first jazz pianists Larry admired was Dave McKenna.

Larry Goldings: The way that I was introduced to Dave McKenna’s music was, I think, through a friend of my dad’s. My dad doesn’t really know anything about jazz except through me. He’s semi-educated about it. But a friend of his was an amateur jazz piano player and knew that I was getting interested in music and a little bit into jazz. [He] brought over a Dave McKenna record called Giant Strides, I think it was called, probably on Concord. I think there was an immediate reaction I had, and the influence from that record has really stuck with me. The main thing that I’m still to this day amazed by is that he sounds like at least three piano players at the same time.

Judy Carmichael: He really does, absolutely.

Like three hands . . .

Yes, he does sound like there’s a third hand in there.

He’s got this way of – the bass line thing is amazing. It’s just the propulsion he gets going, and his groove of the walking bass line. Then it sounds like he’s comping and soloing at the same time. I don’t know how he does it, but I’ve seen him do it live.

He used to play it at the Ritz Carlton or something, in Boston. I was right there, about three feet away from the keyboard, going, “Ok, I see it, I hear it, [but] I still don’t understand how he makes it happen.” It’s just this timing thing. Maybe he’s got huge hands; he does have huge hands, if I remember correctly. And his touch and his swing and the way he played ballads were so lush. Also it introduced me to tunes, old great tunes, that I had no idea of at the time. Which also led me to lifelong exploration of American popular song and really digging up those great songs.

The interesting thing is to sort of fast forward a few years. I recently made the correlation between the fact that he was playing left hand bass lines to my later interest in playing organ.

I didn’t realize until someone asked me, “Who were your early influences?” Then I thought, “Oh my god, that’s how it probably happened.” Because, when I was influenced by McKenna, I sort of just wanted to try to imitate him. And I thought, “What do you do when you play solo piano?” Well, the only thing you can do is play left hand bass. Which, of course, is not true. But at the time I thought, “Okay, you play left hand bass.” And I just immediately had this affinity for the left hand bass thing.

I love bass players, I love bass lines, and the sort of control you have when you are a bass player, harmonically and texturally. And years later, I somehow got interested in the organ. But I didn’t at all realize that there might have been a connection between my Dave McKenna years and the whole walking bass line on the piano. For some reason, I forgot about that influence, but obviously, that’s where it had started.

I love to hear you talk about forgetting the influence, because I always think that that’s really the best way to take all this in. And we all, in the beginning, have to imitate what someone else is doing, but then eventually, hopefully, we forget all that.

Yeah. I didn’t realize that was a positive thing to do until—Paul Bley, to bring up a completely different kind of piano player, once heard me at the Village Gate when I was still pretty young, around 21. He said, “I’ve got a piece of advice for you.” I said, “What?” He said, “Collect up all your favorite records into boxes, and throw them out the window.” He wasn’t criticizing necessarily; but he was sort of criticizing.

Because you sounded exactly like these people?

I don’t know. I don’t think I sounded exactly like them. I thought at that point I was doing my thing …

But he could tell?

He could hear the influences and he was a pretty radical thinker. But to hear it that radically put, made an impression. What does that mean? Why would I do that? Of course, he didn’t mean it literally, but the point is, at a certain point you do have to shed your influences. Get rid of them; it’s the only way you’re going to eventually come upon your own way of looking at things, which I think I’m still trying to do. Because you love your favorites so much, you know –

Right.

And that’s the challenge.

I had an experience that was unbelievable. I went to the New School Jazz Program. I was in the first graduating class. I went there when it was brand new. Total chaos in way, but lovingly run by the late Arnie Lawrence.

Sir Roland Hanna, another great, brought me over to Holland as a special guest for a big international jazz party. I was a freshman in college. I went. It was one of these parties thrown by this couple who just hires the who’s who for three days to give concerts, Sarah Vaughan. Piano players alone: Cedar Walton, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Sir Roland Hanna, and little old me.

That was your billing?

Yes, little old me. They didn’t want to give my real name at the time. They actually gave me a little set with Kenny Washington, who was celebrating his thirtieth birthday, and Ray Drummond. Check this out, I did a set with Sweets Edison and Moody and Alvin Queen, and I don’t remember who the bass player was. Sweets is gone. Oh, and Al Cohn, who is gone.

Aw, you got to play with AL COHN?

Yep, yep, yep. And I was so nervous, Judy. I can’t tell you. I was backstage with Moody, who if anyone can make you feel comfortable, it’s James Moody. I was back there and Moody says, “Man, all you gotta do man, is take ten deep breaths and say ‘what the [beep]’. That’s what I do every time, man. Just ten deep breaths and ‘what the [beep]’.”

Now that’s funny.

And right at that concert, I was… All these guys were hanging out at a little club at the hotel, and Roland Hanna comes over to this poor cocktail piano player, who was playing a few things. And he had a couple glasses of wine, Roland, and he said to the guy, “Do you know ‘Memories of You’?” The guy goes, “No, I don’t. I don’t think I do.” Roland says: “Larry, you know ‘Memories of You’.” And I’m trying to scurry out of the bar. But Roland says: “No come on, come on.” I sat down, I start playing it, and I look around, and surrounding me, having drinks, are Tommy Flanagan; Sarah Vaughan; Kenny Burrell; Hank wasn’t there, Hank goes to bed early; and a few others. I was thinking this was surreal. Hopefully not a nightmare, maybe it’ll be a good experience.

And in the end, I got these sort of little nods, positive nods from Tommy. And I played like a half an hour of solo piano. That’s the experience that when I was talking something before about having the one experience that can just…the next day I just felt like a new person.

You were a new person.

Yeah. I was, “Wow. Okay. Maybe I can do this.” Nobody shut the piano lids on my fingers, and I got a little approving nod from Tommy Flanagan. So how much better can it get?

And you go back to that, I’m sure.

I do; it was a pivotal moment in my development.

And how did you make your transition to organ? You talked a bit about what influenced you, but lots of piano players don’t play organ. Why did you go into organ? What drew you to that? Why did you want to do it? And how did you develop that whole direction.

Well, I was listening to some organ records that I did love way before I even thought it was a possibility that I would actually play it. Some of them were soul records, that one in particular would be an Aretha Franklin record with her version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which had Billy Preston back there just doing this gospel stuff behind Aretha as she was doing the melody. Just his accompaniment alone planted a seed in my brain, of, okay, I want to be that guy. I don’t know if it’ll be on organ or what, but I want to play that role of the gospelly person who’s just coloring behind, in that soulful, bluesy, totally tasteful way, and sort of orchestrating behind somebody.

That might have planted a seed of one day, you know, playing the organ. But then I got a little closer to wanting to really do it, when somebody—probably Peter Bernstein, who was the guitar player in my organ trio for many years—took me to the Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery record, and the Jimmy Smith/Mel Rhyne records.

What happened was literally that there’s this great drummer named Leon Parker in NYC who had a regular gig at a place called Augie’s, which is now Smoke on 106th and Broadway. And he called me panicked one night, and said, “Man, my bass player didn’t show up. Can you come up and walk bass lines?” Cause he knew I was good at the walking bass lines thing. But I hadn’t made the transition at all. I said, “Well, I guess.” I had a DX7 synthesizer, and I brought it up there.

It was me and Leon, and a saxophone player Jesse Davis, and maybe somebody else. And I said, “What sound am I going to use?” And I found an organ sound, which was incredibly cheesy, but it worked. Then Leon said, “Why don’t you come back tomorrow? Why don’t we do this?” And that really led me to this organ thing. I went to this place called Rogue Music, where they sold used keyboards, and I, eventually, found this Korg double-tiered portable organ. And for years, that was the thing I schlepped, snow, sleet, rain, in cabs, up to Augie’s or elsewhere. Or later when I was playing with Maceo Parker and John Scofield. Then eventually venues would supply the real thing, and I really learned on the job to play the actual B-3.

Really?

When I was with Maceo Parker, he, eventually, on the ride, was able to get a B-3. And at first I was, “Okay, what do these buttons do?” And I really learned on the job.

I found that I had a sort of natural ability to play the bass lines, which I always loved to do on the piano anyway. And the thing that goes back to what I was saying before about coloring, that Preston was coloring, was that I realized that it’s an orchestra. You can get all these tonalities and these colors and textures, and be an arranger on the spot behind somebody. In a way you can on piano, but in a different way. The way you can hold out notes; you can spontaneously change the draw bars. That really hooked me.

That group that was with Leon changed over the years, and it finally became myself, Peter Bernstein and Bill Stewart, which, to this day, is my main organ trio, when I’m playing organ, which is more than when I’m playing piano, I would say. It’s kind of the transition it made. When I made the record for Maceo Parker, my first record came about because Maceo’s producers said, “Why don’t you make a record? I know you have a trio.” And I literally told him, “No, because I don’t really consider myself an organ player yet.” He said, “Come on, what are you talking about?” it was for this little German label, and that was the beginning. I made an organ record and it was on Verve. Some people heard it, and, all of a sudden, I was more known as an organ player. And then John Scofield called me to play organ, Maceo called me to play organ. I have no bitter feelings about it. It’s just the way it happened. It’s a little weird when people don’t even realize I play piano, and there are plenty of those people.

No, but it happens. It’s one of the things in our business, and probably, in other areas of the entertainment business if you put us under that big umbrella. That, people think we make these choices, and we do make choices. But a lot of times what we’re hired for is what we then get known for, and that’s the direction we wind up going in. I know that’s been the reason for a lot of the choices I’ve made in terms of instrumentation for me, because I was stretching out from this stride thing. But then everybody liked the fact that I was playing stride. Then I got hired to be a soloist a lot, so I didn’t hire bass players, and consequently didn’t develop in a way that required a bassist, because I was doing so much solo. It’s fascinating what it does to your development, even creatively.

And the fact is that, more than it being that I was transitioning to organ, it was more that the group that I had, to me, was such a beautiful group and we really made music together more than any other group I ever really tried to put together. And there was just a connection there that is really special to me. But, yeah, so I did get fascinated by the organ, and my main guy was Jimmy Smith for a long time.

Yeah, tell me about Jimmy Smith.

Well, above everything, he was the master of taste. ‘Cause the organ can be one of those instruments that I hate in the wrong hands.

Right.

It can be bombastic, which can be good when it’s appropriate.

But it can really go wrong.

It can really go wrong, if you’re using the wrong settings, the wrong feel, and I don’t want to hear blues for the rest of my life, and that kind of stuff. I do, in the right hands -- I don’t want to knock the blues. Because that’s what organs really started out as being, as a great instrument for the blues, and for soul. But in the wrong hands, it can really be one of the worst instruments to listen to in my opinion. So I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with it. But Jimmy Smith, the master of taste, he can really underplay and his comping was so subtle. He had a harmonically sophisticated mind, I think. People don’t often think about him that way, but, if you listen to his comping and his lines, he can really stretch. He rarely overplayed, it was always about the groove and about simplicity, and building a solo. He was always sort of great about constructing a solo. He didn’t need the classic organ tricks. There’s another thing that drives you crazy when people just sort of immediately resort to holding out the note, putting the match stick between “C” and playing stuff under that. The greatest of that is great, when somebody really knows that stuff, it’s great. But Jimmy is just so tasteful, played great bass lines. The record that I love of his trio is his one I go back to now and then. I think it’s called Organ Grinder Swing.

Like I said, I was just getting called more as an organ player, which I just accepted. That’s okay. This is fun. I’ve got work.

We’re happy if they call.

And work in clubs where they didn’t have pianos anyway. At least I had a nice sounding portable organ or eventually I was able to pay someone to supply the real thing and it’s a real fun experience to play bass behind a great drummer. You know, piano players don’t get to experience that feeling, that hookup when you’re playing. But if it’s a terrible drummer then it’s one of the worst things, on the other hand. But that’s a whole aspect that I started to love. Oh wow, I feel what a bass player feels like when he’s connecting with a drummer, you know. And if there’s a control thing, maybe I’m a control freak, I don’t know, but where you can really change up what’s going on, rhythmically, texturally and harmonically by just a different note in the bass, you know and the mood suddenly changes behind somebody. And it influences the music in a big way.

*****

To listen to the entire conversation with Larry Goldings, along with his music and the music that influenced him, or to hear interviews with other notable people inspired by jazz, go to Judy Carmichael's Jazz Inspired web site.

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