Joshua White came so highly recommended to Rudresh Mahanthappa that the celebrated saxophonist hired him for a European concert tour without having ever met—or even heard—the San Diego piano phenom. That was in late 2015, two years before the release of 13 Short Stories, White’s audacious, long-overdue leader debut on Fresh Sound Records.
“I’d been hearing about him from a few different sources, and I think Mark Dresser was the first to mention him to me,” Mahanthappa recalled recently. “I was intrigued that somebody Mark enjoyed playing with had also been a finalist in the  Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz competition [where White earned second place]. I was like, ‘Whoa! What planet is this guy from?’
“Joshua played with my Bird Calls band for the first time at the sound check of our first European tour date. I guess I was taking a chance, but I had faith. He was what I imagined and heard about. He’s incredibly smart, incredibly well listened and just an overall sort of brainiac. He’s an amazing guy, just brilliant, whether talking about philosophy or playing music. I put him in the same place as Tyshawn Sorey—super-brilliant and maybe a little socially awkward.”
Bass innovator Dresser first encountered White in 2003, when the then-teenaged pianist attended the University of California at San Diego’s annual summer jazz camp. They began making music together before the decade was over, and White, now 32, is featured alongside flutist Nicole Mitchell and clarinetist Marty Ehrlich on Dresser’s superb 2016 album, Sedimental You. He will perform on the bassist’s next release too. “Joshua is a great pianist and true improviser who has a seemingly total command of the tradition,” Dresser said. “He has a special ability to grasp the essence of my compositions, to hear and transform whatever is happening in the moment, and to abstract and project something genuine and authentic.” The pianist’s other collaborators have ranged from Charles McPherson, Lee Konitz and Christian McBride to Greg Osby, Ambrose Akinmusire, Gilbert Castellanos and saxophonist David Binney, with whom the pianist toured China in 2015. He is also the longtime keyboardist at San Diego’s Encanto Southern Baptist Church, where he accompanies the choir.
A Los Angeles native who grew up in San Diego, White is also unusually well read. “He brought 14 books with him on our first European tour!” said Mahanthappa, who featured the pianist on a tour there in 2016 as well. When not on the road, the eclectic pianist works out for two hours every morning and one hour every afternoon, reading all the while. Doing so provides inspiration for some of his multifarious compositions (if not the title of his new album). White’s mid-January reading list included a 1,000-page compendium of short stories and poetry by Alexander Pushkin; the essay collection We Have Not Been Moved: Resisting Racism and Militarism in 21st Century America; Ernst Mayr’s The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance; and Bell Hooks’ Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.
“I carry books with me everywhere, and the trunk of my car looks like a library. My creativity thrives on being able to have quiet time and being able to read,” White said.
In any setting White stands out, thanks to his skill, sensitivity and improvisational verve. Whether performing his own music or someone else’s, he digs deep for maximum impact, thinking as hard as he plays and imbuing each note with deep feeling and an element of drama and surprise. Better yet, he does so to serve the music at hand rather than to show off, and his combination of grace and fire is as impressive as the manner in which he can make even the knottiest passages sing and soar.
All of these qualities are showcased on 13 Short Stories, on which White leads a talent-rich quartet featuring alto saxophonist Josh Johnson, bassist Dean Hulett and drummer Jonathan Pinson. It is as assured a debut recording as any in recent memory, but White is already looking ahead to his next album. “It’s great to have a record and finally put something down with these terrific musicians,” he said. “But I’m more interested in creating something new than reflecting on what is only a snapshot of a moment, an artifact.”
And while White could surely achieve a higher profile if he relocated, he is happy to remain based in Southern California, where he currently leads four very different bands. “Years ago, I felt like I wanted to be in New York, but I don’t see that as a goal anymore,” he said. “I love going there and playing and connecting with different musicians. But, as for living there, Southern California is more conducive to my quality of life.”