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Aaron Diehl: Before & After

The eclectic pianist’s main mission: only connect

Aaron Diehl
Aaron Diehl (photo: Maria Jarzyna)

“My overall goal is trying to figure out how to connect the languages of jazz and classical to make an interesting and engaging performance, and also develop my own voice,” Aaron Diehl told me when I first wrote about him in 2010. “Why limit yourself to just playing something here and something there? It’s all gold.”

That the 37-year-old pianist has refined and expanded that statement of purpose is evident on three recent albums—as leader on The Vagabond, from 2020 (Diehl’s third for Mack Avenue), and as sideman on fellow pan-genre explorer Tyshawn Sorey’s expansively abstract-to-consonant 2022 releases Mesmerism (Yeros7) and The Off-Off Broadway Guide to Synergism (Pi). As Diehl remarked on Zoom from his Harlem apartment before listening to the 11 selections that comprise his first Before & After: “I’m interested the jazz language as a continuum—threading together its evolution as a continual, interrelated stream of development to create a sound that’s neither old or new, but simply a landscape where we can all communicate.”

Joined on The Vagabond by bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Greg Hutchinson, Diehl opens the recital with seven originals that refract and interrogate raw materials harvested from an expansive field of influence: a Bach-to-Ravel notion of the Euro-canon, church hymns, stride, bebop, the blues. He ends it with idiomatically apropos interpretations of repertoire by role models John Lewis and Roland Hanna, and—foreshadowing his engagement with Sorey—a frisky deconstruction of Prokofiev’s “March from Ten Pieces for Piano, Op. 12,” followed by a meditative turn through Philip Glass’ minimalist “Piano Etude No. 16.”

Diehl entered Glass’ musical world in 2014, when the composer invited him to participate in a Brooklyn Academy of Music concert comprising all 20 of his piano etudes. “Many times I had doubts about whether my interest in this music was valid,” Diehl says of this early foray into transidiomatic expression. “A mentor even asked why I’m trying to play classical music, why I’m not with the soldiers of jazz. Well, I love jazz. But everything that I do is influenced by and incorporates all of my interests in music; it doesn’t have to be restricted to a specific approach or style or genre or idiom.”

He adds that interacting with Sorey has “solidified” this predisposition. “Tyshawn has been a revelation,” Diehl says. “He does so many different things on an extremely high level: serial music, 12-tone. His capacity for music, the things he understands and knows, is endless. His mind works in unique ways. For me, the goal is to play any written material and impart such an organic feeling that it sounds improvised, and to improvise music with a structure, a form, and a sense of direction that it sounds written. When I hear Tyshawn play—when I hear all of his pieces—I hear that. I feel the greatest musicians, whether Bach or Charlie Parker, did that at the highest level.”

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Something close to what Diehl describes transpires on Mesmerism, an in-studio trio date with Matt Brewer recorded in spring 2021. “Tyshawn called and said, ‘I want to do a trio record with you and Matt,’” Diehl recalls. “Can we rehearse a day before the recording?’ I said, ‘I want to be prepared.’ He said, ‘That’s okay. We’ll just play tunes.’ He came by my place with Matt, and started to dictate arrangements of ‘Autumn Leaves’ and tunes by Paul Motian and Muhal Richard Abrams:    ‘We’ll play the first eight twice and then the B is half time, and then the last eight is double time,’ and so on. I spent half the night trying to make sure I had the right roadmap for the recording next morning. I thought Tyshawn did that on purpose. He knows me well enough now to know that I like to have a handle on things, and his whole approach was, ‘No, we’re just going to listen to each other. We have our structure, and we’ll see what happens.’

“Many musicians have varied interests, but people tend to want to pigeonhole them into doing a certain thing and that’s it. The key—and the hard part—is how you incorporate all your interests into an organic entity.”

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the songs in this Before & After:

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1. Earl Hines
“Heaven” (Earl Hines Plays Duke Ellington, New World). Hines, solo piano; Duke Ellington, composer. Recorded in 1975.

BEFORE: [30 seconds in] I have this album. It’s Earl Hines Plays Duke Ellington. [Pulls out LP] I can’t remember what this tune is called. One of the first Earl Hines solos I learned was the break on “Beau Koo Jack,” at Eric Reed’s suggestion, and I also played “Weather Bird” with Dominic Farinacci my first year of college. During those years, I listened to the recordings Hines made at the Village Vanguard with Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge during the 1960s—it’s some of the most unique piano playing I’ve ever heard, very modernistic sound and approach, so different from the way he played in the 1920s. I always notice how Earl Hines seemed to break up the time between his left hand and right hand. But it was just an illusion. The time is still there; he placed the syncopation to make it seem to be in another place. The immediate word that comes to mind about his playing is “angularity.” It’s kind of like climbing a mountain, where you’ll find rocks with rough edges and rocks with smoother edges. His piano playing is so kaleidoscopic: different colors, different ways of using syncopation, displacement of the beat, dynamics. He’s a very lyrical musician. As I say, he’s unique. Now I want to go in an Earl Hines rabbit hole!

2. Stefano Bollani
“Rhapsody in Blue” (Gershwin & More … Live!, Philology). Bollani, piano; Roberto Gatto, drums; George Gershwin, composer. Recorded in 2002.

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BEFORE: This is obviously someone who really knows the piece, inside and out. It’s not just an abstraction of it. Random guess: Friedrich Gulda?

No, but you’re on the right continent.
John Taylor? Let me keep listening. I’m thinking of Michel Camilo, though he’s not European. Or Stefano Bollani. It’s Stefano? [Laughs]

AFTER: I thought it might be a European pianist familiar with European classical pianism and the whole jazz language. I couldn’t immediately guess Stefano because I don’t know his playing well enough. I was introduced to him years ago through his duo stuff with Enrico Rava, and we met five or six years ago when he came to a concert I was playing with Cécile McLorin Salvant in Luxembourg. Then I heard Stefano play Rhapsody in Blue with Alan Gilbert and the [New York] Philharmonic Orchestra right before the pandemic, and started to check out his work. I need to investigate and study a lot more.

I like the approach of establishing the theme and making it clear that this is Rhapsody in Blue and then venturing off into another stratosphere. Rhapsody in Blue has become this iconic piece, but I don’t think Gershwin ever considered it or would have imagined it [being] considered a masterpiece—he wrote it very quickly when he was very young. Of course, the themes are incredible and memorable, but the structure isn’t very defined. It’s a series of motifs interspersed with cadenzas. As a result, a lot can be done in between the themes. Stefano didn’t even go into the E-major theme right there. That first theme [sings it] was his springboard for variation and improvisation. It would have been cool to see what he’d do with the E-major theme if they had transitioned into it.

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I’ve had my own experiences playing cadenzas on Rhapsody in Blue with orchestras. People lose their mind when it’s different. I had a very bizarre review in Providence, Rhode Island, some years ago about how my cadenzas ruined Gershwin’s masterpiece. My whole thing, again, is that I consider it a starting point for where Gershwin was trying to go. Maybe my cadenzas weren’t good. I can take that. But I don’t agree with the idea that because something is written in the score, it has to be taken at face value, that it’s sacrosanct—especially when it comes to taking improvisational liberties with cadenzas, which was an integral part of European music until the 19th century. Some people might find it offputting for Stefano Bollani, who is a fine pianist, to do that. I liked it.

3. The Mary Lou Williams Collective
“Gemini” (Zodiac Suite Revisited, Mary). Geri Allen, piano; Buster Williams, bass; Billy Hart, drums; Mary Lou Williams, composer. Recorded in 2003.

BEFORE: [Two bars in] That’s “Gemini,” Mary Lou Williams. It’s Geri Allen playing it. That’s the record that she did of the entire Zodiac. I know that record very well. Let’s listen, because I haven’t heard it in a little bit.

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AFTER: I’ll add Geri Allen to the list of pianists—or musicians, regardless of instrument—whose playing is original from having have such command of the foundations of the language. With the language at your fingertips like that, there’s so much you can do. I mean, there’s not one Geri Allen record where I’m like, “Oh, she’s trying to be original.” It’s just her, and it’s so beautiful. Geri was the crème de la crème.

When I heard this Mary Lou Williams album years ago, Geri was working with Father Peter O’Brien, who was Mary Lou’s manager. I heard this group play some of this music at Birdland, with Andrew Cyrille, Reggie Workman and Oliver Lake.

That’s a different entity. This album is Zodiac Suite Revisited from 2003, with Buster Williams and Billy Hart, some time before the group you referenced, which recorded around 2010 for Intakt.
Oh! I was thinking, “I know this is Geri, but it sounds a little different.” I don’t know this record. I know Buster Williams was one of Mary Lou’s favorite bassists.

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“Gemini” is a very structural piece in that you have an established Theme A, we’ll call it, those eight quarter notes. Then there’s a very brief interlude before it goes into this boogie-woogie figure, which is open—basically a C boogie-woogie. It’s interesting to hear Geri play at this tempo; Mary Lou would play it a bit faster. But I like the tempo that Geri chose, really settling into it. Then it recapitulates to the beginning, da capo, whatever you want to call it. Then there’s a coda at the end that Geri played more abstractly, but included it in there.

“Earl Hines seemed to break up the time between his left hand and right hand. But it was just an illusion.”

4. John Escreet
“Equipoise” (Seismic Shift, Whirlwind). Escreet, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Damion Reid, drums; Stanley Cowell, composer. Recorded in 2022.

BEFORE: It almost seems like a drum record, but I’m assuming it’s the pianist’s. Maybe it was the way the album was mixed, but also, in general, I find it difficult to hear all the nuances of the pianist’s sound against that of the drums. The bassist sounded like the most seasoned musician in that group. He seemed to be holding things down. Something in the pianist’s language—kind of influenced by Brad Mehldau, but also Chick Corea-ish—seems very specific to someone in my age bracket or younger. It’s definitely not someone like Gerald Clayton. Gerald plays nothing like that. It’s not Pablo Held, the German jazz pianist. It’s not Sam Harris, who plays with Melissa Aldana. You stumped me.

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Did you recognize the tune? The composer was born in the early 1940s, and he’s from your home state.
Did he write a concerto for Art Tatum? It’s on the tip of my tongue … Stanley Cowell. Is that “Equipoise”? Aha! I love Stanley Cowell. He was one of the judges when I did the Essentially Ellington competition at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2002. About six years ago, Ethan Iverson organized this event with different pianists playing “Carolina Shout”—Adam Birnbaum, Ted Rosenthal, a bunch of people—and Stanley Cowell blew everyone off the wall!

I would have liked to hear more of the pianist, to get a sense of his whole approach.

AFTER: Oh, the British pianist. I don’t know his playing very well. Damion Reed is a great drummer, but sometimes as a listener I want to hear more subtlety in the drum language that allows for pianists to bring out the richness of the instrument.

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5. Sir Roland Hanna
Elvira Madigan, Concerto No. 21 in C Major K.467” (Apres un Reve, Venus). Hanna, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Grady Tate, drums; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, composer. Recorded in 2002.

BEFORE: Mozart. [Immediately] That’s Roland Hanna with Grady Tate and Ron Carter.

AFTER: That’s a great album. Roland Hanna was incredibly lyrical, wonderful sound, tone quality, knew how to dig in and get into the groove, knew how to really allow the piano to sing. Mozart’s melody is very strong, and you expand upon that very strong theme. There’s not much you have to add to it except your own sound and approach. With musicians like Hanna, Ron Carter and Grady Tate, the possibilities are endless. It always has to be done in taste. It’s a master class in that kind of playing.

Do you think Mozart could have envisioned a bass solo like Ron Carter’s on this?
It’s fascinating to think about Mozart or anyone who lived more than 200 years ago somehow being transplanted into this time period, and hearing the music we’re playing and how we’re playing it. Everyone has their idea how it sounded, but nobody knows how it sounded. People say, “Bach has to be done like this, and this is the performance practice.” I’m pretty convinced it’s nothing like we think it is. Certain elements probably are there. But if Bach actually could play his own language in 2022, I think people would be surprised at his flexibility—and also the fact that he was a ridiculous improviser.

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6. Marcus Roberts
“Fascination” (Alone with Three Giants, RCA). Roberts, solo piano; James P. Johnson, composer. Recorded in 1990.

BEFORE: Marcus Roberts? I just wanted to make sure. One thing he did, I thought, “Yeah, that’s Marcus.”

AFTER: Is it by James P. Johnson? I don’t know the title. “Fascination”? I don’t really know that tune.

I’ve been talking fairly regularly with Marcus for over 20 years. Early on he was a major influence, through his recordings with Wynton, but also his solo recordings. Is this Alone with Three Giants? That record and Deep in the Shed, which is a great record, highly underrated. Also his playing with orchestras. There’s great material of Marcus playing Gershwin with the Berlin Philharmonic and Seiji Ozawa, which you can probably find on YouTube. He was a trailblazer for that in many respects. I always used Marcus as a model for incorporating the vast world of pianism into this fairly new Black American musical art form, and making sure never to lose the roots of what that is. The idea of playing blues; playing syncopated music. Again, it’s all about having that earthiness, even when you have the most “refined, finessed” moments. Listening to this, I thought a bit about Earl Hines, who he’s listened to a lot. I don’t know if Marcus got this directly from Earl Hines, but he’d break up the rhythm or play rhythmic superimpositions in his left hand a few times, then go back. I remember trying to imitate that when I was 18. His sound is so crisp and pristine. Even when he’s playing a blues, he has complete control over the tone quality. It’s so important to have a good sound. A rich tone. Tone can come in all different forms. It doesn’t have to be saccharine. It has to have an intent. It’s not just accidental—that you put your hands on the keys and then whatever comes out, comes out. Finely calibrated. I owe a lot to Marcus. He’s helped me greatly over the years.

Ted Panken

Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz and creative music for various publications, and programmed jazz and creative music on WKCR-FM in New York City from 1985 through 2008. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article “Smalls Universe,” published by DownBeat, and earned the Jazz Journalists’ Association 2016 Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism award. His blog, Today Is The Question, contains over 260 of his articles and verbatim interviews.