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Aaron Diehl: Before & After

The eclectic pianist’s main mission: only connect

Aaron Diehl
Aaron Diehl (photo: Maria Jarzyna)

7. Muhal Richard Abrams
“Afrisong” (Afrisong, Whynot). Abrams, piano, composer. Recorded in 1974.

BEFORE: Just by the groove that’s being played, I think this pianist is very familiar with the music of the African diaspora. Abdullah Ibrahim?

It’s an American pianist, a bit older than Ibrahim, but not that much.
Keep playing. I know I’m probably wrong, but I’ll throw it out there: Andrew Hill?

No, but you’re warm.
Is this person alive?

Unfortunately, no.

AFTER: Is it Muhal Richard Abrams? I never heard this. It’s a certain kind of language, almost like Earl Hines—very angular, but poetic at the same time. It’s a very joyous song. I really like it. I don’t know the specific groove or rhythm—I’d have to ask Etienne Charles—but my immediate impression was someone who understands the diaspora. That’s why I first thought of Abdullah Ibrahim, who’s from South Africa.

You played Muhal’s “Two Over One” on the Mesmerism album. I wondered whether you had any remarks on his music.
Honestly, I’m still learning quite a bit. AACM came to me quite late. Actually, when Cécile got her first Grammy, I was sitting next to Marcus Miller at lunch or dinner. It was a weird scene; Johnny Depp was behind us and everyone was trying to get a picture. But Marcus was talking about the AACM. I told him, “I’m not super-familiar,” and he gave me some recommendations. I’d heard of some of the AACM members, but hadn’t listened to much of that music. Now, especially through playing and talking with Tyshawn, I’ve dug deeper into it. Aesthetically, it’s hard for me to grasp some things. Muhal definitely for me is much more accessible.

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8. John Lewis and Hank Jones
“Odds Against Tomorrow” (Piano Playhouse, Toshiba-EMI). Lewis (left), Jones (right), piano duo; Lewis, composer. Recorded in 1979.

BEFORE: [Within 10 seconds] Is that Hank Jones and John Lewis? You don’t have to play it. I have this on LP. That’s a great piece. “Odds Against Tomorrow.” That record is a great example of how to play two pianos. Another record I like is the Jaki Byard/Earl Hines duo [Duet!, 1972], and I like Evening with Two Pianos, with Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, and Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes, Double Portrait. Duo is the hardest form of playing. You have to be so sensitive to the other person. You’re playing two instruments with 88 keys, with a full orchestra at your disposal. You can clash so many ways, and one of the primary ways is rhythmically. Everyone needs the same understanding of how the eighth-note triplet is interpreted, how to interpolate that swing rhythm—or any kind of rhythm. Some really great musicians have played two pianos as a jam session situation, like “Let’s play ‘How High the Moon’,” and there’s no structure. Well, this arrangement of “Odds Against Tomorrow” was written out. Ray Gallon, the pianist, has this score from John Lewis, and I’ve always wanted to check it out. I know specific parts are very clear—i.e., this is an obbligato, written as is. Part of the reason for that, I’m sure, is to avoid any clash; both pianists know where they’re supposed to be. Now, when it changes in the middle part, it’s a bit more open; you improvise on the form, and then it returns to the original theme. Mr. Jones and Mr. Lewis were incredibly competent and proficient musicians, but also very sensitive about not overplaying.

I never knew John Lewis, but I did know his wife, Mirjana. I did spend some time with Hank Jones. There’s actually video footage on YouTube of me playing Tatum’s “Elegy” for Hank Jones, back around 2005. I’ll remember that evening for the rest of my life. He was the consummate professional. Spending time with him was a lesson in how you carry yourself as an adult. Just to witness him playing “The Very Thought of You” or “Alone Together,” you’d melt all the way. Or hearing him talk about Thelonious Monk playing him “Monk’s Mood,” or tidbits about his time with Art Tatum. I started to understand Art Tatum’s playing beyond the virtuosity, that it’s also about the tone and harmonic movement—and Tatum’s impeccable sense of time. Hank Jones had a way of distilling all of that Art Tatum vocabulary into something … not simple, because what Hank Jones played wasn’t simple at all, but perhaps easier to hear in the moment because there wasn’t as much garnish around the virtuosity.

The form and structure of John Lewis’ music is impeccable. As a performer, his role wasn’t to be flashy or superfluous. It was to be lyrical and melodic, especially with the MJQ, whose virtuoso was Milt Jackson. Any time I play that music, I try to have the discipline to not overplay. Once you start to overplay his music, it sounds like something else. The transition between the music that is written and the music that is improvised has to be seamless. Back at Juilliard, we were playing the music of John Lewis, and Mrs. Lewis was there. I played a solo on, I think, “Conversations,” and she stopped and said: “Aaron, you’re not really playing the material at all; you’re just doing your own thing.” I was like, “Oh, okay, I guess I need to reconsider my options.” Every time I go back to his music, I have to put myself in the mindset not so much of playing like John Lewis, but thinking as he thought—structurally and in a compositional manner. Then it’s not just me blowing, but all of the improvisation and counterpoint in the music has a place and is treated appropriately, so it doesn’t sound like random musical statements. That’s a challenge, because John Lewis was so subtle. As was Hank Jones, who could be very virtuosic. I think all of us today can take a lesson from their playbook in subtlety and nuance.

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“People say, ‘Bach has to be done like this.’ I’m pretty convinced it’s nothing like we think it is.”

9. Dave Bryant
“Lime Pickle” (Night Visitors, SE). Bryant, piano, composer; Charnett Moffett, bass; Gregg Bendian, drums. Recorded in 2020.

BEFORE: I love the counterpoint and the interaction. I don’t know the pianist. I don’t know the drummer. But I can hear that the bassist is maybe someone like Tarus Mateen or Charnett Moffett. Can you give me the pianist’s generation?

Late Boomer.
American?

He’s American. He’s not based in New York.
I know it’s not Keith Jarrett, but something about the melody reminds me of this Keith Jarrett tune on Facing You. That era, maybe?

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This pianist is a fair bit younger than Keith Jarrett.
It was incredibly interactive. Everyone is feeding into the conversation collectively, has the same contrapuntal approach. It felt like one very cohesive unit. I liked the pianist’s approach, and the drummer—and, of course, Charnett—were amazing. Let me take a quick crack at it. It wouldn’t be somebody like Geoffrey Keezer… There’s David Bryant, from Brooklyn, who was born in the ’80s … and another Dave Bryant, who’s a white guy.

AFTER: Yeah, he did synth stuff with Ornette Coleman. I like it. In all honesty, some of this music is outside what I normally would listen to. For a second, I was going to say Matt Mitchell, but I knew that wasn’t him. He’s phenomenal. Now that you bring up Ornette, it makes total sense. I hadn’t drawn that conclusion, but it sounds like that concept: an Ornette-like melody that is not a fixed point, that expands, there’s interactive improvisation, then you come back to the theme at some point, then you venture off again.

10. Keith Jarrett
“Part III” (Budapest Concert, ECM). Jarrett, piano, composer. Recorded in 2016.

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BEFORE: I just listened to this, like, two weeks ago. I don’t know the precise movement because they’re all titled Part 1, Part 2. Is it from the Bordeaux Concert?

No, this is the Budapest Concert.
It sounded very similar.

Well, both are from 2016.
Talk about an improviser of the highest order. I’ve been playing a bit of The Well-Tempered Clavier and I go to Keith’s recording sometimes to see how he approaches it. Also his Shostakovich. He’s so special in terms of taking anything and really owning it—and certainly in his free improvisations. It’s astounding how influential Keith Jarrett has been in the jazz piano lexicon in the last 50 years. He’s on the same level as Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. I joke to some of my colleagues about my admiration and adoration for these great pianists, but my absolute disdain for the cult following that they … Herbie, Chick, Brad Mehldau are the only people they listen to. I couldn’t imagine listening to this music as a 16-year-old getting into jazz and being like, “Yeah, I want to play like that.” I feel you have to be a mature listener to listen to these people without being so influenced by it that you want to imitate them, and then you have no other context of how music is created. It’s as if your introduction to jazz is listening to the Plugged Nickel recordings. Now that I’ve hopefully grown a bit over the last 20 years, it’s much easier to listen to basically the entire catalog of Miles Davis—and that quintet especially—in terms of understanding the references, how they’re thinking and interacting with each other.

What do you think of Keith Jarrett’s later work vis-à-vis the earlier records?
I think there’s much more abstraction later on. I quite enjoy it. But one of my favorite Keith Jarrett albums is that solo album from around 2000 [1999’s The Melody at Night, with You] where he played “My Wild Irish Rose,” which is very simple and contemplative. When I hear this other side, with all the abstraction, I’m very intrigued, like, “Wow, how did he come up with that?”

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11. Duke Ellington
“So” (Piano in the Foreground, Columbia). Ellington, piano, composer; Aaron Bell, bass; Sam Woodyard, drums. Recorded in 1961.

BEFORE: [Immediately] Ellington. It’s one of those trio recordings he did in the ’50s, I want to say. Definitely Sam Woodyard on drums. I don’t know who’s on bass because he used a few different bassists. It’s Aaron Bell? I was going to say John Ore. Is it from Piano in the Foreground? The sound is so identifiable. It’s almost alien. Ellington’s approach to piano was like nobody else. Sometimes you have to listen to a few measures to get a grasp on the musician. With Ellington, one note. Something about his tone and approach. Very percussive … I’m trying to find words to describe when I hear Ellington. Very dignified music. Exciting. Anything Ellington touches, it gives a sense of optimism.

I’ve been playing “New World A-Coming” quite a bit with orchestra. I remember hearing “New World A-Coming” on Ellington’s Sacred Concert [Concert of Sacred Music] at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church [recorded in December 1965]. My former band director, Todd Stoll, who’s [vice president of education] at Jazz at Lincoln Center, introduced me to [it] when I was 16. “Wow! Someone wrote that in the ’40s?” I already had a foundation; my grandfather was a musician, and I’d learned tunes like “Satin Doll” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train.” But the Columbus Youth Jazz Orchestra was where I really started to play Ellington’s music: big-band music, stuff like “Ko-Ko,” “Suite Thursday,” “Such Sweet Thunder.” That’s some of my favorite music to play. I still play “Single Petal of a Rose.” He’s one of the greatest composers in the history of Western music, as far as I’m concerned. There are a couple of video performances of “Diminuendo and Crescendo and Blue” on YouTube, including one in London. Sometimes, if I’m in a bad mood, I put it on, and it feels incredible–how tight that band is, all the sophistication, the compositional style … but again, it always comes back to the feeling. Listening to that music puts tears in my eyes.

It’s a real treat to hear Ellington play his own compositions solo or with a trio, because so often he didn’t play in the orchestra. Another Ellington trio record I really like is Piano Reflections, with Wendell Marshall on bass, where he plays “Kinda Dukish,” which is usually the introduction of “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” and “Reflections in D.” There’s a later record, at the Whitney Museum, where he also plays “New World A-Coming” and “Meditation” [Live at the Whitney, recorded in 1972, released in 1995]. His solo piano works are just as riveting for me as the big-band material. I have to go back and listen to Piano in the Foreground. It’s been a while.

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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.