Few things are more intimidating for a musician than playing in front of your idols. In 1985, Pete Malinverni, a 28-year-old itinerant jazz pianist who had been trying to make a dent in the New York City jazz scene for four years, landed a steady gig at a swanky waterfront restaurant in Long Island City, across the East River from Manhattan. One evening, the restaurant hosted a star-studded cast party for the Metropolitan Opera’s new version of Tosca, directed by Franco Zeffirelli. When the young pianist spotted Leonard Bernstein entering the restaurant, he immediately launched into a favorite Bernstein tune, “Lucky to Be Me” from On the Town.
The maestro came over to the young pianist, kissed him on the cheek, and spent much of the evening by his side, introducing him to his friends Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who had written the lyrics to that song and show.
“Weren’t you terrified to play in front of Bernstein?” I asked Malinverni during our recent Zoom meeting for this article.
“Well, of course I was, but it was a gig!” he laughed. At least Bernstein wasn’t another jazz pianist, Malinverni said, which would have made it worse. He would have been more intimidated to play in front of, say, Hank Jones.
“In fact, I had that experience once when I was playing at Bradley’s with Ray Drummond. In came Tommy Flanagan and sat right in front of the piano. Actually, Drummond saved my life because, when he plays, he opens his eyes real wide, and he was giving me that stare. He basically hypnotized me to where I was right in there with him playing the music. And Tommy stayed for two sets, which was one of the great moments of my life. I also played for Barry Harris, who was real kind. So, you know, I can hate me all I want; as long as those guys like me, I’m okay!”
Malinverni spoke while sitting at the piano in his home in Pound Ridge, N.Y., not far from SUNY Purchase, where he is director of jazz studies. He also serves as director of music for Devoe Street Baptist Church in Brooklyn, and pianist and conductor for the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y. On his latest album, On the Town: Malinverni Plays Bernstein (Planet Arts), he arranged nine Bernstein favorites, and an original dedicated to the maestro, for a superlative trio featuring bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Jeff Hamilton.
For his first Before & After listening session, we selected several jazz interpretations of Bernstein, as well as tunes by other pianists, including some of Malinverni’s mentors and friends.
Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the tracks in this Before & After:
1. Bill Charlap Trio
“Jump (from West Side Story)” (Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein, Blue Note). Charlap, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Kenny Washington, drums. Recorded in 2004.
BEFORE: I was very intent before making this record not to listen to other people’s stuff on Bernstein … but, in the interim, I have. And one of the records that I loved was that one that you just played by my friend Bill Charlap. Obviously he’s a great pianist and a wonderful guy. I really like him a lot. He’s always been a good and supportive friend.
AFTER: [Seeing album cover] C’mon, that’s one of the hippest record covers ever. It reminds [me] of the West Side Story record.
Maybe because of his family’s Broadway history [Bill’s father, Moose Charlap, was a successful Broadway composer], he really respects the original composer’s intent. He finds the stuff that makes a tune that particular tune … and makes sure he gets those little counterlines in there, which I really appreciate. I’m a Bach man, and I love counterlines. And his trio, the Washington not-brothers; they’re great together. I’ve worked with them, and Kenny is on our faculty at Purchase. Yeah, Bill, man, he’s one of my favorites.
Could you speak a little bit to how your approach is different from Bill in playing the tunes of Bernstein?
[Thinks about it] Yeah, well, probably not as good! [Laughs] You know, there’s a great record, Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington, and it’s funny because, when you listen to the record, you can tell it’s a Monk record. You can tell they’re Ellington songs, but you can also tell how they could just as well have been Monk tunes. I look at these [Bernstein] tunes, and I take them as beautiful examples of how to [evoke] a mood. What I do is, I run every day; I’ll go out with that tune in my head and try to rearrange it as many different ways as possible—put it in three, put it in four—[and think,] “Where might it be fun to have a little figure that everybody has to play?” Et cetera. Then I just try to be as wide-open in the moment as possible.
For me, I don’t see any reason to do this unless I’m putting myself in some sort of danger, musically speaking. Let’s say you’re a baseball player, and you make an error that allows a run to score. And you’re up next [at bat]. You have to have a very short memory, because when you get up, you have to focus on hitting that ball. I talked about this at length with a former student of mine, Bernie Williams, the great Yankee centerfielder, who studied with me for a year.
I do my due diligence and then just take chances and see what happens. It’s easy to do with guys like Jeff Hamilton and Ugonna Okegwo, because they have [such good] ears.
2. Ted Nash Trio
“Tonight” (Somewhere Else: West Side Story Songs, Plastic Sax). Nash, tenor saxophone; Steve Cardenas, guitar; Ben Allison, bass. Recorded in 2019.
BEFORE: I think I recognize the bass player. I’ve played a lot with Ben Allison, and that reminds me of him. Is it Ben?
Okay. So then I’m assuming the guitar player is probably Cardenas. It is. Okay. [Listens more, then chuckles when the trio finally states the song’s iconic melody] I keep going back and forth as I listen to this. The saxophonist sounds like he was either born in the East and grew up in the West, or he was born in the West and grew up in the East, because there’s that cool kind of sound. But then there’s that eighth-note [figure] and that little bit of gruff … I’m just gonna sort of deduce, because I know that Ben played some with Ted Nash; it could be him, or it could be Joel Frahm, but he grew up in the Midwest. So maybe that’s the answer.
You were right the first time.
AFTER: Oh, man, he’s such a great musician. So that’s funny then about the West Coast/East Coast thing.
You totally nailed it. I believe he grew up in California.
I think so, because his dad [saxophonist Ted Nash, Sr.] worked out there. He’s a wonderful guy. Steve I’ve only met on a couple of occasions, and he’s sweet, but Ben is a really good friend of long standing.
What did you think of their approach to “Tonight”?
I loved the interplay; it was like three equal parts.
Improvising around the changes in a fugue-like way, interweaving their melodic lines, well before they establish the melody.
[Laughs] I know! What a kick!
“I don’t see any reason to do this unless I’m putting myself in some sort of danger, musically speaking.”
3. Joe Lovano
“Alone Together” (Joyous Encounter, Blue Note). Lovano, saxophone; Hank Jones, piano; George Mraz, bass; Paul Motian, drums. Recorded in 2005.
BEFORE: [Listening to the piano intro] I think this is Hank Jones.
Right, but keep listening!
[Almost immediately after Lovano enters] Joe! [Laughs heartily]
AFTER: I knew that they played together a lot. As soon as I heard Joe come in, I recognize how he sounds in that range. I have played a lot with him. And Hank Jones is one of my real idols. When I first moved to the [New York] area I would go to Cafe Ziegfeld, which was right across from where Hank was playing in the show Ain’t Misbehavin’, and he would play a solo piano set. And I’d sit at the feet of the master and soak it up. And when he was done, I would help him put the cover back on the piano. He was always so kind to me. He was a dear man, but it’s funny, he was always so correct.
Quick story about Hank: I was traveling in Italy, playing with Charles Davis’ quartet. I [board a plane], sit down, and who sits next to me but McCoy Tyner! He was also in mid-tour. When I travel I always make sure I look clean, have a jacket on, because, first of all, I want to show some respect for what I’m doing, but also, if they lose your luggage, you have to be able to go on stage, you know? So I’m always correct in that way. So, I’m sitting there thinking, I’m looking good. And I look at him, and he’s got the hippest suit on. I’m like, darn it! [Laughs] I’m still second string, you know? And he said, “I just saw Hank [Jones] in the airport in Paris. He was over there with Joe [Lovano].” And you know what he said? He didn’t say, “Hank—such a good guy!” He didn’t say, “Hank—such a great piano player!” What he said was, “You should’ve seen the suit Hank had on!” [Laughs]
4. Michael Kanan Trio
“Blue Skies” (Live at Mezzrow, SmallsLIVE). Kanan, piano; Greg Ruggiero, guitar; Neal Miner, bass. Recorded in 2017.
BEFORE: [Listens thoughtfully for a full three minutes] I got it! I’m gonna go from the bottom up. I recognize something that Neal Miner played. And I recognize, of course, Ruggiero. Then I said, Okay, it’s gotta be Mike.
AFTER: Then I listened some more, and … this is the thing that I love about Michael Kanan. I was telling you about my old piano teacher [when I was a child], and how she used to say [I should] always be my own most severe critic. Well, she also said, “Peter, every note is a gem!” That’s the way Mike plays. I mean, he takes such good care of the music when he plays. He loves the music, and he really sees himself as just a messenger. He loves this music, and he wants you to love it too.
He totally takes himself out of the equation. He works very hard and practices very hard, of course, but when he’s in the heat of battle, man, he’s all about, like, “I love this song, don’t you?” That’s why people love him. Every time he’s playing someplace like Mezzrow it’s a packed house, because people like to see that trio. I mean, they’re all masters. Golly, you would swear that whole trio was raised by deer! [Laughs]
5. Billy Childs
“I Have a Love” (The Child Within, Shanachie). Childs, piano; Dave Holland, bass. Recorded in 1996.
BEFORE: [Listens intently for two minutes, then a lightbulb goes off] I was racking my brain. At first I heard that bass player, and it reminded me a little of Scott LaFaro, Charlie Haden, or Scott Colley … What I like about this piano player is that there’s a ton of patience, like he—I say he, because I think I know who it is—lets the game come to him, you know? He’s not trying to play all this stuff. He’ll play something if it comes up, but he’s also willing to let the sound ring. He’s got a beautiful sound.
With a pianist it’s hard because we don’t have a vibrato to easily be detected. Like, when I heard Lovano before, I said, “I know how he sounds in that range.” Well, I don’t know how this pianist versus that pianist might sound playing; likely it’s going to be the sound engineer [who’s responsible for the tone].
I’ve only heard him a couple of times, but there’s a guy I’ve heard play in New York who I think this might be. It’s not Billy Childs, is it?
AFTER: Okay, great! Can you tell me who the bass player was? Ah, okay, there you go! I knew that was somebody who wasn’t just trying to sound like somebody [else]!
I liked what you said about Billy’s patience. Can you talk about that a bit more?
We’re different as jazz musicians because we have to compose and perform at the same time, right? Nobody does that. We do it. So we have to be aware of the elements of good composition. And one of the elements of good composition is to express an idea and let it sit for a second. It takes a certain maturity level. When you hear somebody like Billy play, or the others we’ve heard, certainly Charlap and Hank—forget it, he wrote the book—there’s that sort of confidence in just letting it happen.
Man, that was beautiful. I really appreciate you playing that for me.