Brandon Goldberg Is the Little Piano Man

The keyboard wunderkind takes on Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington at age 13

Brandon Goldberg (photo: Daria Huxley)
Brandon Goldberg (photo: Daria Huxley)

Brandon Goldberg’s YouTube channel is filled with videos of the young piano phenom performing publicly with preternatural poise and displaying jaw-dropping musical skill. There’s an eight-year-old Goldberg, outfitted in a pint-sized tuxedo, performing Haydn’s Piano Concerto No. 11 with the South Florida Youth Symphony. A nine-year-old Goldberg jamming with Monty Alexander. An 11-year-old Goldberg sitting in with Arturo Sandoval. He’s dazzled audiences on the TV show Little Big Shots and spoken and played at TEDx Talks, all before turning 10.

His star clearly on the ascent, Goldberg, now 13, has released his debut album, Let’s Play! (Brandon Goldberg Music). It’s a trio recording of standards and Goldberg originals that also features bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Donald Edwards, with saxophonist Marcus Strickland guesting on two tracks. Let’s Play! introduces the listener to a gifted pianist and composer, a sensitive interpreter, and an inventive improviser who is deeply immersed in jazz. It’s an impressive achievement by any standard, made doubly striking by the fact that Goldberg was 12 when he recorded it.

“I was obviously excited, but it was a little scary going into the studio with musicians like Ben Wolfe and Donald Edwards and Marcus Strickland,” Goldberg tells me by phone from his home in Miami. “It was really amazing to me to be able to hear my music through some of my favorite musicians.”

The opening track, a rhythmic reading of Thelonious Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t,” reflects the young pianist’s desire to interpret the piece in a way that was unlike Miles Davis’ version. “What if I create a different approach to it that’s kind of the reverse of what Miles did to it?” he asks. “Because Miles played with the melody and the chords, but what if I play with the rhythm?”

Inspiration for the funky original “You Mean Me,” meanwhile, came from Monk’s “I Mean You.” As its author explains, “I kind of did to ‘I Mean You’ what he [Monk] did to jazz music, which was flip it upside down and give it a whole new voice.”

Goldberg also delivers a solemnly beautiful solo piano version of Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.” “There’s something about solo ballad playing—not necessarily solo piano, but solo ballad playing—and the freedom that it brings,” he observes, adding, “You can create an orchestra with solo piano because all the space in between the melody gives you the opportunity to really play the piano, as well as playing the tune.”

 

Before recording his take on “Angel Eyes,” Goldberg called his friend Monty Alexander, who’d played for Frank Sinatra and knew the members of the Rat Pack. They discussed the song for about two hours. “He would give me, like, the three patterns that Frank Sinatra would go through,” Goldberg recounts. “The little things he would sing, the little stuff that he would expect from the pianist.”

Sinatra and the Rat Pack played an important role in Goldberg’s musical development. The young artist started playing the piano at three, initially trying to imitate the songs he’d heard that day at preschool. He exhibited a desire to perform publicly early. “If there was a piano player in the mall, I would, like, just stand by his side,” Goldberg recalls. “And when he would take a break, I would ask him, ‘Can I play a song on the piano?’”

One day Goldberg’s grandmother showed him a Rat Pack video. “I got all obsessed with that for probably a year or two,” Goldberg says. “I would check out everything—Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin.” That led him to discover Tony Bennett and Bill Evans, and the young artist got hooked on jazz: “It was Bill Evans’ sound that really inspired me. I just stopped and said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want to do.’”

The late pianist’s music also inspired Goldberg to develop his own compositional skills. “After I got into Bill Evans, I really started to get into jazz music, and I would listen to it all the time, every day,” Goldberg says. “And from there, I would sit down—oh, I really like what this guy did, oh, I really like what this guy did. And I would sit down at the piano and try and figure out that little four-bar phrase that he was playing. And from that, I kind of developed my own voice from what I kept on hearing.”

At this point, Goldberg is uncertain about future recordings. “I’ve got school, my mom has a full-time job,” he says. “But it’s such an amazing experience that we went through, and hopefully I will have the opportunity to do it again in the near future.”

Lucy Tauss

Lucy Tauss is a New York City-based music journalist and longtime JazzTimes contributor. She is also a radio and audio producer/writer/editor/journalist who covers news, entertainment and everything in between.