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David Hazeltine: Champagne Tastes

David Hazeltine (photo: Ed Berger)
David Hazeltine (photo: Ed Berger)

His tall stature and serious demeanor are imposing at first. But rather unexpectedly pianist David Hazeltine’s erupts in a wide grin, often with a giggle, several times as he recounts his circuitous path to becoming one of New York’s top keyboardists. And with 17 releases as a leader, Hazeltine’s becoming a major voice on the international jazz scene-albeit quietly and with little fanfare.

Born in Milwaukee in 1958, Hazeltine was introduced to music by his mother, a country and western guitarist and singer. He began playing organ at the age of eight, but it wasn’t until three years later when his mother brought home a Jimmy Smith album that he discovered jazz. “When I was 12, my mother found this blind organist named Will Green,” Hazeltine says. “He was a very talented and swinging jazz musician, and every Saturday I would be taken into Milwaukee’s ghetto for a lesson. He taught a very hands-on approach to playing. It was only after a few years that I began to study the theory behind what I was playing.” At 17 Hazeltine was set to enroll in engineering school, but at the last minute switched to a Milwaukee conservatory where he majored in classical piano and composition.

Hazeltine became the house pianist at Milwaukee’s Jazz Gallery while still in his teens, and he had the opportunity to play with many leading jazz stars. “Sonny Stitt was a real influence on me,” says the pianist. “He made me feel so comfortable and would ask for me every time he came through.” Eddie Harris also made a strong impression: “He played every instrument extremely well and played so much saxophone that I remember thinking to myself when he finished a solo, ‘What could I possibly play now?’

“Chet Baker was intimidating in a different way,” Hazeltine recalls. “His solos and singing had so much depth that I was so deeply moved. Despite his reputation and his addiction, he was probably the sweetest guy I ever met.”

It was Baker who convinced the young pianist to move to New York in 1981. Hazeltine had just joined Jon Hendricks’ band and decided the time was right. But his initial stay lasted only two years. “I was married at the time,” he says, “and my ex-wife hated New York, so we moved back to Milwaukee.” Hazeltine spent the next decade teaching at the Jazz School, which he cofounded, and at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. Still aspiring to making it as a major player, he returned to New York in 1992. Getting established was even more difficult than it had been a decade earlier. “When you’re 21, you don’t think about how you’re going to support yourself,” laughs Hazeltine. “But now I was 10 years older and a lot more experienced-and I found myself taking orders from guys half my age.”

After a variety of low-paying and musically uninteresting jobs, Hazeltine’s breakthrough gig came when he was hired by Marlena Shaw (he still serves as her pianist and musical director). Slide Hampton heard him with the singer and also hired him, and the pianist’s career has been steadily rising ever since.

Hazeltine is comfortable in a variety of musical contexts as his three recent releases demonstrate. Modern Standards (Sharp Nine), with bassist David Williams and drummer Joe Farnsworth, is the pianist’s latest in a series of superb trio recordings. It draws on a repertoire from the 1960s and 1970s, including Bacharach (“A House Is Not a Home”), Bernstein (“Somewhere”) and Mancini (“Moment to Moment”). Hazeltine has a knack for mining unlikely sources for songs and making them sound as if they belong in the jazz canon, as he does with the Isley Brothers’ “For the Love of You” and the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love?”

“I used to hear the tune when I was growing up and I hated it!” Hazeltine says. “I was such a jazz purist! But it stayed in my head all those years, and now I realize I like the Bee Gees, Earth Wind and Fire-all the people I didn’t connect with then.”

Hazeltine manages to personalize and reshape a song without destroying its essence. “When I set out to arrange something, I go to quite a bit of trouble to find out what the real melody is and I stick to it religiously,” he notes. Harmonically, Hazeltine takes liberties-not simply to show that he can but to embellish and enhance. “I want people to recognize the song,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll ask the audience, ‘Does anybody know what that was?’ Usually they do!”

Lennon and McCartney’s “Yesterday” is one of several prime examples on Modern Standards of Hazeltine’s wondrous transformations. Surprisingly, it is also his first solo piano performance on record. “I feel my niche is playing with others,” he says. “Besides, what could I add to what Art Tatum has done as far as solo piano is concerned?”

Some of the “others” with whom Hazeltine often works is the hard-swinging band One for All, whose origins may be traced to Augie’s, the predecessor of Smoke, the Upper West Side jazz club where the pianist often plays. The group is comprised of Hazeltine, trumpeter Jim Rotondi, saxophonist Eric Alexander, trombonist Steve Davis, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Joe Farnsworth, and its latest release, Blueslike (Criss Cross), shows the great empathy and collective swing that close friendship and years of making music together can produce. The band is a true collective: “Everybody contributes to the final product,” Hazeltine says. “When we’re out on the road we sometimes need a band nanny,” he laughs. “We’ve gotten into real shouting matches but it always gets resolved and we come out friends.”

The keyboardist’s third recent release, Champagne Taste (Nagel-Heyer) is by Full House, the electric band he co-leads with trumpeter Jim Rotondi. The group places Hazeltine on Fender Rhodes and Hammond B3. “It’s a completely different style of music but equally challenging,” he says. “You have to be expressive without relying on the same old swinging feeling that I’m so used to.”

In all of these settings Hazeltine is the consummate team player. “I prefer to play with horns because I like the role of accompanist,” he says. “It inspires me to play better solos.” He has also learned a great deal from backing singers: “I had to learn how to voice the chords so that the singer could always find their note, and that means being conscious of the melody.”

No matter what the context, Hazeltine’s playing is marked by its clarity, structure and unerring sense of good taste. He has technique to spare but uses it only to serve the music, eschewing empty pyrotechnical displays. He brings the same attention to detail to his growing body of work as a composer. “Composing is something I really enjoy in retrospect but the process is very arduous for me,” Hazeltine says. “I’m something of a perfectionist, so it takes me a long time to put something together that I like enough to keep.”

The pianist recognizes this perfectionist streak as part of his dual musical personae: “Music is something that brings out a deeply emotional response in me, but another side of me-the side that was going to go to engineering school-is very intellectual and analytical.” Hazeltine seems to have reached a perfect balance. Originally Published