Thursday, July 12, 2012

Catching Up with Joe Alterman Give Me The Simple Live The Interview!

There is allways room at the top in the tightly clustered pack that is jazz piano and Joe Alterman is a pianist whose musical stock is an arrow pointing straight up. I caught up with Alterman for a few questions!

So how did this all star trio come together? And how cool was having Houston Person on these sessions?

J.A. - "This project was literally the result of about 5 dreams coming true. I remember about 6 months before I met James (in May or June 2010), I heard Ahmad Jamal and his trio (with James and Herlin) at the Blue Note. The show was of course fantastic, but there was one moment that I'll never forget: it was when they went into a 4/4 swing feel on one the tunes (I can't remember which title), but that feel was honestly the best and most comfortable swing feel I've ever heard or felt in my entire life. I couldn't stop smiling and I knew that that was exactly what I wanted to play. I had to no idea how to get in touch with any of them, but I was determined to try. A few months later, I somehow came across James' facebook page. I friended him. He recognized my profile picture because I have interned at the Blue Note for the past few years, and he messaged me saying hey. Coincidentally, my bass player for the gig the following night bailed last minute and I messaged James and asked if he'd like to play. Anyways, he ended up playing the gig and we hit it off immediately. I mean, it was just perfect. From there, we started playing more and more gigs together and James recommended that we record. He mentioned that he thought Herlin would be perfect for the date and he kindly got in touch with him on my behalf, and then I got in touch with him. 
The ballad on the record of mine, "The First Night Home" was written a few years ago, when I first got to New York to go to NYU. I remember writing it one night and then bringing it in to a teacher who, confused by it's old school feel, asked who I would most want to play it. "Houston Person," I immediately answered. I remember he answered with an exaggerated "okay," that basically was the equivalent of an eye roll and saying "Like that'll ever happen!" 
Four years later, Houston gave a masterclass at NYU and I was the pianist for the class. I remember we played a couple of tunes before Houston said that he wanted to try one with just the pianist, me. I asked if he wanted to play "I Cover The Waterfront", which has always been my dream to play with Houston. My song choice seemed to impress him, as did the performance. I remember the first thing he said when we finished was, "You will get a lot of work with vocalists." That meant a lot to me coming from him. Anyways, we kept in touch after that class. He gave me his card and I'd call him frequently, and go down and see him whenever he was performing. He'd give me wonderful advice and we'd always talk about eventually getting together to play some tunes. A few months later he accepted my invitation to come to NYU and play at my senior recital, and since then, he's very generously been performing with me on my gigs whenever he can. 
So I really mean it when I call the group of musicians on this record my "dream team" of musicians. I cannot tell you how happy and excited I was to just be in the same room as all of them, not to mention playing music with them and further, not to mention making an actual record with them! 
To me one of the greatest feelings I've had musically is comping behind Houston Person while he solos; it was hard to stay focused and not get lost in how good that felt and to remember that it was almost my turn to solo!"

My pet peeve with piano trios is that even on ballads some players turn dark, brooding and self indulgent while you keep a vibrant and captivating harmonic spirit moving in somewhat of the Oscar Peterson vein who you list as an influence. Can you tell us more?

J.A. - " First of all, thank you for that kind comment. 
I honestly don't know how that happened with me having that positive feel, but let me say this: I'm a positive, happy guy. In my life I have had to deal with some very difficult obstacles, but during those obstacles, the piano has always been the place I can go and express my reflective, yet forward-looking positivity. It's reasons like this I think that my ballad playing has a positive, more uplifting feel to it.
Also, I think it's important to note that I've grown up listening to ballad players who play with a positivity in their feel no matter how sad of a tune they're playing (Ben Webster for example, played sad, but it never sounded like he was complaining) Also, I approach the ballads as songs and the melody notes as melodies with lyrics and a feeling, not just as intervals connecting one after the other. I've heard many musicians talk about how they like a certain intervallic motion in particular ballads, and that's not just how I think about them. I think about my favorite parts in songs as my favorite parts in the lyrics, my favorite parts in the stories, not as some technical, analytic excercise; but rather as an important emotional tool. 
I think I got lucky in terms of my instrument choice too. I'm a bit of hopeless romantic and I think this has shaped my music in many ways. For example, in high school, I'd often go out on a date, and then, if I was lucky we'd come back to my house. We'd usually just watch a movie, but the girl would always ask me to play something for her, and I'd always want to play the most romantic sounding music I could, something that would really draw her in. Fortunately, I was always into Erroll Garner, and that sound on a ballad has always been the most romantic one in the world to me (not to mention one of my favorite sounds of all), so I learned how to play that way, and I think that growing up playing for girls that I was trying to impress helped me shape a piano style that was based on emotion. What I mean earlier when I say that I got lucky in terms of my instrument choice is that I've always wondered what a trumpet player, for example, would play when the girl in high school asked him to play her something. If you think about it, playing a solo instrument for a high-school girl (who usually didn't know anything about jazz) is a quite difficult task! You've got one minute at most to not only impress this girl who has basically no real music knowledge but to also play her something that would set the right mood and hopefully make her want to come a little closer! You've got to learn quick!"

I love biscuits! And the tune you wrote is pretty tasty too! Is there a story here and do I sense some classical training?

J.A. - "Thank you! There is definitely a story behind "Biscuits", always a fun one to play! There's this restaurant in Atlanta (where I'm from), called Roasters, that has the best biscuits. Anyway, I wrote that song a few summers ago when I was really into some of the New Orleans pianists like Professor Longhair; that song was the result of a very long jam on the piano where I was playing some blues in that sort of style. Eventually that little melody there got stuck and I used it. Anyways, the song reminded me of New Orleans and I can't think of New Orleans without thinking of food, and I almost can't think about food without thinking about those biscuits. Originally I titled the song "(Before You Bring Me My Cornbread) Slap Some Butter On That Biscuit" but I shortened it down to "Biscuits" for this release. 
 I did grow up playing classical music, but I never got too serious about it unfortunately. I could play, but I never studied it seriously enough. What really drew me into the piano were difficult styles such as boogie-woogie and stride piano, things that do require a lot of finger strength to play. I attribute my technique that I've acquired more to trying to play those styles than almost anything else."