Tag Archives: pianist

Jeeyoon Kim: Pianist Reinvents the Onstage Performance

Jeeyoon Kim’s performances are unique among concert pianists. She walks onto the stage and up to a microphone. In a short, poetic introduction she invites the audience to go on a journey with her. There are no programs to leaf through during the concert; these are handed out at the end. Instead, Kim delivers the prelude, interpreting the composer’s intentions, often providing historical context. She breaks with tradition as much as possible. To maintain a flow, concerts are no longer than an hour, with no intermission, and no “disappearing backstage” she says.

Illuminated by artistry and imagination, performances by Jeeyoon Kim of Local 7 (Orange County, CA) offer a unique classical music experience.

Before Kim embarked on a career as a soloist, she was on track to secure a university teaching position. After a rigorous classical music program at Indiana University, where she earned a Doctorate of Musical Arts in performance, she went back to school to earn a master’s degree in piano pedagogy. It was a strategy, she says, to obtain a teaching position—“a real job”—to support her love of piano.

After her final recital, as Dr. Kim, in 2009, there was fulfillment but uncertainty at the same time. She had studied piano pedagogy to be a great teacher. By 2015, she says, “I wanted to perform, to share the joy of classical music. And I love teaching but being at a university was not a perfect fit.” So, she parlayed her prodigious talent and love of teaching into a unique career. It was after her sold-out and highly acclaimed concert at Carnegie Hall in 2017 that Kim of Local 7 (Orange County, CA) was convinced that her idea would work.

“I realized I had to create a bridge to the classical world. Playing beautiful music, but in a way that connects the audience to the composer’s life. What was Brahms thinking about? His ‘“Intermezzo”’ has so many layers of feelings. Schubert is a musician’s musician—a composer I’d love to sit down and talk to.”

Over the years, as she’s experimented, her narratives took on a personal and meditative feel. For instance, before Debussy’s “Pagodas,” Kim invokes her own childhood home. “Retrieving fresh water from the mountain spring—visions of Buddhist temples, pine trees veiled in the misty morning, and the ringing of the gong each hour.”

“Piano is a natural extension of my body. There is a strong connection to the composer. It’s a byproduct and the audience has no choice but to connect.” Throughout her life in education, it’s been a recurring theme.

She asks: “How can I make piano performance the highest form of artistic expression? How can I communicate with the audience?” She believes classical music should be contemporary, accessible, and approachable. With her podcast, “Journey Through Classical Piano,” Kim aims to reach a wider audience. For special projects and videos, she collaborates with filmmakers, poets, and visual artists. “Most people love it,” she says, and have become “groupies.”

Following a move to California, she joined Local 7. It was there that she began to reconnect, as if with old friends. She started networking and talking with the union and soon realized it was the support system she had been looking for. “I didn’t know there was a whole army of people behind me. When I connected with the union, there were people who supported my journey.” Through the efforts of Local 7 and the Musicians Performance Trust Fund (MPTF), toward the end of the pandemic, Kim performed at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, with 400 people in attendance.

Now a teacher with a private studio, Kim has the best of both worlds. Her students include serious college pianists pursuing classical performance—a few teenagers, but primarily adults, anywhere from 25 to 85 years old. For some, it was a passion growing up and they’re returning to piano as an outlet. She enjoys teaching older students. “It’s an oasis for them,” she says. “These sessions are like piano therapy. We talk about life and struggles. How to play staccato better ended up as an important factor in being a human and their performance of life.”

Kim draws on the lessons of her teacher in South Korea who approached music through the natural world. “Music is transparent. If you’re not connected to the piece, it’s impossible to be transparent. My teacher said, ‘Convince me as nature does—with music.’”

She says, “Water comes down the stream; it’s not perfect, but it’s in that imperfection that there’s an organic shape. It’s just who you are.” Kim laughs when she says that in South Korea, “There’s a Buddhist temple on every mountain so it’s natural to view the world through a spiritual lens.”

The two-time winner of the international Global Music Award has been playing since she was four years old. She has performed throughout the world, namely with the San Diego Symphony, the Mozart Festival in Salzburg, and recently with the chamber music organization Art of Elan (collaborating with Kate Hatmaker and Fiona Digney of Local 325 [San Diego, CA]).

In her book, Whenever You’re Ready: How to Compose the Life of Your Dreams, Kim shares the tools she uses to achieve mental and physical balance, artistic expression—and a winner’s mindset. She focuses on different themes, like forming effective habits, boosting creativity, guarding your mind, and keeping negativity at bay. Kim’s biggest lesson is learning from failure. She remembers another teaching saying, “Don’t ask why, ask what now?”

For Kim, letting go is a lifelong lesson. “Always ask yourself if you are hanging on to something you cannot control, which is not productive. Once you shift to something you can control, the positive flow will come back to you.”

Kim is generous with her insight, recalling her own disappointments and the changes she’s made to create more balance in her life. “I can only control my preparation and mindset,” she says, adding that “Every direction has been a lesson—to be a better person, pianist, and teacher. I take a holistic view of classical music—as a presenter and an agent—whether it’s becoming a better musician or being more positive. Life is not always easy, but with music, it’s better.”

Jeff lorber

Pianist Jeff Lorber: A Career Built from Coast to Coast

Jeff lorber

Jeff Lorber of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA).

Pianist Jeff Lorber of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) says he felt like he had access to the world stage growing up in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia. He saw the genesis of rock and roll up close. Local record label Cameo Parkway put out a string of hits with Chubby Checker, Bobby Rydell, and The Orlons. Plus, Dick Clark’s American Bandstand premiered there in 1950. The city offered more inspiration in the way of homegrown jazz talent—Jimmy Heath, McCoy Tyner, and the Brecker Brothers. During the same period, John Coltrane famously lived there.

As a teenager, Lorber played with local R&B bands. At Berklee College of Music in the 1970s, his tastes veered toward jazz and fusion. “I knew if I was going to be an instrumentalist, I’d have to get better at jazz. It was a way to get vocabulary and to become better as a musician,” he says. “Berklee aligned curriculum to the local scene that allowed students to go out and make a living in the music business. It gave us tools to analyze music—taking it apart and putting it back together to understand it—and make our own music.”

In many ways, the Jazz Workshop at Berklee was almost as valuable as taking courses. He says, “Every week there would be somebody absolutely great playing: [Local 802 members] George Benson, Chick Corea, Joe Henderson. I saw Miles Davis play a number of times during that era.” Lorber followed Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report, as well as R&B acts like The Crusaders, and Grover Washington, Jr.

But it was Herbie Hancock’s Fat Albert Rotunda album that most inspired him. He remembers thinking it was revolutionary, “Wow, that’s what I want to do. I want to play funky jazz like that.”

Lorber moved to Portland, Oregon, where he formed The Jeff Lorber Fusion. The group released a self-titled debut album in 1977. “There were lucky coincidences, but it’s also about being able to take advantage of those lucky breaks,” Lorber says. “We were touring, selling records. It was a good time in the music biz. We were signed to Arista records and they had good budgets to make records and promote B artists.”

“Then one day Clive Davis [Arista founder and president] decided he wasn’t into jazz anymore. He got rid of his jazz division almost overnight. The few who were left, he wanted them to do R&B vocal stuff,” says Lorber. “That was a mistake. We were on a trajectory to having a solid fan base and touring a lot of pretty big venues. When we radically changed what we were doing, we lost fans.”

Lorber briefly launched a solo career with a release in 1982, but took a break from solo recording and composing, opting instead to work with other artists. There were a few hits on Arista, “Step by Step” (1985) with Audrey Wheeler and Anita Pointer. He moved to Warner Bros. and had another hit with “Facts of Love,” with Karyn White. He recalls working with the R&B duo René Moore and Angela Winbush. “I loved the music we made, the records, and what I learned working with them.” He says, though, “Most of the time vocal overpowers instruments.” He resumed his solo career in 1991 with Worth Waiting For.

Lorber says union scale was important. “Most guys would get double scale for gigs—and having that standard in place created a level playing field where everybody knew the value of a musician’s time. You didn’t have to negotiate each time.” When he lived in Portland, early in his career, Lorber says, “We used to do Musicians Performance Trust Fund gigs. Here in LA, a lot of people do jam sessions and rehearse at the union hall.” Lorber says he’s a supporter of any organization that looks after musicians. “[Otherwise] we’re out here on our own.”

For a number of years, Lorber has battled Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD), a congenital disease, which has affected many members of his family. A kidney donated by his wife 11 years ago saved his life. “When you face a life and death situation, you know what’s important. I try to spend my time doing things I love doing, which is playing music and composing,” says Lorber, who says about 600,000 people in the US and two million worldwide are afflicted with PKD.

The proceeds from Lorber’s record of bebop standards, Jazz Funk Soul (Everett Harp and the late Chuck Loeb), go to PKD research. Lorber says, “I love the straight-ahead jazz. You can hear bebop phrasing in the solos.”

Lorber’s most recent album, Prototype (2017), was nominated for a Grammy. “I’m just grateful I’ve had a chance to make a career doing music. I love living in LA and working with the great talents here on a regular basis,” he says. At present, he’s doing some composing and planning an upcoming tour of Southeast Asia.

My Years

Music to My Years: Life and Love Between the Notes

My YearsThis is the story of Local 47 member Artie Kane’s personal life and career as a first call pianist for Hollywood studios from 1960 through 1979. He’s worked with Frank Sinatra and Henry Mancini, as well as Local 47 members John Williams and Quincy Jones, to name just a few. He conducted more than 60 motion pictures from 1991 through 1999. As a composer he wrote music for more than 250 television shows (Wonder Woman, Vegas, Loveboat, Hotel, Dynasty, Matlock, Question of Guilt, Man Against the Mob, and many more) and seven motion pictures (among them, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Eyes of Laura Mars, Night of the Juggler, and Wrong Is Right).

Music to My Years: Life and Love Between the Notes, by Artie

Lorraine Desmarais

Bandleader and Jazz Pianist Lorraine Desmarais Takes Charge

Lorraine Desmarais

Lorraine Desmarais of Local 406 (Montreal, PQ) is among a handful of women big band leaders. She and her bands are regularly featured at the Montreal Jazz Festival.

Lorraine Desmarais of Local 406 (Montreal, PQ) made her solo debut as a jazz artist at the Montreal International Jazz Festival in 1983. Before that, in 1982, her trio was the first jazz group to tour through the Jeunesses Musicales du Canada, which at the time, she explains, presented mostly classical music. “So, we were delighted to be the first jazz trio ever to be put on the road!”

In 1984, Desmarais won a Yamaha Jazz Competition at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. Entering the jazz scene at age 21—old for a jazz player, according to Desmarais—the stage was set for her to be prominent in the festival’s lineup for years to come.

Among prizes she’s received are First Prize at the Great Jazz Piano American Competition (in 1986), the Oscar Peterson Award of the Montreal International Jazz Festival, the Artistic Creation Award of the Conseil des Arts et des Lettres du Québec prize, and the Ontario Arts Foundation Prize for Keyboard Artistry.

She joined the union in 1982 when she began doing a number of club dates, concerts, and touring, and sat in as a keyboardist on television shows. In 1983, while finishing her master’s degree in classical piano, Desmarais received a grant to study in New York City with Kenny Barron of Local 802—her first formal jazz lesson. She joined a few jazz combos, and at McGill University, she devoured the jazz standards and the history of jazz piano, from ragtime to nu jazz. She began transcribing solos by Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, and Herbie Hancock of Local 802 (New York City).

In 1999, Desmarais played keyboards for a two-month, 45-concert world tour with the Diva Big Band out of New York City and she fell in love with the big band sound. “It’s so exciting being surrounded by soloists and playing charts and arrangements,” she says.

By 2004, her status as a virtuosic jazz pianist was well established. But she still had a dream of playing with Chick Corea of Local 802. Desmarais says, “He was one of my greatest influences. I love his music; he’s a great pianist. His solo and electric band corresponded to my own career.” When he and his electric band trio performed at the Montreal Jazz Festival that year, she asked if they could arrange something for her. Twenty minutes before the pair went on stage, Corea asked her, “Do you know ‘Spain’?”   

“In 2005, I said, it’s now or never. I took many of my compositions written for trio or quartet and rewrote them for big band. It’s a way to learn arrangement,” she says. It was challenging, she admits, writing for wind instruments and making the sax or trumpet soloist front and center. “In smaller groups, you have more freedom; it’s more spontaneous, everybody is soloist from time to time. But in a big band, it’s almost like a portrait of a soloist.”

Her 2016 big band album, Danses, Dansas, Dances, showcases to full effect the talents of each musician. Along with her all-union, 16-member big band, she is the leader of a trio comprising longtime big band drummer Camil Belisle and bassist Frédéric Alarie, both members of Local 406.

Desmarais says she is a big fan of Brad Mehl-
dau of Local 47 and was inspired by the piano stylings and compositions of McCoy Tyner and big band leader Maria Schneider of Local 802, the latter of whom also influenced her approach to arrangement and orchestration. She has played with luminaries: the late Marian McPartland, Jacky Terrasson, and Joe Lovano both of Local 802.

It was a great honor for her to premiere the song, “For Lola,” by Dave Brubeck at a 2013 concert with the Brubeck Brothers (members of Local 802) at Théâtre Jean-Duceppe during the Montreal International Jazz Festival.

With 12 albums of mostly original compositions to her credit, a number of which have become jazz standards, the ever-humble Desmarais acknowledges that she seems to have earned a distinguished place in the world of music and jazz. In 2013, she became a Member of the Order of Canada and received a Prix Opus from the Conseil québécois de la Musique. Three of her albums (Trio Lorraine Desmarais, Jazz pour Noël, and Big Band) have received Félix awards.

Growing up in Montreal, Desmarais studied classical music, all the while playing pop music. “The best part was trying to improvise and compose on piano,” says Desmarais “Luckily, I had a teacher who encouraged me.” At the French-language college, Cégep de St-Laurent, Montréal, Québec, where she teaches jazz piano, Desmarsais emboldens her students to do the same. She uses two pianos in her classes to improvise with them, explaining that playing off each other makes the music more accessible. “It really has to be fun. You have to make young people feel they have potential and it’s possible to develop.”    

As she looks ahead, Desmarais calls 2018 her symphonique year. Among other projects with symphonies, she’ll perform with Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony to create a soundtrack for the 1965 film The Railrodder and produce a number of commissioned works, all of which have her stepping out of her comfort zone. She says, “When I return to my work, I’m that much stronger.”   

What’s next for Desmarais?  She says she’d like to go back to where it all began: “I would like to do more tours with my big band.”

allen toussaint cover

Allen Toussaint Reveals Why He’d Never Leave the Big Easy

Allen ToussaintThere’s something magical about New Orleans and its connection to music and musicians. Through the good times and the bad times the music plays on and the city retains its charm. Musician elders pass down their traditions to the next generation, much like their parents and grandparents did before them.

Pianist, producer, and songwriter Allen Toussaint, longtime member of Local 174-496 (New Orleans, LA), is one such musician. “I love everything about New Orleans,” he says. “I was born and raised here and I will always be here. I still walk around New Orleans and enjoy what I see; I enjoy what I feel. It’s just a charming place to be and I’m glad I haven’t outgrown the charm.”

The street musicians still go in front of Jackson Square and check out a bench, pull out their horns, and start playing. It’s not traveling musicians; its musicians that came up here, just like Louie Armstrong did, and a whole lot of other greats from the past,” he says. “And that music that you thought you would like to hear if you got to New Orleans? When you get here, you can really hear it.”

Studying Up and Signing Up

As a child, Toussaint, was inspired by the music all around him. He began teaching himself to play the family piano at about age six. When he first showed interest and ability his mom enrolled him in a classic junior school of music, but she had to give up on the idea after six or seven lessons. “The boogie woogie already had me,” he laughs.

Toussaint knew from a young age that he wanted to have a career in music. He taught himself to play whatever he heard, both on the streets and in recordings. Among his early influences were Local 174-496 members Fats Domino and producer/arranger Dave Bartholomew, Ray Charles, and boogie woogie players like Albert Ammons and Pinetop Perkins.

However, his biggest influence was Professor Longhair, or simply Fess. Toussaint was drawn to his music. “So many things were like so many other things, but Professor Longhair was totally unique,” explains Toussaint. “He played with such demand—his voice and his whole vernacular. Plus, there was a strong element of New Orleans. He mixed with junka and he had rumbas in his left hand. It was really hip to bring those worlds together. Every new record he came out with I got it and studied it. It was very, very important.”

Toussaint took learning music very seriously. He wanted to be ready when it came his time to play. To prepare, he learned all of the popular songs of the day and he joined the AFM. “I joined the musicians union when I was about 15 because I didn’t want anything to be in the way of me performing anywhere I’d ever be called,” he says.

Subbing for Huey

Allen_Toussaint-pose Toussaint’s first big break came when he was just 17. “Earl King had a performance in Pritchard, Alabama, and Huey Smith had taken ill and couldn’t make it,” recalls Toussaint. King’s saxophonist knew Toussaint “as a young pianist around town who knew all the songs of the day on the radio” and they called him to sub.

He met the band at the Dew Drop Inn and they went straight to Pritchard for the gig, no rehearsal. “I knew Earl King’s repertoire very well and I had a very good time,” says Toussaint. “That was my rite of passage from the teenage world to the adult world, even though I was too young to be in that kind of club.”

“That introduced me to the Dew Drop set,” continues Toussaint, explaining that the Dew Drop Inn was New Orlean’s answer to the Cotton Club. It was where all the musicians congregated before they went out to perform. From there, other gigs happened, and a couple years later he replaced Smith in the same band, which was now backing the duet Shirley and Lee. “That was my first time touring,” he says.

Toussaint recalls the special feeling of camaraderie among New Orleans musicians. “It wasn’t a competition; we shared licks with each other; we shared ideas. There was what we called ‘turn-backs’ in music. You might see someone you hadn’t seen in awhile and you would say, ‘Hey, share a turn-back with me.’ We were very glad to know that others were on the scene and what they were doing.”

“I think it’s still pretty much like that,” he explains. “We certainly feel a heritage within each of us. New Orleans has a certain pace and all, an innate thing that is felt without saying words. I’ve always felt that and I still feel that, even with very young musicians.”

Songs from Behind the Scenes

Toussaint’s first recording was for RCA in 1958, and featured his composition “Java,” later a hit for trumpeter Al Hirt. Toussaint most enjoyed the behind the scenes work of  songwriting, arranging, and producing. By the early ’60s he was session supervisor for Minit and Instant Records, writing and producing singles for local artists.

But just as his career started to pick up steam, he was drafted into the military for two years. At the time, he worried it would affect his blossoming career. “I thought everyone who was doing what I do was way around the track because they’d been on the case and I’d been on hiatus,” he says. “That was the only time in my life that I tried to write a hit song. I wrote the song ‘Ride Your Pony’ because I thought all the other horses were all the way around the track.”

In the end, his talents for producing and songwriting allowed him to resume his career pretty quickly. “Ride Your Pony” became a hit for Lee Dorsey in 1965, and Toussaint has since racked up hits for artists ranging in genre from pop to R&B to country.

Toussaint partnered with promoter Marshall Sehorn and launched Sea-Saint recording studio. There he produced and wrote for artists like Lee Dorsey, the Meters, Dr. John, and others who drew heavily on New Orleans traditions.

Over the years, Toussaint’s timeless songs have been recorded and rerecorded. For example, his tune “A Certain Girl” written for and released by Ernie K-Doe (1961), was later covered by the Yardbirds (1964), as well as Warren Zevon (1980). “Fortune Teller,” first recorded by Benny Spellman (1962), was later covered by The Rolling Stones (1966), The Who (1970), The Hollies (1972), and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss (2007). Songs like “Get Out of My Life, Woman” and “Play Something Sweet (Backyard Blues)” have been performance favorites for bands from around the globe.

As a producer and songwriter Toussaint is particularly skilled at bringing out the best in whatever artist he works with. “My habit has always been to write for particular artists. I listen to them a bit to hear what I think could be highlights in their voice, how they feel about themselves, how expressive they would like to be. It’s for that particular person, as if I was making a gown or suit,” he explains.

Among Toussaint’s favorite covers of his songs are Herb Alpert’s “Whipped Cream” (1965), Al Hirt’s “Java” (1964), and Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights” (1977). “I do love all the versions of every song of mine I ever heard, whether they are removed from where I may have had them originally, or if they are almost verbatim,” he says. “I just feel so grateful that someone cared enough about a song that I wrote to take it to their own heart, live with it, learn it, and then have it come out of them. That’s a wonderful miracle collaboration to me.”

“I never thought of myself as a stage performer,” continues Toussaint. “I’ve always thought of myself as the one behind the scenes. If there was a band, I would be the one to listen to the recordings of songs we are going to do and arrange the music.”

Over the years Toussaint has been involved in numerous hometown productions, performances, and projects, serving as arranger and musical director. In 1996, he launched NYNO Records with New York radio syndicator Joshua Feigenbaum to record and distribute the roots and R&B music of New Orleans and “paint a musical portrait of the city.”

Emerging from the Storm

Allen_Toussaint-pianoFifty years into his career, Hurricane Katrina abruptly changed everything for Toussaint. He rode out the storm at the French Quarter’s Crown Hotel and then evacuated the city four days later, having lost his home, studio, and all of his possessions except what he’d brought with him—the clothes on his back and his irreplaceable personally recorded videos. On Feingenbaum’s suggestion Toussaint fled to New York City. He had no real plan.

“I did several benefit concerts to survivors of our area and that exposed me to more performances than I had ever done in my life on my own,” he says. “I must say that it’s been quite rewarding, but that’s not how my life was going before Katrina.”

Despite having to live outside the city he loved for two years, and losing his home, today Toussaint focuses on the positive outcome. “I perform quite a bit now in comparison with before Katrina, and I must say it’s been quite gratifying,” he says. “It’s really wonderful because all my time was spent in the studio, and though I was very comfortable there, the final analysis is that we are trying to reach people when we record, write, and arrange. When we are on stage, there the people are, right there. It feels so much more like music was intended to be. It gives you such a more human aspect to the whole process.”

Throughout his career, Toussaint says his decision to join the union has served him well. “There are some places that the pay and all was very secure because the union was definitely on the case,” he says. “One of the best unions in the world is Local 802 (New York City). They really take care of business and see that things are intact and benefiting musicians as much as possible.”

After 60 years in the industry, Toussaint thoughtfully looks back at how the business has changed in recent years due to digital technology, and how those changes impact the culture of music in the Big Easy. “New Orleans is affected by musical changes, as well. Nowadays you can turn on one button and the whole world hears the same thing, at the same time,” he says. “New Orleans has held onto its own traditions as well as it could in the midst of so much technology. Even though they can hear the world playing back at them on television, radio, and the Internet, musicians here are playing the New Orleans traditional music that they got from someone a bit older than them, in New Orleans.”

“They hold past members who have gone on as deities, which is very important,” he continues. “It preserves the richness of the music and the intent of it in the earlier days. You could not know that the early music existed unless you take it to your heart and live in an environment where others are playing it just