It's easy to carp about the death of jazz and young jazz artists' ignorance of the music's history. Both are soft targets, especially since so many young jazz players seem almost proud that they know little or nothing about jazz's past. Somewhere along the line, "old" in our music schools became "useless," as if the shock of the new alone makes one's performances significant. One 21-year-old pianist who is changing these perceptions is Joe Alterman. His new album, Piano Tracks, Vol. 1, offers up a wide selection of standards and originals, and all embrace the feel of jazz's great 1950s pianists without falling into the sound-alike trap.
First, full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes for this album. But I don't make a dime off of its sales, and as readers of this blog know, I only write liner notes to albums I'm passionate about. When Joe sent me an email some months ago, he asked if I'd give his demo a listen. I'm jaded by nature, but I try to give everything a spin. Music is hard and art is harder. If someone takes the time to ask, I'm happy to make the time to dig in with an open mind. [Photo: Joe with Ahmad Jamal]
So I wrote Joe back—with the following qualifier: "I'll give the album a listen, but you need to know that I write only about what I love. I have no time for 'like' or 'hate,' nor do my readers. We're only interested in what's special." I also told Joe that if I didn't care for what I heard, that's how the cookie crumbles. Joe said he understood.
The demo arrived a few days later. As it slid into my player, I fully expected to be ejecting the CD within a minute. Not so fast. I wound up listening to it about 12 times—and I was rather astonished. Once I even forgot what I was listening to and thought the album was from many years ago, forcing me to double-check. That's when I realized that there, in the hands of a kid whose technique is far beyond his years, is a really smart integration of the 1950s jazz piano sound and today's thinking. No crowding with notes. No endless runs on the keyboard. And no modern classical motifs. Just lots of swing and taste. Lots of taste, in fact. [Pictured: Joe with Oscar Peterson]
When I asked Joe how someone who was still in college could know so much about past pianists, he told me he spent much of his youth listening to LPs by Red Garland, Ahmad Jamal, Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, Hank Jones, Barry Harris and others. The key wasn't to try and imitate those artists, he said, but to discern what made them special and adapt those traits to his own approach.
On Piano Tracks Vol. 1, Joe has done just that. There are 10 songs—five standards and five originals. The standards are well-chosen and, what's more, executed in a way that's fresh and exciting. There isn't a cliche on the entire CD, and Joe's improvisational ideas are all lovely and exciting. The standards are Time After Time, I've Got a Crush on You, I Cover the Waterfront, Last Night When We Were Young and The Days of Wine and Roses. You may think you've heard enough versions of these songs, but you'd be mistaken. Dig what Joe does on the mid-tempo I Cover the Waterfront, for example. He has enormous respect for space and historic styles throughout, varying from stride to modern right-hand melody lines and block chords. [Photo: Joe with Barry Harris]
Joe's originals are equally impressive. Dig Funk-A-Doodle-Doo, with its Ramsey Lewis 1960s soul-jazz feel. Or The First Night Home, a ballad that reminds you of Oscar Peterson's pin-drop Moonlight in Vermont from his On the Town album. [Photo: Joe with Hank Jones]
Joe's last quote from my liner notes sums up his approach perfectly:
"Often, when people hear shades of Red Garland in my playing, they say Red is a great place to start. But I'm not using Red as a stepping-stone. He's always going to be with me. I think there's plenty more to be done in jazz with melody and space that's innovative."
If jazz has a future, it's in the hands of up-and-comers like Joe Alterman. One only hopes that Joe sticks with his thing and isn't corrupted by peer pressure, commercial demands or earning a living. And that he keeps listening to and finding joy in Red, Ahmad, Erroll, Oscar, Barry and the rest.
JazzWax tracks: Joe Alterman's Piano Tracks Vol. 1 is available as a download at iTunes and Amazon. Or it's on CD here. Joe's website is here. On the CD, Joe is joined by Scott Glazer (bass) and Justin Varnes (drums), except on First Night Home, which features Sam Selinger (bass) and Tiffany Chang (drums).