Article and Interview by Franklin Abbott for Intown Magazine-8/8/18
How did you become a musician?
I never really thought about doing anything other than being a musician. I always loved listening to records and reading the credits for info about all of my favorite music. I spent lots of time as a kid at the library at Lincoln Center reading books about my favorite musical artists and show business characters.
Why did you choose the piano as your main instrument?
There was a gold uprite piano in the living room of the apt. I grew up in with a couple fake books on it. I naturally gravitated towards it and learned to play chords and get through some songs around age 6 and eventually started lessons, first with my Mom’s cousin Bee Walker who I called Aunt Bee.i took singing lessons with her and we worked on show tunes. My favorites were “If I Loved You” and “Soliloquy” from Carousel.A few years later when I started getting more into Rock I went to a teacher named Steve on 200th Street. We worked on reading lead sheets of songs by Leon Russell and Elton John who I got to see perform in concert at The Fillmore East. I was 10. Elton was the opening act. My brother and I saw so many amazing shows at the Fillmore when I was 10 and 11.
I just always loved the piano and things always seem to be okay in the world for me when I am playing one.
Who were your early inspirations?
My earliest musical inspirations were Harpo and Chico Marx.There was something about the space they created during the musical interludes in those madcap films that really got to me. I was also influenced by my father who worked in radio when I was growing up and the D.J.’s on the stations he was affiliated with. Around the age of 12 I started taking Jazz piano lessons with Mike Schiffer in Lenox. Ma. and used to love listening to him play standards at different venues around The Berkshires. He taught me jazz history, shared his record collection and knowledge and inspired and influenced me in so many ways as did my other teachers out west Art Lande and W.A. Mathieu.
What are some of the special moments from your musical career?
Most recently a very special moment was a gig at The Apple House in Decatur which was a reunion of our family band. Both of our kids make us so proud as human beings as well as musicians. Bill(30) is a jazz pianist/composer/and teacher and Janna(26) is a New York based drummer,songwriter,and teacher, She also has a great band in Brooklyn called The Unified Field Orchestra. For the reunion concert we played interpretations of rare Brian Wilson/Beach Boys music that they grew up on in our house and it was such a blast. We didn’t get to do all the songs we had planned but we hope to do it again next year.
One of my favorite sessions I’ve been a part of was in 2010 when I played with original Beach Boy David Marks for his "Live on Sunset" album which was recorded at the site of the legendary Western Studios in Hollywood. I also loved the gigs with David Marks and The Summertime Blues Band that we played at Eddies Attic and at The Endless Summer Quarterly Pet Sounds Safari near Charlotte in 2009. I have also enjoyed several collaborations with Poet and Beach Boys/Motown Lyricist Stephen Kalinich and I’m still blown away at how effortlessly our song “Surrender” came together, He sent me the lyrics and the song just materialized right away, I’d always wanted to write a song for Francine and it means so much to me to hear her sing it.
I had recorded a solo piano tribute to the music of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys in 2004 and although the album was never officially released it remains my proudest solo piano recording and finally in 2016 I released one of the songs as a digital single.
When I was 28 I spent a good part of the first week of October 1987 auditioning and spending some time with one of my musical heroes Frank Zappa.His humanity, musical direction, humor, kindness,and advice are some of my most treasured moments and I have never met a more down to earth person than him in the music biz other than Bruce Hampton who we would meet soon in our new home of Atlanta where my wife Mindy and I relocated to from Los Angeles in 1988 to raise our new family.
I feel extremely grateful to have been a working musician for all these years and Atlanta has been the greatest place to live and create. In the late 90’s I began to collaborate with Ramon Pooser and Mike Hinton as “The Trio” we played a long running gig at The Martini Club where we developed arrangements in the jazz trio format of music by Prince, Stevie Wonder, Brian Wilson, Jack Bruce and James Taylor as well as traditional jazz repertoire. We recorded our CD “Thursday” in 1998. The Trio still play together whenever we can. In 2003 I released “Monday” a live album with Bill Hatcher and Joel Morris. We covered “Hejira" by Joni Mitchell and created some extended medleys based on The Beatles “Tomorrow Never Knows” I’m real proud of both Trio’s. Compositionally I think some of my best stuff is on my 2000 release “Restrooms For Restaurant Customers Only” featuring Reed master Sam Skelton, Berkshire piano legend,friend and influence John Sauer, and my cousin the great New York drummer Peter Grant
For songwriting and singing My 1st album “Lovebrain" and my last “Lovebrain 2" sum up who I am the best. They include some improv too and I play a bunch of instruments on them.
Lovebrain2 also features guest appearances by our kids Bill and Janna, David Marks, and Bobby Robles and Victor Bisetti in a virtual reunion of our 80’s L.A.power pop band “The Now" https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/jezgraham2
You have worked with many wonderful musicians including Francine Reed and Col. Bruce Hampton. Can you share a few memories?
I first played with Francine in 95 and She is a dear friend of our family, we love her and her family so much and are grateful for our time together. The gigs we do at Eddies Attic every February for Black History Month have always been highlights, I think I’ve only missed one year. It’d be hard to top playing with her at her induction to the 2014 Georgia Music Hall Of Fame but that same year she sang “Surrender” in concert with The Delkab Symphony Orchestra along with my Trio and our daughter Janna on percussion.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Xu4ICRaMy8&list=PL77DBE9AD7F638514
It’s hard to pick just one or 2 moments with Bruce, More than anything it was everyday moments. Our friendship goes back to the late 80’s but it was around 2008 that we started our weekly Tuesday lunches which soon became legendary. We miss him so much but he is always with us and around us and it’s important to keep practicing the lessons he taught us one of which is “Every gig is Carnegie Hall"
Some of my favorite gigs with Bruce were in New York. The Brooklyn Bowl with Lew Soloff was a highlight and the following year at B.B. Kings with David Marks sitting in with the band along with Nels Cline and Warren Haynes thus guitar representation from The Beach Boys, Wilco and The Allman Brothers as well as Bruce and the great A.J. Ghent.Peter Grant was also on that gig. Of course I’ll never forgot the time we played on Elvis’s porch in Tupelo Mi.
My Job with Bruce was to play left hand bass and piano, then there was a fun gig in Athens at The Georgia Theater with 3 drummers and I was playing only key bass as I passed the piano torch to our good friend and lunch mate Jazz piano legend Johnny Knapp. I’m not a dancer but the grooves on "Feeling Good" and "There Was a Time" always got me moving.So many great times , St. Paul, San Francisco,Atlanta, Music On Main (MOMS) in Lilburn was always a gas. Another of my favorite shows was in Nashville for the show Music City Roots.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QCfaeMVlKY&t=17s
What challenges/inspires you now?
The challenge is also the thing that keeps us on out toes and in the moment. To create something from nothing is such an awesome gift and responsibility. So to answer your question what challenges/inspires me now, it's the moment of creation at the piano. I’m challenged every time I play to go a little further and explore different places. I get so much inspiration from my family and from everyone I have the opportunity to play music for at every gig and I am also inspired by all of the piano players at the airport and all of the great musicians on wonderful Atlanta music scene. I am challenged when I practice at home which I’ve been doing more of in the last 4 years. Mainly Bach and Mozart. Since I’m not classically trained i always said that when I got older I would spend time working on that aspect and now as I look towards age 60 I’m starting to make a bit of progress in that direction.
What can your audience expect from Friday night's concert?
The other day while playing at the airport I had the thought that to hear what I do on Concourse A you need to be either getting ready to fly or returning so with that in mind I thought I would give a taste of my airport inspired music and play some extended improvised pieces , of course I won’t know what themes will present themselves until they do.All of the music I grew up with and love is always floating around my brain and I don’t differentiate between styles so on any given day it could include music by The Beatles, Thelonious Monk, Chick Corea, George Gershwin,Billy Cobham, Bacharach/David,Herbie Hancock,Stevie Wonder, Duke Ellington,Joni Mitchell,Miles Davis, Randy Newman, The Beach Boys,Shuggie Otis,Todd Rundgren,Jimmy Webb,Bronislau Kaper,The Grateful Dead Richard Rodgers,Prince,Paul Simon, Nat King Cole,Frank Loesser, Irving Berlin, Marvin Gaye,Joe Zawinul,,Frank Zappa,The Marx. Bros, Ya never know and I never know but it’s always a fun adventure. I’m also thinking of singing a few of my original songs. Some that have never been released on CD including a song that is a true story called “1968 Homecoming Queen Rides Again" that I put out as a 45 in the early 80’s, A song about food with lyrics that I co-wrote with my old Berkeley High school friend Will Bernard in 1987 called “Clay Baked Potato” as well as one of the first songs I wrote for my wife Mindy called “I Need Your Love”
In the last couple of years I’ve had the pleasure to work with some wonderful artists and bands. Gwen Hughes,Theresa Hightower, Fairfax and 3rd, and my duo with Adam Wolfe. I an grateful to all of them and look forward to much more music.
These days as I spend more and more time with the piano both at gigs and at home I have started documenting some of the ongoing arrangement and ideas that have been presenting themselves. Some of these are on my youtube channel.