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Peter Madsen: Comfortable Inside and Out

By Published: June 5, 2006

"It's the same thing. Even how I approach it, I try not to do his normal pieces that everyone seems to know. I tried to pick other alternative pieces (of Monk). Because he did write so many great pieces and everybody focuses on the same four. Great pieces, of course, but there are a lot of great pieces that didn't get as much attention. That's one of my things. I'm always trying to look for some other quality things that haven't been getting the attention that they should.

Madsen's resume as a musician includes associations with a wide variety of styles and with artists renowned, and not so well known. He is capable of adding the right elements to any of those scenes. It includes Stan Getz, Stanley Turrentine, Dewey Redman, George Coleman, Oscar Brown Jr., Arthur Blythe, Kenny Garrett, Joe Lovano, Sonny Fortune, Dave Liebman, Eddie Henderson, Ravi Coltrane, Greg Osby, Carlos Ward, Thomas Chapin, Ralph Moore, Paul McCandless, Pee Wee Ellis, Steve Slagle, Marty Ehrlich, Tony Malaby, Richie Cole, Maceo Parker, Steve Wilson, Chris Potter, Seamus Blake, Tom Harrell, Bill Frisell, the Mingus Big Band, the Village Vanguard Orchestra and many more. And yet, stylistically, he says it's difficult to pick out his major influences, because he's listened to all the pianists in the jazz pantheon—and beyond.

"I'm a historical record collector. I really can't say any particular people. I listen to so many. I don't think you can know the 'outside' of music until you know the 'inside' of music. I'm fascinated by the inside guys as much as the outside guys. I try to listen to so many different people and not just jazz people. I'm fascinated by a lot of different things, from African music to Chinese music—any kind of world music, says Madsen.

"I'm fascinated by the great musicians that play all these different kinds of music. Right now, (in Austria, where he lives part of the time), I'm in a group with two African guys, two American guys and two Austrian guys. It's a mixture between jazz and African music. It's an interesting experiment. We write music together as a group. Everybody throws in what they know.

Madsen, 50, has come a long way from his beginnings in Racine, Wisconsin. He started tinkering with the piano at a young age. "Like most people, Mom said, 'Go out and take some lessons.' My grandmother had a piano. There are pictures of me playing when I was two years old or something. So I was always somehow interested. They started me on classical, because that's all you really could do then.

He got his first exposure to jazz in the school system where music was important and he was a member of the big band and was actually playing bass, a direction he took for a time, though he still would play the 88s. "From the school system, I just kept playing and playing. When I was 17 I went to one of those summer jazz camps. I can remember the exact moment when I determined this is what I wanted to do. It was at this jazz camp.

It was also in high school that Madsen began to play out on gigs as a bassist. "I wouldn't say I was doing serious jazz gigs, but I was playing piano bar music in restaurants. Typical things piano players get to do when they're pretty young. I had my first when I was 15 or 16. My piano teacher also played gigs and he got me some gigs playing with him. He played accordion and I was playing bass at the time.

After graduation, it was off to the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, which had a good jazz program. Double bass was his major instrument at university, but "I figured I just couldn't be really good at both of those instruments at the same time. That was pretty impossible. My love is really the piano anyway. I felt really at home with that instrument. The bass was always kind of for fun, he says. Madsen earned a teaching degree, but spent most of his time playing jazz.

"I graduated and was offered a job right out of school. I said, no thanks. I went to Minneapolis, about an hour and a half away. Some of the guys I knew from university were from there, so I had some contacts. I got some gigs. At school when I was finishing up was a guy who became important for me through my entire career, and that's Anthony Cox, a great bassist. We were playing together pretty much all the time. We were roommates for a while. We practiced together everyday. We were both dreaming about going to New York, says the pianist.

Madsen visited New York City and the former Bradley's nightclub, known as a piano bar where many of the great pianists would work in the 1970s. He was fascinated with the duet playing he saw, and he and Cox would often focus on that format. Both went to the Big Apple during the same period in 1980.

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Download jazz mp3 “The Girl From Greenland” by Peter Madsen