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Eric Zinman: The Piano as Endangered Species

By Published: August 31, 2010
EZ: Well, perhaps it doesn't, but I believe that rhythm is still the unexplored territory in music. That's the way I approach the piano. I also do many pianistic things as well, but I view dynamics as rhythm and rhythm as form.

From left: Lawrence Cook, Eric Zinman

The piano is an obsolete instrument. That's the reason you don't see it in the rock clubs today. In the '50s, the piano was the central instrument of that music, with Little Richard
Little Richard
Little Richard
, Fats Domino
Fats Domino
Fats Domino
, Jerry Lee Lewis etc. If you look at the manufacturing and service history of the piano since 1900, it's clear that the number of pianos produced and the number of people who service the instrument have been greatly reduced. Rebuilding is no longer a big business as it was in the '70s, and there are roughly one dozen concert tuners in Boston (those who service the best instruments at the biggest institutions in the city both private and civic), who belong to the PTG [Piano Technicians Guild], and even fewer rebuilders. So my argument here is purely pragmatic.

The other issue is that the piano was connected with the Tin Pan Alley revenue of ASCAP for many years. It spelled out each composition as no other instrument could. It was economical because before, during, and after the Big Band Era, it functioned as a reduced orchestra as in the boogie dance halls of NYC in the '30s. Obviously, in the hands of Ellington and Basie, the piano was made to do something else. In the '60s, when players said they were not going to play standards anymore, that became a radical shift, particularly for the piano, and the revenue that it earned. So that music was clearly a threat. Much of this was touched upon by an article in The Black Nation some years ago, where musician/composer Jimmy Stewart, the great composer from Philadelphia, wrote a review of Len Lyons' book, The Great Jazz Pianists. Stewart also pointed out, by the interviews in that book, that there was no doubt who the great jazz pianists were, and still are.

After the '70s we witnessed the strip clubs no longer supporting live blues bands and going for recorded music. Good cocktail pianists are rare now. You can still see one at the Carlisle in Manhattan.

AAJ: I would like to hear more about your particular interest and conception with the piano.

EZ: I want to create the drama, the variety of color and surprise within an orchestra. The piano plays vertically and horizontally, and a myriad of things in between. I try to do all these things.

I also want to get into the sound of the other players, their touch and dynamic. If you touch it right, you can sing with that instrument. Sometimes you don't even notice the attack. Of course the piano also has an amazing variety of attacks and duration, and often I work duets with the drums within the trio formations. Not everybody is sensitive to the tonal or pan-tonal aspect of the piano. I recently played with some musicians at a session in Vienna who did not want to tune with me; many newer musicians view the piano as a piece of furniture and don't know anything about what it can do. The piano also has many magical sounds which I cannot describe in words. I've thought for some time [that] if I could sum up what interests me in the piano, I would say it like this.

I have described, in the past, the saturation of sound between the pedaled and unpedaled sounds, and how that affects the sounds of the other instruments is something the pianist has to pay attention to.

my point herI see the role of the piano as an integral part of the orchestras of the future, but, of course, I mean now also. The piano is not a regular part of the symphony orchestra; it is only invited to play as a guest. The first example I heard on a recording, of how the piano should be in the modern orchestras, was Ellington, and then I also heard the use of the piano in Charles Ives' 4th Symphony. So I emphasize the sound of the piano within these large masses of sound, its color relation to the other percussion instruments, because of the piano's vast registers—the way it can surround the other instruments and mark varying shifts in weight. Also the way the piano can move lyrically within the whole, from varying densities of sound masses to sparkling melodies spanning the whole keyboard.

I do like playing the strings as, of course, that gives you a whole different color. I learned to do it so that it does not sound separate from the music but an organic part of it. Mainly this approach can give you good blends with wind, string and percussion instruments.

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