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Interviews

Eric Zinman: The Piano as Endangered Species

By Published: August 31, 2010
European pianos, like the Bosendorfer, sound more like a string instrument than, say, a New York Steinway, which has more of a percussion sound like bells and glass in the upper register. A large part of my interior piano playing is simply doing glissandos with two mallets, one wooden and one plastic. I like the way this matches the timbre of the cymbals. It feels like painting gestures, but I also play the strings vertically as well and hit the board sometimes. I am interested in the sensual nature of sound. With the piano that is, first and foremost, touch. Of course I'm a realist—the finger is either in the key, or it is not.

AAJ: Don't you think that the diatonic nature of the piano and the increased microtonal approach in the music has discarded the piano?

EZ: Well there has always been a microtonal approach in the music, possibly even more so in the early days of Black Music, like with the New Orleans bands and the travelling guitarists like Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson
1911 - 1938
vocalist
. And yes it may be true that the piano does not fit into all these situations. Don't forget that the so-called Ragtime music was, again, a reduction of the brass band, and we know they didn't play concert tuning. It depends what you mean by microtonal. If you are referring to Turkish or Greek music, the approach is quite different, and the piano has never been a part of that music; but in this music, the piano was often out of tune. Recently, I have been very interested in this Moroccan trance music which is quite microtonal, as is the Afghani shepherd music. Frankly, most music from the East would fall under the broad category of microtonal. Ornette [Coleman] probably dropped the piano for the reason you are stating, as he was quoted as saying: "Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
was the greatest diatonic player."

When the piano was dropped from the rhythm section, the music changed. Then a whole new generation of pianists after Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
b.1929
piano
figured out how to play the piano in this new situation. But to get back to your point, yes, the piano is less popular these days in improvised music, or what people call it—though I still don't like calling it that. Some musicians have commented that Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
's music implied a microtonal approach in the overtones and how certain clusters ring. The implications of Monk's music are still very strong, though I think misunderstood by many jazz aficionados.

AAJ: What in particular do you feel is misunderstood?

EZ: Well, first, you can't just play changes and a melody to do his music. The physicality of Monk's touch and sound remain unmatched. Anyone else trying to get Monk's sound on the piano generally sounds like a fool. I suppose that is the nature of any great artist, but you can't play Monk's music the way you play a composition by Harold Arlen
Harold Arlen
Harold Arlen
1905 - 1986
composer/conductor
. In light of this the music is very misunderstood with much praise thrown upon it. I might even go for a grander generalization and say that the music they are calling jazz was destroyed by academia and as a result popular music now has more soul; but I digress. To play this music is not even re-creative. It's nothing. You can't modernize Thelonious Monk or Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
. What they did is definitive. I say this because there is a lot of nostalgia these days.

Part of my point here is the divide between creating music and interpreting music. In formal concert music the emphasis is on interpretation, so when I was in Europe and I saw these classical pianists improvising like Cecil Taylor as part of their concert, I realized they were interpreting his work the way they would interpret Beethoven. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, because it shows a certain respect that you would not see here in the US, but to create music requires a whole different thing. It's not just about this word, improvisation, which really doesn't tell you anything about the music. It's a whole point of view in the sound and physical approach to the instrument and organization of material that came out of Black culture in the US. But however you respond to it, it has to come out of your research, not necessarily through these older forms like Sonata Allegro or 12-bar blues. Of course, all the old music is great material to study but that's not how you create music. America, of course, is still very uncomfortable with the cultural identity of the music. Perhaps that's why, after Jaki Byard
Jaki Byard
Jaki Byard
1922 - 1999
piano
quit as director of the Afro-American music department at New England Conservatory, they changed the name to Jazz Department. To me that represented a change in the public and social view.

AAJ: Wel,l I think I begin to understand what you mean by this aesthetic divide or "Great Divide," as you called it, on your recording with Blaise Siwula and Glynis Lomon.


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