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Interviews

James Lent: The Man at the Piano

By Published: March 2, 2011
AAJ: The jazz flavor is very evident in the Copland section of "With Bounce." It's interesting the way the CD starts classical, then segues into "Four Piano Blues." "Freely Poetic" is just gorgeous.

JL: Yes, that section is a favorite of mine.

AAJ: You also include Rzewski's "Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues." Very esoteric piece.

JL: You almost have to see it to understand it. Because if you can see what's going on physically, it brings on a different effect. The piece was written to simulate the machinery of the cotton mill. So you play certain clusters of notes with your entire forearm. Just like the machine. And when you're watching someone do it, it's so visually effective. Like theatre.

For me, extreme dissonance and modernism are as a part of my personality as beauty and simplicity. Both extremes are very much a part of my musical being. I wouldn't have felt this CD represented me fully without that track.

That was the hardest representation of Blue I could find, whereas the third movement of Copland was the most pristine and serene. I felt that both ends of the spectrum had to exist.

AAJ: You named the album after your favorite color. Why is blue your favorite?

JL: I think there's always been an aquatic, blue part of me. It's kind of centering...calming.

AAJ: The album concludes with "Rhapsody in Blue," a performance that is clean, concise and brilliant. What struck me about the CD overall is it serves as both a demonstration of your abilities and tastes, as well as providing the listener with a highly satisfying array of musical sensibilities. It doesn't play as a demo, but rather as a complete entity.

JL: That's nice to hear. I chose my selections very carefully.

AAJ: I want to talk a bit about your performance at Carnegie Hall, which you did even before completing your doctorate. What are you memories of that experience?

JL: I was very, very nervous. And I don't get nervous! [laughing] It came about through luck and perseverance, and the right people recommending me for the right thing at the right time and place.

At the time, the winners of the Concert Artist Guild's Management Competition in New York were all featured at Carnegie Hall. It was just part of the deal. It all happened really fast. It was a month from the time I found out it was going to happen until the performance. So I had no time to plan what I was going to play, so I just had to ride on my strongest pieces of the moment.

AAJ: What did you play there?

JL: I had a 20-minute set. Liszt's "Valle d' Obermann" was one of my favorite pieces of that time period, so I included that. That took up most of my time. I included two other short pieces, but I don't remember what they were. But the Liszt piece was the big one.

AAJ: After completing your doctorate, you relocated to Los Angeles. I would've thought New York would've offered a greater cultural landscape.

JL: Well, I spent three years in New York after Yale. It was also during that time period that I commuted to Greenville, S.C., to teach. So I was spending four days every two weeks in Greenville and the other 10 days in New York.

I was also accompanying at Julliard, and I also had management that was taking me out of New York to do concerts. But soon I began to realize that every place but New York seemed to appreciate me so much more, both financially and in terms of response. And it's because there are ten times as many qualified pianists in New York than anywhere else. Everyone goes there.

After three years of that, I thought about how I felt in Houston. I wanted something like Houston, and for me...L.A. was a chance to have that. The final tour of my New York management took me to the West Coast for three weeks. That was nine years ago, and I've had no itch to leave since.

AAJ: In 2002, you started your Friday night gig at The Other Side. How did you land that?

JL: That was a result of the most loyal patron of the bar, who was also good friends with the owner. His name was Steve Dounard and, unfortunately, he passed at the early age of 62 four years ago. He lived a block away and would buy everyone their drinks.

A vacancy ensued on Friday night and they kept flipping different people, but nothing was really working even though the audiences were still decent. Friday was always a popular night to go to the piano bar. There was a period—I believe—when Michael Feinstein had Friday nights at The Other Side. This was, like, 30 years ago. Some pretty big people had Friday nights.

Steve was determined to find the right person for Fridays because he was so in love with that bar. He went online and found me on gigmasters.com. He pulled me in for an audition and I played "The Entertainer," "The Pink Panther Variations" and "Give my Regards to Broadway." I also brought in patriotic music, as it was the Fourth of July. But I didn't sing a note.

AAJ: Why didn't you sing?

JL: Because I couldn't! [laughing] I just flat out couldn't. My voice was so bad, that the first time I tried to sing, half the room left. And I was told not to sing again. I accepted it because I knew I couldn't sing. But it was okay because people liked me—as a pianist and a personality.

There was a random singer who popped in and sort of became my "guest singer." He was a tenor named Peter. And he was pretty much the major voice on Friday nights—for a year. I didn't know it, but Steve was paying Peter! But after a year, people were getting tired of Peter because he was singing the same songs.

Steve suggested we have auditions for guest singers and he would pay them. So I posted something on Craigslist and I was flooded with something like 60 auditions in a three-week period. And Steve got to be the judge, since he was the one footing the bill.


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