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James Lent: The Man at the Piano

By Published: March 2, 2011
AAJ: I didn't know the singers were paid there.

JL: They're generally not! But Steve said if I were to make Friday nights into what they could and should be, there was going to have to be some paying of singers.

AAJ: This is surprising—a shortage of singers who'll sing for free??

JL: Well, there was a problem in marketing my night and what to call it. Some people associate it with old man piano bar, which is a turnoff; others associate it with karaoke, so that's a turnoff. It's none of those things. It's a strange mixture of everything all in one.

I've put some young people into the mix. It defies description and even now, it's hard to market something you can't describe. People just started coming in out of the woodwork to sing for free. And from that, something grew. But it took a little bit of manipulating to get things going. Steve got some nice reviews printed and really did some amazing promotional things for me in my first five years.

Suddenly, Steve died and I was faced with a lot of challenges because all those guest singers that were being paid by Steve I didn't want to let go. But I couldn't afford to pay them what Steve was paying them.

AAJ: You were paying them out of your own pocket??

JL: I didn't know what to do! I was at a total loss. Steve didn't leave a provision for me in his will. If he had known he was going to die at 62, he would've done so, I can tell you that. So I tried all sorts of things. But I did it and it still works. We now have enough singers who will sing for free.

AAJ: You told me you monitor the amount of ballads.

JL: Oh, yeah—I control that very carefully. Half of the singers now have enough of a rapport with me that they know what to sing and what not to sing at certain times. I'm much more ballad-friendly in the first 30 minutes, or after midnight. But in that primetime from 9:30 to 12, it's got be a ratio of three up-tempos to one ballad. And the singers understand this.

AAJ: Alongside this popular gig, you've managed to keep busy with other assignments. I know you replaced Andre Watts as a concerto soloist in the Alabama Symphony, performing Rachmaninoff's "Concerto #2." How did that come about?

JL: Oh, that was back in 2001. In fact, it was 9/11. If you recall, the planes were grounded for a week after the attack. But the concert was still scheduled for September 15th in Birmingham, Ala., with Andre Watts.

He was scheduled to fly in the day before the concert, rehearse with them and then do the performance. Obviously, he couldn't fly in. I was teaching in Greenville and my management got a call desperately looking for someone who could handle Rachmaninoff's "Concerto #2." And they told them I was teaching just three hours away. And I got the gig because I was in the right place at the right time. Plus, I was teaching the third movement of the piece to one of my students for a competition at the time, so I had the hardest part of it still fresh in my head.

I had played the first and second movements in '93 for my graduating recitals and hadn't touched them too much since. I remembered a method called "cheat sheets." This is when you take the parts of the piece you're most nervous about, shrink them down to really small print, hide them inside the piano, and lay it out in such a way that you only have to touch the pages between movements.

At the crucial moment, you raise your right hand with a handkerchief, wipe your brow, and then you put the handkerchief in the piano at the same time you make your switch and the audience is none the wiser.

AAJ: You must've been nervous.

JL: It all happened too fast to get nervous. It was just excitement! I was just on fire to be in such a situation. It went really well and I got a great review. I just wish it could've been recorded, but Union restrictions prevented that.

I have to say that certain things in life have come to me ever since as a result of that experience. For example, I got play Rachmaninoff 2 in China a little over a year ago. And this was due to that great review when I replaced Watts. They had a cancellation in China and had three weeks to fill it. They figured if I could replace Watts in less than 24 hours' notice, I could do it in three weeks! [laughing] I was really lucky that I was able to video that performance in China and that it went well.

AAJ: You coached actor Woody Harrelson for the film Seven Pounds. What was it like to work with him?

JL: Oh, he was awesome. He was super-eager to learn; very friendly, very fun. He had three pieces to learn and had been working with my former instructor, Jonathan Feldman, who had taught at Julliard. He told Jonathan he was going to be in L.A. for a week and would need more work and would he recommend someone. So Jonathan referred him to me and Woody took the suggestion to Sony, who hired me to work with Woody for the week before shooting, as well as be on the set during the shoot.

Woody at first thought he only had to do two things—the Mozart fantasy in C minor and a pop song, which I can't recall at the moment. But then they added a third piece, a sonata, and he was really stressing about it.

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