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Bill Anschell: Curiosity and Invention

Paul Rauch By

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Bill Anschell strikes me as a man with boundless curiosity. You perceive this in conversation, in his sense of humor, the patient manner in which he listens on and off the bandstand. You sense it in his inventive compositions, the rhythmic complexity, and the musical conception that lyrically imprints an authentic sense of melody. His work in his standards trio highlights his musical empathy in deep, spontaneous conversation with bassist Jeff Johnson and drummer D’Vonne Lewis, and paints a more complete image of the inquisitive nature of the veteran Seattle jazzman.

With the release of his ninth album as a leader, Rumbler (Origin Records, 2017), Anschell has shown yet another unique tonal aspect of his musical adventurism. His work sheds light on the thriving and inventive jazz scene in his native Seattle, a community Anschell departed from in 1989 for a day job in Atlanta, and returned to in 2002 after establishing himself as a pianist, composer, producer, and musical director, most notably with Grammy nominated singer, Nneena Freelon.

Sitting and talking with Anschell, as I have done many times before and after performances at Seattle's iconic jazz spot, Tula's, reveals a man with tremendous musical insight, a refreshing open mindedness, and a subtle, dry, and at times ominously dark sense of humor.

All About Jazz: Your roots are in Seattle, tell us about growing up there, and the creative influences that led you to jazz, and the piano.

Bill Anschell: Growing up here had almost nothing to do with me getting interested in jazz. I didn't grow up in the Garfield, Roosevelt era (Garfield and Roosevelt High Schools in Seattle that have won multiple times at the Essentially Ellington competition in New York). I went to Mercer Island High School, we had a stage band, and an alcoholic teacher. I think I can get away with that, because it's true. I remember playing written out solos on tenor saxophone. I had no jazz awareness at all.

AAJ: You played tenor sax in school?

BA: Yes. Clarinet, and then tenor sax. I had clarinet lessons with a guy in the Seattle Symphony, and was pretty serious. I entered at least one festival and did pretty well, and auditioned at Oberlin Conservatory for classical clarinet, and didn't get in. But I was serious enough to believe I could. I would go home and pound out pop tunes that I heard on the air by ear on piano. So clarinet was what I was being serious about, but piano was what I had fun doing.

I went to Oberlin, but not in the Conservatory because I'm not a classical player, took a ton of music, wasn't all that happy there, and took a year off. At that point I was feeling progressive rock was the best music out there, I was devoted to that as much as anyone you would meet. But how do you take progressive rock lessons on piano or synthesizer? So I took jazz lessons just thinking that there's a lot more knowledge involved, and a lot more technique involved. Maybe learn all that stuff, and go back and be like Rick Wakeman or something. When I got into it and started working real hard at it, I just decided I liked jazz more than anything. So that became my focus.

So Seattle didn't have much to do with my getting into jazz. When I took a year off I took lessons here. I studied with Randy Halberstadt first, first piano lesson I ever had, I was nineteen. Then I studied with Art Landy, who was living here at the time. Those were my earliest teachers. Other than that, I just took some scattered lessons. The thing about jazz is, once someone teaches you how to practice, you don't necessarily need a whole lot more lessons. You can figure out what interests you, and how to get at it, how to make it part of what you do. I still consider myself mostly self taught.

Even though I've had piano lessons, and had a ton of theory and everything, I put it together myself. After I went to Oberlin, I transferred to Wesleyan in Connecticut, where I could major in jazz and get a degree, unlike Oberlin at that time. Bill Barron was my adviser, Kenny Barron's older brother. Back then, teaching had not been codified like it is now, so it wasn't like learning what scales to play over a 2-5-1, or superimposing triads and stuff like that. Partly because Wesleyan is a very progressive school, the knowledge was more abstract. So I still had to put my own thing together. I never got to play these notes on these chords with these scales. Nobody ever taught me that, which is the essence of the way they teach it now.

AAJ: You worked for a time with vocalist, Nnenna Freelon. Your compositions and piano accompaniment were featured on her Grammy nominated album, Shaking Free (Concord, 1996), and her albums Heritage (Columbia, 1993),and Listen (Columbia, 1994). How impactful was this experience in terms of your evolution as a pianist, and music director?

BA: There's something to be said for the ability to play in high profile situations, without getting to warm up. When I play a gig in Seattle, I practice a lot and warm up before. One of the things that's weird is you go to these festivals, you may not have played for two days, you get on stage and you just have to hit. And I would actually feel that I would go out on the road and come back and my chops would be down, because there is nowhere to practice. You play an hour set, and Nnenna's shows were pretty tight, so most of the solos were not usually more than a chorus. So not a lot of stretching out. As far as my playing goes, that was when I was playing the least, when I was on tour with her. There were some pressure situations.

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