Chad Lawson: Crossing Over and Back

K. Shackelford By

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Chad Lawson is a compelling musical voice that deserves wider attention. He's a masterful pianist with an extensive jazz background, but has crossed genres taking the beauty of his music into the classical world. Recently, he released The Chopin Variations, arrangements of famed composer Frédéric François Chopin. On the album, Lawson re-contextualizes Chopin's piano solo pieces, particularly by adding two voices—cello and violin—to the mix. Embedded into this trio's sound is an ethos of desire, beauty, and love—creating a heartfelt and anodynic experience of self-introspection. In this way, The Chopin Variations becomes quite spiritual in nature.

And many others feel the sui generis of Lawson's arrangements of Chopin as well. The Chopin Variations became a #1 iTunes, #1 Billboard classical, and #4 Billboard crossover debut. The album comes many years after Lawson gained a stellar reputation in the world of jazz as a pianist who approaches jazz with innovation, sensibility, and maturity. The project is Lawson's fourth trio album following the acclaimed Chad Lawson Trio (Self Produced, 2009), Unforeseen (Summit Records, 2004), and Dear Dorothy: The Oz Sessions (Summit Records, 2002).

Along with Lawson on piano, The Chopin Variations features gifted string players including Judy Kang on violin and Rubin Kodheli on cello. In addition to their classical careers, Kodheli and Kang have played with some of today's top music stars such as Lady Gaga and Kanye West. Thus, with all musicians having well-trained ears and chops for a wide palette of styles, it was effortless for them to interpret Chopin in a way that is rare and stunning—capturing the simplicity and essence of compositions written more than 200 years ago. What occurs is almost magical. The album is a sonic experience of catharsis and resolution.

In this interview, we discuss Lawson's jazz career, his strong faith background, and explore subtle connections between Chopin and jazz.

All About Jazz: How did you get started in jazz and jazz piano?

Chad Lawson: I was brought up with classical and I really wanted to go to a conservatory. I had posters of this conservatory all over my room when I was in junior high and high school. So I was classical bound. Moreover, I didn't come from a musical family, so it wasn't like my dad said, "Hey check out this Miles Davis album." That never happened. At a young age, I played in a wedding band and it was through them that I become familiar with bands like Steely Dan and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Also I grew up in an orthodox church where anything that wasn't contemporary Christian music was not really allowed. So learning Stevie Ray Vaughan and Stevie Wonder was like, "Wow, why have you guys been hiding this from me?" Their music was like discovering a whole new world. So this wedding band I was in, was also a great variety band that would start with jazz standards then they would move it up to the dance party music kind of stuff. I was learning, still again, stuff that I'd never heard of before. With that in mind, I decided that I really wanted to learn to play every style really well. And that was my goal. And someone heard me, and said, "Oh, like a studio musician?" And I was very intrigued by that and asked them, "what do you mean?" A studio musician is someone hired to go into a studio, and have someone throw charts in front of them. They are able to play what is in front of them at first take. And I thought that sounded amazing. So I audition at this conservatory and they tell me everything is fine, but then asked me, "Where do you see yourself in five years. You know, what do you want to do?" I told them that I wanted to be a studio musician and the interviewer looked at me right in the eyes and said, "You're in the wrong place." And that just broke me, it absolutely broke me. Long story short, I found out about Berklee College of Music, and auditioned and got a scholarship.

It wasn't until I went to Berklee that I started learning about what jazz was. So at 18 or 19 years of age, I had experiences like a teacher saying, "Okay, I want you to go buy this Miles Davis album and I want you to learn this Red Garland solo." So I started jazz really late, and it wasn't until Berklee that I wanted to get involved with jazz. For example, the first time I heard Keith Jarrett I thought to myself, "This sucks." But 6-8 months later, I would go back to that album and say, "This is amazing." So there was growth for me that had to happen to understand what jazz really was. Then, while still at Berklee, I decided to take a break. I was doing so much session work that I thought it was pointless to stay in school to 'study' session work when I was getting it outside of the school. Ultimately, I took a gig with Django Reinhardt's son, Babik, and that's kind of where the jazz thing really kind of took off.

AAJ: So after Berklee you did a lot of session work, but what prompted you to do your first album?

CL: Yeah, so I left Berklee and went to Appalachian State University for a semester, and then after the semester I said to myself, you know, I'm sorry this is just not for me. I moved to Charlotte and started playing gigs, and really cutting my teeth and paying my dues. I recorded my very first jazz album in 1997. I recorded it as a Christmas present for my mom and we called it the Chad Lawson Trio album. No one was really meant to hear it. Honestly, it was never meant to be released. Then we found out that there was a DJ in Raleigh, Jerry Carter, that was having a contest. I submitted my album and he played it on the air. Whenever he would play it, he would get phone calls. He really took me underneath his wing and told me, "You know, you gotta get this album out." He really walked me through the whole process. The guy was a complete God-send, and we still stay in touch with each other. The album was self-released and it did really well on the charts. What was originally supposed to be a Christmas present for my mom, turned into a pretty successful jazz album. It was a classic story.

AAJ: So where did the Chad Lawson Trio go from there?

CL: And so then here in Charlotte, I used that album to get gigs. I met the drummer Al Sergel, and bassist Zack Page and we just started playing tunes together. The next album we did was Dear Dorothy; The Oz Sessions, which are all the songs from The Wizard of Oz. We recorded that album in a day and a half and it did really well. It was for Summit Records. And it is interesting because for that album, people love to have something they can connect with. Who doesn't remember the very first time they saw the Wizard of Oz? And that album did really well, again, because it really connected with people.

The last album we did together was Unforeseen, which was recorded in 2004. Unforseen was compiled of original songs, standards, and some covers. After that, we all just kind of took a break. I moved to New York to further my studies in jazz, and the drummer took a gig with Jason Upton. He is still playing with him now.

AAJ: Oh Yeah! I just love Jason Upton.

CL: Yeah, it does not get more real than Jason Upton. I've been fortunate enough to play with Upton a couple of times and record on some of his albums. If you want to experience worship then Jason Upton is the guy. But then we all went our own ways. At that point, I was in New York and I was studying one on one privately with the head of the Manhattan School, Garry Dial. And that's really all I was doing. I also took a gig with this rock/pop girl. We would rehearse at Sony Studios. It was an amazing band. We had everyone like Jack Douglas who was a big time rock and roll producer. The band was unbelievable and amazing. And I learned a lot from them.

During this time, I got a call from a buddy of mine named Christian Tamburr who was touring with Julio Iglesias. So he was like, "Hey man, Julio's keyboard player is taking a break for a little while and I am going to take the musical director position and why don't you take second keys?" And I said, "Sure." It is funny how God works, you know? You have this preconceived idea of where you want your life to be in certain stages. The musician always wants the 'big' touring gig with the famous person. And with this opportunity, that did happen—but it didn't happen at the timing I would have preferred. I had just married, and maybe a month or two later, I get the call for this gig that is going to take me away from my wife—only being home two days a month. So it's kind of the thing where you want something your entire life and he (God) gives it to you, and you're like wait a minute this isn't the right timing! But come to find out, it really was. I don't think I could have done that tour without my wife. I needed her and her support while I was on that tour.

AAJ: Julio is such a world-class musician. I'm sure you gleaned a lot from that experience?

CL: One night on stage, there were about 30,000 people in the audience, which was an average night for Julio. I'd been toying with the idea of wanting to record a solo piano album, and it just struck me all at once. I thought to myself, "If Julio can do this, I can do this." You know? Granted, it's on a whole different scale, but watching Julio was the deciding factor. I thought to myself even if I'm the only person that hears the album, I have to do this. I couldn't stop telling myself that I needed to do this album. As soon as I got home from the Julio tour I started writing and it went from there.

AAJ: Last year you released The Chopin Variations and it's done incredibly well. It was #1 on iTunes and had some top spots on Billboard. Congratulations, but I am curious, what made you move from jazz to your classical roots?

CL: Really, after all is said and done, I am really about the melody. Melody to me is the most important thing in music because it's what connects the listener to what you're doing. Rather it be the vocals, or the songbird, or be it with the instrumentalists, you always want to be in the mindset of having somebody walk down the sidewalk and sing or hum, or whistle to themselves. So the melody is always the key to me. Also, whenever I'm in the mood to write there are 2 things that I listen to, which is really odd because I've put them further from each other. The first one is Joshua Redman. I have no idea why, but whenever I want to get in a writing mood, something about Joshua Redman does it. I can't pinpoint it, but he just inspires me as far as writing is concerned. And then the other thing I listen to is classical music.
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