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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.

AAJ: While working on this project, what would you say is the difference between writing jazz compositions versus writing for classical musical compositions?

CL: It's all about the melody. It's not about improvisation but it's about structure. It's about working the harmonies to create melody, and you see this if you go back and look at anything from Bach's Chorales to Chopin. We tend to think Chopin's work is more difficult than it really is. But if you go back and look at it, the structure of the chord is I-IV-V, and maybe a II or VI in there. It's like we want to make the music more difficult than it really is, but if you boil it down, it really is simple. And that's kind of what intrigued me with Chopin. I thought how simple can we make it? So I wanted to see if Chopin's music could be spellbinding in the most simplest of forms, and in the fashion we already knew it. I thought, first, how much can we actually take away from his melody so that people could connect with it? Second, if you take one of his pieces of 12 notes in an area, and bring it down to two, will that still work?

AAJ: Amazing, and through this process what did you discover?

CL: It blew me away. To see how bare bones you can make something like Chopin, which we know to be full of flourishes and these beautiful garnishes, and bring it down to the most simplest of forms. The result is it's stunning and it just kind of works. I wish I could have said, "Oh yeah, I wrote that piece," but I didn't. I didn't write any of these pieces, Chopin did. All I did was scale back as much as I could, and allow a lot of space for the listener to kind of ingest what was happening.

AAJ: You are a master of the trio style and with this project one of the things you do is bring in two other instruments which are cello and violin. Why those instruments with your project with Chopin?

CL: I had a friend by the name of Rubin Kodheli who has played with everyone from Kanye West to Norah Jones. And he has this unbelievable sense of space and timing. He is able to be patient in his interpretations of the music. I actually met him through the violinist on my album, Judy Kang. Judy and I used to play in a worship group together in New York at a church. Judy is an unbelievable classical violinist but also has toured with Lady gaga which put her on the map as well. But also, I've never met someone so apologetic about their faith.

AAJ: That's very cool.

CL: So Judy and I have a history, because we've known each other and worshiped a lot together in church and it just felt right to have her on the album. So we said, "Okay, we know that Chopin wrote for the piano. He very rarely wrote for anything else. So let's take this as far as we can." As to say, what if Chopin had written for trio? The result is that Kodheli and Kang did an amazing job with this approach. I sent them no charts and no direction whatsoever. Everything you hear them play is exactly what they were hearing in their minds. I recorded the piano parts in my own studio, and then I sent the parts up to them in New York. And it just kind of magically went from there. It really came out unbelievably well.

AAJ: So the gift of improvisation was needed for this project, although it was a classical project? You sent them the parts and they improvised?

CL: I sent them just what I played on the piano. I never sent them a single note of sheet music so all they did was improvise from what they heard me do.

AAJ: Going back to Chopin, is there a similarity between jazz music and Chopin's compositions? Do you see some similarities that may not be talked about or may not be noted a lot?

CL: Yeah, I think if Chopin heard Gershwin, he would have been into it. There are a couple of pieces and a couple of lines where I'm like, "that's a Be-bop scale!" He wrote a be-bop scale before anyone defined it as such. And he does a lot of voicings that are really jazz voicings. I really think he was trying to push the envelope and see what else was out there. How much of it was improvisation, I'm not entirely sure. I know he didn't like to perform live very often. So I don't know if that had a bearing on if he improvised or not. If he heard jazz, he would have been all over it.

AAJ: There is an empathy and sweet peace that so characterizes your music. The soul, in a sense, becomes settled by your orchestration. How does the way you live your life influence your music?

CL: That's a great question and I commend you because I've never been asked that before.

AAJ: Yeah?

CL: Honestly, "I'm so laid back I walk with a cane," is like a running joke that I have. Nothing really upsets me. I don't know if it's my personality or if it's just my life with Christ. I am a 'blue sky' kind of guy. My wife will tell you that all day long. I am the complete optimist. But I'm also a very quiet, internal processor—a guy who kind of takes things in. I think that is reflected in my music for sure, just because that is my personality. I'm not a lively person but I'm animated. I'm not boisterous but peaceful, and I don't think that there is really another way to live my life. Christ was all love, but when he got angry, boy he was angry, it's almost like he only got that way after his patience had been pushed so far. But I want to be like that, because you have no idea of what the people you encounter are going through. And when you approach them musically, I just want to be able to give someone the avenue of worship.

What I've found is that, that avenue is offered in the most quiet of times to where there is a time of just stopping the world, and just allowing silence. I know my music is really sparse and quiet, and very meditative. I had an old room mate who said, "You know, this is an insomnia cd, if anyone has insomnia this album is for you." And he also said, "Don't drive with it on because you'll also fall asleep." But I play that way with intent, because we have so many things grabbing at us everyday.

AAJ: Right, that's very true.

CL: Like my album Set On A Hill opens up with a really soft, repetitive note in the beginning. And I had people say, "Aw man, you can't come out with your first CD like this, you have to come out really bright and banging. You've got to get them and grab their attention." But I disagreed because I honestly think we have so much grabbing our attention right now we can't even breathe or think, much less pray or meditate—or just have time of reflection. You know? I think the best way to live your life is to be able to hear in the quietest of times.

AAJ: Last question, have you ever had an experience that stretched you as a pianist? What's some advice you could give to others?

CL: Honestly, everyone I've ever taken lessons with stretched me. I always want to be the weakest link in the chain no matter what the scenario. Whether it's a jazz trio, or anything musically, I always wanted to be low on the totem pole because I enjoy getting my butt kicked. If I'm in that position where I don't feel that's the case, I have to exit. Because I really want to learn. I still study with Garry Dial and I will continue to take lessons with him because I never want to get to that place where I'm complacent.

The most stretching experience is when I was studying with Fred Hersch. I had taken a couple of lessons with him, and man, I never felt so small in my entire life. I remember the first time I played with him, I looked over and he had his eyes closed. And it was almost like he couldn't make it through it. He was like, "Okay, okay, okay, okay..." He showed me that there was a lot of fundamentals that weren't there. This was after I had done the Wizard of Oz album, and the album had done really well on the charts. Yet all of a sudden you are hearing that there are these huge gaps, and that you are not where you should be. So Hersch made me go back to the fundamentals, because as an educated listener, he could tell. So working with him and a pianist named Donald Brown, who played with the The Jazz Messengers, they both told me the same thing which is to go back to the days of Be-Bop and to learn folks like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. And I thought, "No, I want to work on the modern stuff, I want to sound like McCoy Tyner, and all these other guys." But then Hersch would play this Charlie Parker lick, and change the voicing in his left hand, yet sound like McCoy Tyner. And I thought, "Whoa, what just happened there." Brown told me that these guys learned to swing because they went back to Charlie Parker and Wynton Kelly. They didn't just create their own sound. Their sound came from hours and hours on the piano.

I read an article where someone asked Michelangelo the question, "When you're thinking about creating this sculpture, what's the process, and how do you see it?" And he says, "Oh it's really simple, I've got this big block and then I just cut out everything that's not supposed to be there until I have the sculpture." And that only happens after so much trial and error, so much of messing up that sculpture. So much of taking off too much, or not taking off enough. And Donald Brown and Fred Hersch, those two were the sculpture makers in my life. I still continue to practice the things we worked on and that was ten years ago.

AAJ: Terribly interesting and insightful.

CL: And there are other times where you are with other musicians, and you're like, "Oh I just suck." Kenny Werner, a great jazz pianist, noted in his book Effortless Mastery how as a musician doing improvised music you have to tune out signals in your brain that say, "Is this entertaining enough?" "Are they digging it?" "Is it fast enough?" "Am I swinging hard enough?" And his approach was this: you have to get to the point that every note you play is the most beautiful note you've ever heard. And you have to sit and have to practice this. He also stressed that if you want what you're playing to resonate with others, it has to resonate with yourself first.

AAJ: That is amazing advice, and I think that is terribly true, because when I see my favorite musicians perform it is almost as if they're more into their own music than their audience. That is to say, they are enjoying the music and it gives them pleasure and meaning just as much as us.

CL: Right, in order for you to tune in to what you're playing, you have to have it under your fingers first. So the idea of going out to play a gig above the level that you are at—shouldn't be the response. The response should be to make sure you've worked out the craft at home, and then when you're on the gig be able to play what you've worked on. But his question of "Is this entertaining enough?" stuck with me to the point that anytime I am doing a live performance, where my name is the headline or if I'm playing with other musicians, I tell them, "Don't entertain, we're not here to entertain, we're here to be creative, and to make music." So getting out of the mindset that music has to be entertaining is really freeing. Because at that point you create and make something really beautiful, instead of something amusing.

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