Charlie Peacock: Exhibits Curiosity, Returns to Jazz Roots

Todd S. Jenkins BY

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One thing I took from Coltrane was that there was no bifurcation between his music and his spiritual life.
Nashville pianist, composer and author Charlie Peacock has raised a lot of eyebrows with 2005's Love Press Ex-Curio, the scintillating first release from his label, Runway Network. It marks his first full-on jazz effort in nearly three decades, a bold step away from the lucrative world of contemporary Christian music. The album is the latest in a long series of reinventions for the category-resistant musician.

The album's title is shorthand for "Loves Pressure, Exhibits Curiosity." Says Peacock, "I can't remember the exact origin of the title, whether I was just playing with words or what. But it really hit me: 'Yeah, this really describes me!' I tend to do my best work when I'm under pressure and curious. I think it connects to the whole art and work of improvisation. You don't stick your neck out unless you're under pressure."

Recently, Peacock has stuck his neck way out by radically changing the direction of his career. Within Nashville's contemporary Christian community, he has long been recognized as an award-winning songwriter and record producer. He wrote "Every Heartbeat" for Amy Grant, produced Switchfoot's multi-platinum New Way To Be Human (re: Think, 1999), and has worked with a bevy of gospel stars like Nichole Nordeman, CeCe Winans, dcTalk and the O.C. Supertones. But few of his fans were aware that his career began in Northern California's jazz clubs.

"I still had a kind of musical schizophrenia," recalls Peacock of his post-college days in the 1970s. "In Sacramento I played both jazz gigs and pop gigs. One afternoon I might play some completely crazy intervallic head, and the next day I was playing a pop set, whatever was popular at the time in R&B, rock and so on." Back then he still used his birth name, Charlie Ashworth; his stage name, adopted a few years later, was respectfully borrowed from bassist Gary Peacock. "It shows how sold-out I was to the new wave/punk movement. In the wake of artists taking on new names like Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious, I chose a jazz musician's name!"

Among the young man's influences were Miles Davis, Andrew Hill, Keith Jarrett and John Coltrane, whose A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964) made a permanent impact on Peacock's musical persona. "One thing I took from Coltrane was that there was no bifurcation between his music and his spiritual life. And the amazing thing was that he brought out his spiritual side at the peak of his career. A lot of it had to do with the fact that Coltrane had established himself as an innovator, and therefore had the freedom to do that." Concert impresario Bill Graham was a different sort of influence: "I followed the concerts he promoted during my youth, and I just took for granted that a jazz group should be on the same bill as a rock group."

Peacock nestled in with some of the Bay Area's finest, keeping company with major artists like singer Eddie Henderson, trumpeter Mark Isham, and pianist Art Lande's Rubisa Patrol. "Those guys were so kind to me, and so inspirational. I remember auditioning for Eddie Henderson at his house... when Mike Clark was on drums, but I wasn't good enough yet."

It wasn't long before the maturing pianist began getting the attention of the jazz press, none more momentous than San Francisco writer Frank Kofsky. "It was great that Frank befriended me at that time, when there was so much good jazz in the Bay Area." Kofsky kindly encouraged Peacock with his newspaper reviews and general moral support, and other backing wasn't far behind. "Sal Valentino, who had been in the Beau Brummels and other pop bands, came to one of my gigs. I played him some of my pop stuff and some things that were inspired by electric Miles. Sal took me to Los Angeles, where I got my first taste of the record business."

As he immersed himself more deeply in pop music, Peacock gradually left jazz behind. It seemed the best move to accommodate his ever-expanding visions of music. "If I had pursued that world back then, it probably would have proved too small a world for me musically. I don't know whether it's the economic system or what, but it's constant work and travel. It's not any different from any of the smaller genres."

In 1984 Peacock packed his first pop album, Lie Down in the Grass (A&M), with inventive insights into matters of faith and life. He toured, wrote and recorded for a number of labels before coming fully into contemporary Christian music (CCM) in the late 1980s. It proved a mixed blessing; the scene was ripe for someone of such seditious creativity, but the establishment of CCM as a separate genre led to pigeonholing of artists who couldn't grow beyond the confining "Christian" stamp. "When I got into CCM I knew that they were just borrowing from their secular neighbors. For me it became about business. My motivation has always been about people, not systems. So I continued to look for a sense of community, people who wanted to follow their hearts for God. When I came to Nashville to be a full-time record producer, people knew I would be open and try new things."

He broke ground in CCM through his fresh songwriting, production work, and imaginative albums like the pop/jazz/ethnic brew, strangelanguage (re: Think, 1996). In his recently updated book At the Crossroads (Shaw Books, 2004), Peacock was openly critical of the Christian music institution and its restrictions on creative exploration. "I never really wanted to be associated with it as a genre, but that was naïve. The genre was really stifling for me. If you build a system that's based on the progressive use of music alone to reach young people, don't be surprised if it spits you out. For people who are supposed to revere the Creator, (CCM) is really a poorly worked-out system." Peacock advocates what he terms a "kingdom perspective," realizing that there are not only limitless opportunities for expression outside of the insular CCM marketplace, but a biblical mandate to take one's art outside those confines.

Love Press Ex-Curio, with its colorful mixture of original acoustic and electronic jazz explorations, fits nicely into Peacock's own kingdom perspective. "The commission from Christ was to go and be his kind of people in the world, not to create a separate society that is disconnected from the world. Love Press is an extension of my desire just to make music with people, based upon how faithful they are to their humanity in making music." That viewpoint colored his selection of musicians as much as the music itself. "Improvisers are very bright people who are very open to discussing things. My goal is to deal with and express reality, and I can't do that if I'm setting criteria like religious compatibility."

For Peacock, it was a long path from [singer] Amy Grant to [saxophonist] Ravi Coltrane. The deaths of both his father and a sideman, [singer] Vince Ebo, in 1993 set him to thinking about greater issues than sales numbers and pop styles. "By 1996, after working pretty steadily for six or seven years, the fun was over for me. I created the re:Think label to pursue some new ideas. In 1999 my wife and I moved to St. Louis. I went to seminary, studied and rested up. Eventually I started doing piano duets and trying to get to the point where I could play music for the Father in my own way. Improvisation has always done that for me."

Love Press Ex-Curio is the culmination of decades of thought, experience and inspiration. "The music is born out of improvisation," Peacock says, "with a minimum of composition. I imposed some composer's ideas on the improvisation to add some structure. I think it's a good blend of my influences: Bitches Brew (Columbia/Legacy, 1969), Keith Jarrett and Andrew Hill. One influence that might not come out as much is Carla Bley, the work she did on Social Studies (WATT/ECM, 1981) and Nick Mason's Fictitious Sports (Columbia, 1981). I kind of see myself in that auteur role. I like to collaborate and give musicians a chance to expand."

Networking in New York helped Peacock assemble the recording's personnel. "[Bassist] James Genus introduced me to [pianist] Uri Caine—I love his album Zohar Keter (Knitting Factory, 1999)—who recommended [trumpeter] Ralph Alessi to me. I went to a [trumpeter] Dave Douglas show at the Village Vanguard and talked with Dave afterwards about trumpet players. He said, 'Yeah, Ralph is the guy,' and gave me his number." Kip Kubin and Tony Miracle of electronica's Venus Hum provide ambient treatments of Peacock's piano on several tracks. Also on deck are Genus, Flecktones bassist Victor Wooten and woodwind multi-instrumentalist Jeff Coffin, [guitarist] Myles Boisen and [drummer] Gino Robair of Splatter Trio, [drummer] Joey Baron, [saxophonist] Kirk Whalum, guitarists Jerry McPherson and Kurt Rosenwinkel, Tower of Power organist Roger Smith, and Nashville session drummer Jim White.

Ravi Coltrane is the thread that ties the project together and brings Peacock's jazz vision full circle. Including Coltrane in the ensemble "made sense to me historically because I've been so influenced by his father. It's great because his father is the single greatest iconic saxophonist in history. But that aside, Ravi himself is a very sensitive and kinetic improviser. He's very much a gentleman and great to play with."

Peacock is keeping very busy with Runway Network, producing Karl Denson's Tiny Universe and other up-and-coming artists. He is now gearing up for a national tour with Jeff Coffin and young New Orleans trumpeter Maurice Brown. Life outside the CCM ghetto holds much promise for this faithful iconoclast.

Selected Discography

Charlie Peacock, Love Press Ex-Curio (Runway Network, 2005)
Sam Ashworth, Gonna Get It Wrong Before I Get It Right (Runway Network, 2005)
Charlie Peacock & Friends, Full Circle (Sparrow, 2004)
Sara Groves, The Other Side of Something (INO, 2004)
Audio Adrenalin, Worldwide (Forefront, 2003)
Switchfoot, Beautiful Letdown (RED Ink/Columbia, 2003) (Producer only)
Twila Paris, True North (Sparrow, 1999) (Producer only)
Charlie Peacock, Kingdom Come (Rethink, 1999)
Sarah Masen, Carry Us Through Chordant, 1998)
Switchfoot, Legend of Chin (Rethink, 1997)
Eric Champion, Transformation (Essential Records, 1996)
Charlie Peacock, Strangelanguage (Forefront, 1996)
Charlie Peacock, Everything That's On My Mind (Sparrow, 1995)
Phil Keaggy, Time 1 (Myrrh, 1995)
Out of the Gray, Gravity (Sparrow, 1995)
Margaret Becker, Soul (Sparrow, 1993)
Amy Grant, Heart in Motion (A&M, 1991)
Charlie Peacock, The Secret of Time (Sparrow, 1990)

Related Article: Charlie Peacock: Accepting the Gift of Freedom (Interview, 2005)

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Charlie Peacock

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