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."


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