Eric Zinman: The Piano as Endangered Species


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For over twenty years, pianist/composer Eric Zinman has been crafting his own approach to his instrument, since meeting trumpeter Bill Dixon in the '80s. He views himself as an ensemble player, who plays to include; in addition to his own writing, his trio disc, Eric Zinman Ensemble (Cadence, 2006), features short pieces by John Voigt, Laurence Cook, Lowell Davidison and Ornette Coleman. Each composition feels lived with and explored thoroughly, while the music breaths and flows with a wide dynamic range. The interplay between piano, drums and bass is speech-like and unpredictable; the instruments seeming to merge their colors in a very unique way.

More recent releases involve longer compositions, and larger ensembles also featuring undervalued master saxophonist Mario Rechtern. The compositional focus is less partitioned, with no repeating statements, while the solo concept is more orchestral. Since 2006, Zinman has been performing internationally, and has released two digital-only recordings on Ayler Records—New Language Collaborative/Unified Fields (2008), and Wakte Oglaka (2009). Several new recordings are scheduled to be released by Cadence, Ayler, and a new French label, Improvising Beings.

All About Jazz: While I enjoyed reading about your personal history in the brilliantcornersbostonjazzblog, where I first read about you, I wanted to ask about your perspectives on the piano, your music and some personal history. Outside of what was published there, are there other influences you would like to talk about?

Eric Zinman: Yes, there are a few things. I have not talked on my website about everything that influenced me. Everybody knows my biggest influences because it is stated on my recordings and on my CV, but there were two other influential people in my life that I was fortunate enough to have as roommates.

The first of those roommates was Marc Leibowitz. The first time I played with Laurence Cook was with Marc at his apartment in Sudbury. He had organized a music series at the Brandeis Radio station called The Joint, which was the best I had encountered in the Boston area where I lived. He was, at one time, the director of WBRS, the community radio station at Brandeis University. Marc hooked me up with the station and pushed to help me get a show which I called 20th Century Music, and I played the best of the best that I could find. The record collection was also quite good. Marc also ran an excellent show. Around the same time, Craig Schildhauer had a loft on Thayer Street, with his partner Yvette, where they ran another great music series called Playground. This was very influential to me as I took the name and ran with it, as Craig had asked me to do: Friends of Black Music , which was run by Syd Smart in the '70s; and also The Black Avant-Garde, run by Larry Roland, preceded me in the Boston area. I found that out later. My personal involvement was with The Joint and Playground.

The Joint ran live music many days of the week and featured some of the best of the avant-garde. I may not remember all the details, but I remember some: Zayne Massey, Karen Borca, John Voigt, Taylor Maclean, Denis Charles, Bobby Naughton, Zen Matsura, William Parker, Marc Leibowitz, Laurence Cook, Joe Maneri, Matt Maneri, Rashid Bakr, and many more.

There was a drum summit that I thought was unprecedented. It included Laurence Cook, Gerry Hemingway, Beaver Harris, Denis Charles. I'm not sure, but I thought Andrew Cyrille and Thurman Barker were there.

I don't think that we were very compatible as players in some ways, as Marc's compositional ideas were in a different direction from the way I wanted to play the piano, but I think we made some very good music and played out a couple times with Laurence Cook. Marc had a lot of ideas about electronics that lately I feel were very influential to me in terms of color and timbre. The way Marc used to tune his lower strings to sound like a bass, which would create this shaking sound like an earth tremor and the use of an old Moog synthesizer patch, which could be triggered in many ways by strings, microphones etc. Marc also had ideas about what I would call sequences—repeating motifs, where he used a cheap Casio device. In the beginning, I couldn't stand them, but gradually Marc learned to use them in a very deceptive and artistic way.

Marc is a great archivist and editor, and put together the best pieces of the bunch on a CD called Sinus Up, for which I have not yet been able to find a producer. I was very green on that recording and fresh out of school. I don't think my playing is particularly great on those recordings. I think Marc's duets with Laurence Cook are exceptional, and there are more documents of this available from Marc Leibowitz. Marc is a very accomplished guitarist, always striving to learn more and play better. I should also say that Marc Leibowitz was the best roommate I ever had. We talked and argued about music and had loads of fun in general.

From left: Eric Zinman, Lo Galluccio

When I began to do these duets with Laurence Cook in 2009, I was using the Yamaha CP300 [electric stage piano]. All of these things that I had heard from Marc's work with Laurence came back to me and I realized then how influential they were. Perhaps this will influence people to contact Marc Leibowitz in Prattsville, NY, about his duets with Laurence and purchase them. My duet with Laurence Cook is soon to be released by Ayler Records—now a French label, curated by Stephen Berland.

Thousands of words have been written about Laurence Cook. Everybody knows he is a master of color and one of the most influential and original drummers to emerge from the '60s. When I met Sunny Murray in Vienna, I told him that Laurence sends his best and that Laurence speaks about his [Sunny's] influence on his work. Sunny's reply was, "We learned and worked out our ideas together."

I felt that my work actually began in my trio with Craig Schildhaeur on bass and Laurence Cook on drums. That was where I felt comfortable with the compositions I was trying to create. This became my first recording, which also never received distribution or production outside my hands.

The second influential roommate was Glenn Spearman, who Raphe Malik had recommended to me, as he was looking for a place. Glen and I performed in a couple large ensembles, but I was never in any group of his. We made some great sessions and by the way he played, my sound and energy changed completely. He taught me some pieces of his own, and some he had picked up from Jimmy Lyons. Glen made these shaking sounds in the low register and would play chords almost like Frank Wright; sometimes he had this Sonny Rollins kind of sound, but in the altissimo he reminded me of Jimmy Lyons. I had never played with such a powerful tenor saxophonist, though as a person he was a con man and a hustler, and left without paying his bills, which was a hard period in my life. But I learned a lot from Glen and will always remember his contribution.

AAJ: I have heard that your 2010 European tour went extremely well. I would enjoy hearing about that, but first I want to ask you some other questions. The piano seems largely ignored in much of the newer improvised music these days. Could you comment on that?

EZ: Yes definitely; we'll have time to talk about the tour, which has really been my best yet. Regarding the piano, there are still some musicians out there who appreciate the piano. Considering that the percussion instruments and their mysteries and history have been slandered in the west, it is no surprise that the piano would be included in that category. I say this because my approach to the piano is that of the trap set. I have worked with the drums since 1982, and most heavily since my work with Laurence Cook began in 1987. Laurence Cook is one of my mentors.

AAJ: What slander do you refer to?

EZ: Well I'm not an ethnomusicologist, but if you look at the social response in families to these instruments and how they are taught and which instruments people choose in the schools, I think you will find that percussion is rare. Of course there are always enlightened parents who will permit their children to play the drums but it's not encouraged in the same way as flute, violin, piano and guitar. My good friend and musical companion, Syd Smart, taught drums for the city of Cambridge [Massachusetts] for one year, and after that year they told him that they didn't need a drum teacher and asked if he taught another instrument. I'm guessing they also didn't realize what a master percussionist and great teacher Syd Smart is. People are not taught the history of the trap set drums, which is an American development.

It should be treated like the national treasure the music was declared to be by congress in 1987. But to stay on the subject of percussion instruments, with the gentrification of Roxbury in Boston, and Harlem in NYC, some musician friends of mine have noted a decreasing number of people playing percussion in the streets today.

AAJ: But how does this relate to the piano?

EZ: Well, perhaps it doesn't, but I believe that rhythm is still the unexplored territory in music. That's the way I approach the piano. I also do many pianistic things as well, but I view dynamics as rhythm and rhythm as form.

From left: Lawrence Cook, Eric Zinman

The piano is an obsolete instrument. That's the reason you don't see it in the rock clubs today. In the '50s, the piano was the central instrument of that music, with Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis etc. If you look at the manufacturing and service history of the piano since 1900, it's clear that the number of pianos produced and the number of people who service the instrument have been greatly reduced. Rebuilding is no longer a big business as it was in the '70s, and there are roughly one dozen concert tuners in Boston (those who service the best instruments at the biggest institutions in the city both private and civic), who belong to the PTG [Piano Technicians Guild], and even fewer rebuilders. So my argument here is purely pragmatic.
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