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James Lent: The Man at the Piano

Gary Bennett By

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For me, the ability of an artist to move the soul is of far greater importance than his level of technique.
The Other Side has been a landmark of Hyperion Avenue, sandwiched between a gymnasium and an eatery or two in the Silverlake section of Los Angeles, for several decades. Ownership has changed once or twice; bartenders have come and gone. But faithful patronage of the restaurant-bar hasn't waned.

Inside, the blood-red walls are accented by soft lighting, black leather stools and white shuttered windows. The focal point of the room is a black piano framed by mirrored paneling. Six nights a week, six different pianists of various styles and personalities entertain the mostly over-50 crowd. For those who sing, the atmosphere is a welcoming one, allowing a decidedly mature group to belt show tunes, croon jazz standards, or wail the blues.

If there's one night that stands above the rest, it's Friday. Each week, classically-trained pianist James Lent employs his persuasive talents to coax singers of all ages and genres up to the mic. The fun grows steadily. Arriving at 9 p.m., Lent, slight and handsome, approaches the piano, quietly seats himself and prepares his first selection. Usually, it's Gershwin's immortal "Rhapsody in Blue." Occasionally, it's Debussy's "Clair de Lune." During the holiday season, it might be Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Suite." But whatever the choice, Lent melts into his opening notes with class, grace and ease.

But elitists beware: Lent will invariably segue into Jimmy Buffet's "Margaritaville," the theme song from TV's The Brady Bunch, and even the Doris Day chestnut, "Que Sera, Sera." Patrons have only one defense—to sing along. And, of course, that's the idea. For Lent, it seems, is on a mission: to get the room rocking.

Lent's singing isn't his first talent. Still, he can ably carry a tune, his voice charming and infectious. The singers who follow tackle everything from Johnny Mercer to Journey. Sprinkled in between, is Lent's own arrangement of "The Pink Panther Themes," as well as irreverent takes on the most beloved of classics, including "Oklahoma!" ("Old Glaucoma!").

Indeed, with Lent helming Friday nights, life truly is a cabaret.

Lent came to the bar in 2002, before which, he was already a deeply respected concert soloist, teacher, and graduate of Yale University where he earned his doctorate of musical arts degree in 2000. That same year, he released his highly-acclaimed debut CD, Blue (Self Produced, 2000). Lent's numerous piano awards include prizes in the National Chopin Competition, the Salon de Virtuosi Awards, and the title of Top Instrumentalist in the World Championships for the Performing Arts in Burbank, CA. Lent continues to perform locally and throughout the world. Yet despite his prodigious talent, he remains a thoughtful and self-effacing man.

All About Jazz: So you're a native of Houston.

James Lent: Yes.

AAJ: What's it like for a highly-gifted Jewish boy to grow up in Texas?

JL: I never felt that Jewish when I was growing up. It was something my family pushed upon me when I was eight or nine. I took Hebrew classes for a few weeks...it seemed my grandmother was more a part of making me Jewish than anything. Her priorities seemed to shift and it seemed the whole Jewish thing became much more in the background by the time I was 10 or 11. And then piano sort of overtook that. [laughing] Piano became my religion over being Jewish!

AAJ: Do you have any siblings?

JL: I have a younger sister.

AAJ: In the liner notes for your terrific CD—which I'll get into later—you mention that your great-grandmother held the distinction of being the only other pianist in your family. I found that surprising. Anyone else in your family musical?

JL: Not at all; she was the only one. She died in 1991, I believe, when I was in my sophomore year in high school. I inherited her Steinway piano. She was a large part of my sticking with it during times when I wasn't sure. I started playing piano when I was eight, and the first year it was like I was soaring faster than the speed of light.

My parents didn't understand how I got from book one to six of Edna Mae Burnham in a year. I just ate it up. It was fascinating to me. And it was largely due to our neighbor across the street who had a piano. I mean, we didn't have a piano!

AAJ: Really?

JL: No. And our neighbors next door had a son and daughter who were taking piano lessons. So watching them got me intrigued. Then I got a little electric keyboard for Christmas that played one octave—one note at a time. And it was only a little bit more than a week when I was picking out tunes from the radio and playing them. My parents would say, "Oh, I recognize that." And I was just doing this by ear.

The neighbor across the street—she was a lovely retired lady—offered to give me lessons for practically nothing. I was having daily lessons. Two years of that. And I have to say that, for a beginner, there's no better way to start than daily lessons because it's such a complex language, that if you don't have someone who's investing everyday into making sure you're on the right track, once a week's not going to cut it. And I loved the attention!

This was during a period in Roseville, California. I also spent some time in Tempe, Arizona, then I was back in Houston by sixth grade. There was some instability in my family. Music was a great escape from all that. Having two years of immersion was the most amazing thing in the world.

I studied for five years with my next teacher, who was of Russian descent and had Julliard training. He was intensely inspiring. After that, I went to Houston High School of the Performing Arts and started studying with a teacher who was producing all the competition winners. And that's when I started to become very competitive as a pianist. And then competition piano kind of took over from then until the end of my degrees at Yale.

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