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Jim Beard: Serving The Music

George Colligan By

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[ Editor's Note: The following interview is reprinted from George Colligan's blog, Jazztruth ]

Joe Zawinul said, "Jim Beard is my favorite keyboard player besides myself." I think that's a pretty high compliment, don't you? Jim Beard has been on the scene since the 1980s with a resume that reads like a sideman's dream: Wayne Shorter, Michael Brecker, John McLaughlin, Steely Dan, and a host of other upper echelon artists. Beard is a virtuoso pianist and composer, yet he also is widely in demand as a multi-keyboardist. His perfection and taste with sonic textures is legendary.

Last November, I was in New York, and I contacted Beard for a lesson. My goal was to get advice on keyboards and sound design. We met at his music studio in midtown. We got to talk and I decided that I should interview him for Jazztruth. He had a lot to say and I learned a great deal from his stories and thoughts. Here's where I started recording:

George Colligan: So you were saying, your original set up was the two Yamaha DX-7s and the drum machine?

Jim Beard: Yeah, I had a DX-7 and a TX-7 and an RX 15, the Yamaha drum machine, and an Ensoniq Mirage, and my 4-track Fostex Cassette Recorder. That was the setup when I wrote most of [the] tunes for the Michael Brecker albums. And like I said, my interesting sampling came from that Prince CD, the one with "Kiss" on it. And also I was talking about when demoing songs, the need to sort of clearly arrange things, that and my desire to create interesting synth sounds. By the same token, if I would stumble across an interesting sound... but also lifting a weird pad from a Prince CD or something. Sometimes a cool sound would give me an idea for a song; so it would kind of go both ways. Right from the beginning, the nature, or the quality of a sound could either lure me into music, feed my desire to get involved with it, or turn me off if it's an offensive, horrible sound. Pretty early on, I was pretty sensitive to what I viewed was a good sound or a bad sound.

GC: Even as a kid when you were first getting into music?

JB: Well, no...

GC: How did you get into being a musician?

JB: Oh jeez. I can remember being 4 years old; my dad was kind of a technological nerd, he built our television from a kit, he built our stereo from a kit. We had a weird stereo, one of the speakers was in a cabinet on the living room floor and the other was on the ceiling on the other side of the room. But when I was young, my idea of a good time was to lie on the floor in front of the speaker and listen to records. A lot of it was Herb Alpert records.

GC: Really? Interesting.

JB: I mean, those records had a lot of detail in the arrangements. Whipped Cream and Other Delights (A&P, 1965)—that's a classic record. And I always loved holiday times, the traditional Christmas music with the choirs and the orchestra and so forth. I used to love that.

GC: You grew up in Philly?

JB: Yes. Ridley Park, not far from the airport.

GC: Did you have classical lessons?

JB: Yes. I had the same teacher for about 12 years. I started when I was six. I did the whole heavy classical routine. My teacher entered me in competitions.

GC: Did you get a degree in music?

JB: I went to Indiana University. After that, I world on a cruise ship for a year with the intention of saving money to move to New York. But I didn't save any money and I moved to New York anyway!

GC: And then right away you got the call to play with the Mahavishnu Orchestra?

JB: Not right away. I moved in August of 1985 and within that year I was working with Mahavishnu. Yeah, that was an interesting time.

GC: You came to New York in '85. You still live here part time and part time in Helsinki?

JB: My wife is Finnish, so we split the time between Helsinki and New York.

GC: How do you think New York as a city has changed since you've been here?

JB: I think it's a safer city now, which I believe qualifies as being better. In terms of music, it's hard to say. You might have to compare with younger musicians who come here who are hungry. I used to do jam sessions all the time with the loft scene. New York has gotten so expensive now that it seems there isn't as vibrant a scene as there used to be.

GC: I guess it depends on who you talk to.

JB: The rent—I don't know how a kid out of school with no money saved up, without a job, could move here. I guess they don't move to Manhattan, they live in Queens or Brooklyn.

GC: You're pretty well established as a musician, so I imagine you are touring a lot. You are still touring with Steely Dan?

JB: I've been doing that for two years. But we are on a break right now, so there's a tour with a band called the Dukes of September. It's Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald, and Boz Scaggs in one band. It's really fun; I'm playing mostly Hammond B- 3 on that.

GC: Have you done a lot of B-3 playing?

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