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Joe Alterman: Seeking wisdom from the masters

Leo Sidran BY

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In this episode, pianist Joe Alterman talks about his new record The Upside of Down, southern charm, "finding in jazz and black music what [he] had tried to find in Synagogue," tipping the doorman, being born 50 years too late, playing for regular people, using adversity as an opportunity, what he learned from his friendships with Ramsey Lewis, Les McCann, Nat Hentoff, and Ahmad Jamal.

Joe is a southern guy with a sunny disposition. He came from Atlanta, and despite having put in years in New York, he never managed to shake off the southern charm.

Joe is a pianist who wears his influences on his sleeve. While his contemporaries were deconstructing the music, Joe was drawn to the playing of more classic masters, like Ahmad Jamal, Ramsey Lewis and Les McCann. He loved the light touch of Red Garland and Hank Jones, but he also loved the blues and heft of Oscar Peterson, Monty Alexander, and Gene Harris. Early on, while he was learning to play the music by listening to those masters, he also began to establish personal relationships with many of his heroes.

Ramsey Lewis described his piano playing as 'a joy to behold,' Les McCann states 'As a man and musician he is already a giant.' Journalist Nat Hentoff championed three of Alterman's albums, as well as his writing (Joe wrote liner notes to three Wynton Marsalis / JALC albums), calling one of Joe's columns "one of the very best pieces on the essence of jazz, the spirit of jazz, that I've ever read, and I'm not exaggerating."

Joe established relationships with his heroes naturally, instinctively, and soulfully. He was clearly searching for some deeper truth in both the music and the musicians themselves. Eventually, his friendships with the likes of Ahmad Jamal, Ramsey Lewis, Les McCann, Nat Hentoff, and Houston Person would begin to straddle the space between musical and spiritual.

He found himself turning to Ahmad Jamal for romantic advice, Sonny Rollins helped him with the adversity of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Les McCann illuminated the ties between the black community and the Jewish community.

Joe grew up going to Jewish day school, trying to find a way to feel as spiritually engaged by his rabbis and cantors as he did when he listened to his favorite records. He "found in jazz and black music what [he] had tried to find in Synagogue."

After putting in serious time in New York, he moved back to Atlanta and found himself running what was then called the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival (now called Neranenah) and exploring in earnest the question of just what exactly is Jewish music?

Subsequently, Joe has become one of the most creative voices in the conversation around contemporary Jewish culture and music today. While his own music may be steeped in tradition, his disposition as a presenter is wide open and radical in its way.

Joe recently released The Upside Of Down—recorded at Birdland in New York just before the Pandemic. He was finally able to do a record release gig to celebrate the project, back at Birdland, in late July. The record is one in a series of recordings that showcase his sweet, joyful, classic, swinging approach to the piano trio.

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