John di Martino: Piano Man In/On Demand


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Because subtlety and nuance are very important. I make the comparison that playing live is more like theater and playing in the studio is more like film.
John di Martino is a New York area based pianist, composer, arranger and Venus recording artist. He is a sought after musical director and is in demand by many singers as an accompanist, having accompanied such singers as Jon Hendricks, Sylvia Sims, Diane Schuur and Billy Eckstine. His talents as a pianist and arranger can be heard on recordings with Freddy Cole, Gloria Lynne and Grady Tate. Noted for his versatility, di Martino has also performed and recorded with such notables as Kenny Burrell, James Moody, Joe Lovano, the late David "Fathead" Newman, Pat Martino, Paquito D'Rivera and Houston Person.

Di Martino was a long time member of Ray Barretto's "New World Spirit" group and he was a featured pianist and arranger on several recording including Barretto's Grammy-nominated CD, Contact! (Blue Note, 1997). He also enjoyed a long association with percussionist Bobby Sanabria and can be heard on Sanabria's Grammy-nominated CD Afro-Cuban Dream: Live And In Clave (Arabesque, 2000). Born in Philadelphia, di Martino was a student of Lennie Tristano, Don Sebesky and Jimmy Amadie. He has performed everywhere from Carnegie Hall to the Peoples' Republic of China.

All About Jazz: Can you talk a little bit about your background?

John di Martino: I got interested in music kind of early. I have a brother 10 years older who's a theater person. So I grew up listening to all these great musicals. West Side Story, Fiddler On The Roof. In fact, to this day when I hear West Side Story I get a very strange emotional reaction. I remember being seven years. It takes me right back there. It's very strong. It's amazing—the power of music to do that. When I hear that music—I love it, but it's a strange feeling. It just takes you back. I think I started young, like how old was I? I get memories of studying the accordion at age seven. And then somewhere around that time studying drums a little bit; never really being serious about it. And then when I was 12, I started studying violin. I finally started to focus.

But, even then, it went on for about two years and I didn't really get serious until I was about 15. And I was always playing piano. Oh, I'm forgetting now. Twelve years old, playing violin, but I fell in love with blues. And started to learn certain principles about playing blues. I used to play blues violin and this was my first experience with improvisation. And then my ear just wanted to get deeper into music and I started to get interested in jazz. And my mother is a big jazz fan, especially the vocalists. And I had a couple of older cousins who would be feeding me recordings. In fact, my mother was actually sort of like a frustrated singer and she never pursued it as a career, but she had a great ear. So when I was really young, we looked through the fake book and we'd go through tunes and I think that kind of sealed my fate as an accompanist. Because I was listening to all these vocals and I was learning tunes at a young age which is kind of like the basis of jazz repertoire. So when I was 15 I started playing with a little local band. I was kind of natural with the piano. I mean my technique was a little interesting. That was self-taught. But I started studying with a great Philadelphia teacher.

AAJ: So you're from Philadelphia?

JdM: Yes, I'm from Philly... Jimmy Amadie was my teacher. And Jimmy really gave me the main part of my training. He taught me to be a really good sight reader. He taught me concepts of thinking about being an accompanist, thinking about accompanying in a rhythm section, everything that that you really need to think about to be a professional musician and be sensitive to situations. So I learned a lot of—my foundation came from him. And then later on when I was nineteen, I studied with Lennie Tristano.

AAJ: You studied with Lennie Tristano?

JdM: Yes, when I was nineteen I was obsessed... Well, my first discovery was Lee Konitz. I fell in love with everything. I started buying all of his stuff. My older cousins would say: Hey, did you hear him when he was with Stan Kenton? Did you hear this? So I started getting those records and listening, [like Miles Davis'] The Birth of the Cool (Capitol, 1949). So I wound up studying with Lennie and I got like the last year of his life. I was 19 years-old and that was the last year and he died. And I studied a little bit after that. I took at least one lesson with Lee Konitz, a little bit with Warne Marsh. I was just crazy about those guys.

I also studied a bit with Sophie Rosoff, a classical teacher that Barry Harris referred me to. A great mentor to me was my dear friend, Bobby Tucker. He had two jobs his entire life; he accompanied Billie Holiday and Billy Eckstine. Another formative thing with me was when I was real young, like 15, 16, 17, I used to play with salsa bands around Philadelphia. And it was kind of a fluke. I grew up in an Italian neighborhood sort of, but brother was a social worker in a Hispanic neighborhood. And he said, "Would you guys like to jam with my little brother?" I had some Latino friends in high school that were feeding me Latin records. So I fell in love with that music as well. Ironically, I did it as a teenager but it became part of me so that years later when I moved to New York, I started to play a Latin gig at the Rainbow Room. That was a corny gig, you know. But on the gig was Victor Venegas, who was the founding member of Mongo Santamaria's group. So that put another dimension to my learning and it got me into the Latin scene here.

And then consequently I started to play with Ray Barretto. I made four records with him. I was with Bobby Sanabria for ten years. So I got really deep into the whole Latin scene. I've since been kind of out of it. I kind of systematically decided that I wanted to move to some different areas and back with the singers again which I always did. I could also tell you that when I was nineteen, I had entered a competition at Radio Free Jazz. I sent them a tape. And I won in the competition and I won a scholarship to go to Berklee in Boston. For just stupidity and I think just [the] irrational fear that I was dealing with, I didn't go.

And what I regret about that was not so much the education because I got the education elsewhere. I got it on the street which is the real education. But I think it would have been good for me to just get out of my home town at that tender age to get a perspective. I think it would have helped my development. So what happened to me is I lay around Philadelphia and Philadelphia led me to Atlantic City. And here's where my music school really became. I had a house band gig at the Golden Nugget. It's no longer called the Golden Nugget. But the house band gig was playing with a trio in a little lounge. But, check this out, it was a remnant from the old days that didn't exist any more but somehow I got to go back in time. They had a house trio and they would bring in acts and I would accompany the acts. But check out who the acts were. Billy Eckstine, Billy Daniels, Fran Warren, Keely Smith, Sylvia Syms, Joni Summers.

AAJ: You got to play for all these singers

JdM: Yes. Who else? Jack Sheldon. And then it would go from the sublime to the ridiculous. One day it would be a comedian. I remember playing behind Charlie Callas, people like that. I remember even Milton Berle. This is really bizarre. And sometimes there would be R&B kind of singers. So learned so much music and I learned not to be a snob about anything. Whatever I was asked to do, not to condescend, but to say: "Okay, this is a challenge. Meet the challenge." So what that did for me, besides being an education, it let me make contacts. It was a magnet place. At that time there was a lot of employment there. I'm talking about the early eighties.

AAJ: Yes. There were a lot of acts playing there then. I used to go there a lot.

JdM: You remember then.

AAJ: I saw Sarah Vaughan there and Tony Bennett.

JdM: I remember Sarah Vaughan's rhythm section came and sat in with me. Andy Simkins and Harold Jones. I became very tight with Billy Eckstine and Bobby Tucker. In fact, that's how I met Freddy Cole. That's how that all started. Freddy was playing in the lounges when I met him. It's before his career had started off. In fact, Freddy Cole had been telling Todd Barkan about me for years, but it wasn't until Todd Barkan heard me with Grady Tate. And he went: Oh, this is the guy that Freddy's been telling me about. And next thing I know, like a week later, I get a call from Todd Barkan. It was a project for the Venus Record label to accompany this singer. Hence, now, that's 2003, it's 20 records later. I've got about 20 records with Todd. I mean, Gloria Lynne, Freddy Cole.

AAJ: You just did a CD with Gloria.

JdM: There's a young singer from Europe, from Austria, Simone. We've done four records. The last one I did is also for strings.

AAJ: Speaking of Europe, you also did Othella Dallas.

JdM: Oh, yes, Othella. Right. Nicki Parrott is now singing. We've done two records with her. The other person I studied with was Don Sebesky. Because I also arrange. So now I write a lot for Diva. They recorded two arrangements for their last CD,

AAJ: But you did all the arrangements for the Othella Dallas album.

JdM: Yes. That I did. I did the whole thing. And they recorded another one for XM Radio. So, back to Atlantic City. I had the house band gig at the Golden Nugget for three years. Then after that there were a lot of little hip, little jazz-oriented lounge gigs. And I had a name in town, so all the singers that would come in from wherever, I played for them. So it was almost like I started to have a house band again, even though technically it wasn't, at Trump's Castle. But then I started to get really bored and depressed being in Atlantic City. It would start to feel like Alaska in the winter. It was like, what are we doing here?

So finally I pushed myself to move to New York in 1988 and it was a little weird though, because Atlantic City is close enough that I could run back to do gigs. So I was running back and forth a lot. And I thought if I keep doing that, what's the point of living in New York? So then I started to, like, close one door and open another. And I was working with Jon Hendricks before I moved here, who I met through Marion Cowlings. But that gives you a little sense... I'm sort of more of a street fighter which is more how my older colleagues learned.

AAJ: That's it. You didn't sit in a classroom somewhere.

JdM: Although I have a total academic understanding of what I do, but I didn't approach it that way. I approached it more through the heart and soul and I think that's why I can relate to people like Houston Person, people of that generation.

AAJ: Well, that's how they learned. It was on the job training.

JdM: Right. Lennie Tristano's thing was singing the great jazz solos. Because his theory....what we know about Bird is that Bird would listen to Prez's recordings and learned to play every note of Prez's solos. So what Lennie would make you do was he'd make you sing along with the records. He'd take a great solo by Lester Young or Charlie Christian and sing along with it until you could just mirror not only the notes, but the feeling and inflections. Because he said you wanted to get something of the soul of the player.

I remember him saying: "You want to get something of the soul of the player, whatever the f__k that is." He was so pretentious like he knew what that was. So I remember the first solo I sang was a Lee Konitz solo on "These Foolish Things." It was a beautiful solo. He said: "You're singing all the notes. You've got a great ear, you know. But I'm not getting the feeling. I want you to go back and really get that." And then the next part was to sing it without the record which is really hard to do. And the next step was to play the solo. But he felt that you internalized it by singing it because he thought the mistake of the so-called bebop players was that they would just take the licks right from the record right to the horn. And he thought they were destined to just repeat it without internalizing it.

AAJ: That's very interesting because I find that with any good vocalist, if you really want to do a song right the first thing you do is you read the lyric. You speak the lyric. Forget about the music.

JdM: I wish all the singers that I work with would do that.

AAJ: Because if it's a good lyric, it's a conversation...

JdM: Hello...

AAJ: And also, the other thing is if you're a musician and you're doing a song, you should know the lyric.

JdM: Miles knew all the lyrics. Prez knew all the lyrics.

AAJ: Okay. Joe Derise, the guy I used to write with, people used to come in to see him all the time because Joe knew 20,000 songs. He knew songs that nobody even did anymore. [Stan] Getz used to come in and hear him sing because he wanted to hear the lyric. Mundell Lowe used to come in.

JdM: You know, I coach singers all the time. I wish they would make that number one. In fact, they should read the lyric simply to decide can I do the song. Can I relate to the sentiment. That should be number one.

AAJ: Of course, it should.

JdM: It's too often backwards. So when somebody says they don't remember the lyrics, there's no excuse for that. That should be number one. In fact, that should inform every decision made about phrasing. What notes you sing. How you phrase. That's everything.

AAJ: That kind of thinking is probably why you work so well with vocalists.

JdM: Unless you're going to be Bobby McFerrin and just be this instrumental virtuoso and totally obliterate the song. And be another instrument. That's his thing.

AAJ: But if you're a vocalist, you don't do that. You're singing a song. A song is half lyric, half music. You can't ignore one for the other.

JdM: Right. And lyric is the most important thing. I mean that's why somebody without a very great voice...

AAJ: You don't have to have great chops...

JdM: If they have the feeling.

AAJ: I saw Annie Ross. Annie's voice at this point is not where it used to be...but she's a storyteller. She gets up there and does a silly old song, "One Meatball." And it's a silly song. It was a novelty song. And you sit there and you listen to this thing, but you listen to this because of what she does. It's how she interprets.

JdM: Sylvia Sims called it "having a brain in your head." You have to have a brain in your head.

AAJ: But this is probably why you do well with vocalists because you do look at what you're playing and what you hear from that perspective.

JdM: Yes. It's totally theater. And unfortunately too many quote-unquote jazz singers, they're not thinking about that enough.'

AAJ: Aside from the fact that you do a lot of work with vocalists, you have your own group. That's a totally different approach. How you can do both because it's a different thing. And how that comes about and what the difference is for you. A lot of people don't know that about you. They think of you as an accompanist and that's it.

JdM: Exactly. Yes, that's true. Well, one of the things I do is I record every year for Venus Records—the trio does. They have themes. The last one that was released was all Thelonious Monk. But I did one that was all jazz treatments of Mozart themes. I have one that's all new Broadway and I did one recently that's all classic Latin music. But probably the most personal statement that I've done so far is called Birds of the Heart (Panda Moon, 2004), and it's available on CDBaby. And it's a bit eclectic. Some of it is Latin and some of it is straight-ahead and some of it is sort of like film music. I have a classical violinist and this duo for violin and piano.

Film music is something I'm real interested in. I want to get more involved. I'm working on a film project with an actress that's turned to directing. And that's something that really interests me because I like working with film and I like working with poets for the same reason. Because it's like a total blank check. You're basing the music on whatever the emotion or dramatic context is, but you're not forced necessarily into being in any style. And that's where composition gets to be really interesting because every gig I'm at, there are certain things that define what style it is. Okay, it's a very traditional, straight-ahead gig. Is it a Latin gig. Is it an avant-garde gig. Is it a blues singer or a cabaret singer? Because I even have a life with cabaret singers. It's all music. Of course, the cabaret singers that hire me want to go more in a jazz direction. But I like the idea of being given a total blank check creatively.

AAJ: You get a chance to do that when you do your own CDs, don't you?

JdM: Yes. But these trio CDs only come out in Japan. They really don't get circulated here. It's been good for me. I tour Japan once a year.

AAJ: That's the label with the blondes on the covers?

JdM: That's it. I've got the real sexy covers that someone of the DJs put stickers on. I toured Japan in November—it's my trio but with special guest Red Holloway and a great singer from Florida, Nicole Henry.

AAJ: I saw Nicole at Arturo Sandoval's club—it's closed now—but I saw her when they were celebrating their first anniversary.

JdM: Something I need to do here is I need to record—I'd like to do a solo record and trio record and do it here and release it in the United States. I've recorded lately a couple of times in Rudy Van Gelder's studio over in Englewood with Houston Person. I just love Rudy's piano. He's said, "Come on over here and do it," because I guess he's happy with how I play the piano. But I need to release something for here. But it's always I'm always so busy helping everybody else with their project so sometimes the challenge for me is to be disciplined enough to allocate time for myself.

AAJ: You write, too. What kind of stuff do you write?

JdM: I sure do. It kind of runs the gamut. Like some of it sounds like film music. What else am I doing on my own?

AAJ: I know there's always something coming up with you with singers and stuff like that. You're getting a reputation and everybody wants to work with you.

JdM: That's true. A lot of singers call. But, actually, I love working with singers because I'm an arranger. I like to orchestrate. But the thing about playing piano for them is it's like spontaneous orchestration.

AAJ: Yes. That's the beauty of what you. It's because of your ears and what you hear and how you learned your trade and all the years of on the job training and working with singers. You play just enough. It's the singer that's out there and you know just how to support them. And that, to me, is a gift.

JdM: Well, thank you. That's real important and creating a frame—I call it an environment for the text to breathe. Because music always has a focal point. It's always what's the focal point. When the singer is singing, that's the focal point. So everything has to support that. I'm always thinking about that. And I tend to think, too, what's the minimum—what's the minimum I can do. And you get a lot of record dates because in a recording situation, it's a very valuable thing. Because subtlety and nuance are very important. I make the comparison that playing live is more like theater and playing in the studio is more like film. Live theater is more over the top. And in film you have the equivalent of the close-up.

AAJ: That's a very good analogy.

JdM: I always think of it that way. Because you're relaxed. Frank Zappa called it "a movie for your ears."

AAJ: I know you always have things coming up. What's on your project list?

JdM: I think the next record with the trio that I make for Venus is going to be jazz interpretations—it's probably going to be the music of Paul Simon.

AAJ: Does he know about it?

JdM: He probably does.

AAJ: He's probably going to want to play guitar on it.

JdM: This Japanese label, they like to give you themes and at first I kind of resented it. But then I started to enjoy the challenge of it. The first them was like take recent Broadway hits like Le Miz and Andrew Lloyd Weber. But I had to get really creative.

AAJ: They really don't write songs.

JdM: They write eight bars and they modulate. The next one was Mozart and that was kind of fun and I did that with a drummer from Cuba who played a lot of different world rhythms. So I kind of took Mozart around the world.

AAJ: Well, that's interesting. It's not the same old, same old. But did they have these nude blondes on the cover?

JdM: Well, the Mozart record—out of respect for Mozart—I didn't know what . I was anticipating a nude woman with a wig. But out of respect to good old Mo, there's a picture of Mo on the front and a picture of me in the back. I think they didn't want to offend anybody. Then there's the Monk record and there's a woman on the front but she has her clothes on. So I've graduated to color photos and now the women have clothes as opposed to being nude. Female artists, they don't make them do that. They just take a good photo shoot. But it is called Venus Records....so I guess that's the correlation.

AAJ: You're lucky you're not doing "One Touch Of Venus."

JdM: Right. Kurt Weill. "Speak Low." I would like to do a Kurt Weill record. There's "Lost In The Stars." I'll tell you one that's really neglected—"It Never Was You." You know who recorded it? Kiri Te Kanawa. She recorded it but I don't know anyone else who recorded it. It's a great tune. I did it with Barbara Fasano. I did a Harold Arlen record with her, but she was in a cabaret show we did it in. I enjoy playing with cabaret singers. Something that cabaret singers have sometimes that we miss in jazz singers, they realize that idea we talked about—that text is number one. They're thinking about that above it all. Sometimes I think jazz singers ought to think about that a little bit more.

AAJ: Billie Holiday.

JdM: Yes. The great ones did.

AAJ: Ella [Fitzgerals] did. Carmen [McRae] did.

JdM: Oh, yeah. She was amazing. Sarah did, too.

AAJ: Back to your project list. What else is upcoming for you?

JdM: Well, recording-wise there's a CD I'll be doing with Frank Vignola. It's a kind of smooth jazz fusion thing. Also, I'll be recording with Houston Person and Pamela Luss. Then there's a project I'll be doing with Giacomo Gates. He'll be singing material by Gil Scott-Heron. As far as performances, I'll be playing for Maurice Hines on March 28 [2009] at the Triad. April starts with Mary Foster Conklin and Mark Winkler at the Laurie Beecham Theatre on the 4th . I'll be at Kitano with Karen Frick and Bernard Purdie . Then I'll be playing on two dates for Giacomo Gates—on the 18th at Flushing Town Hall and on the 22nd and 23rd at Smoke. St. Peter's Church on the 26th with Cynthia Scott. On the 27th I'll be at the Barnes & Noble Lincoln Center location with singer Dee Cassella and Jay Leonhart on bass. That should be fun. And on April 2th I'll be Upstairs at Sardi's Restaurant with Patty Clark, a singer from the west coast. And then, I'll be touring Japan again the end of June.

AAJ: Sounds like your cup of gigs runneth over.

JdM: It seems when it rains, it pours. But I shouldn't complain. In this economy, I'm really grateful to be working.

Selected Discography:

John di Martino's Romantic Jazz Trio, Magical Mystery (Venus, 2009)
Giacomo Gates, Luminosity (DoubleDave, 2008)
Houston Person, The Art and Soul of Houston Person (High Note, 2008)
Gloria Lynne, From My Heart To Yours (High Note 2008)
Nicki Parrott, Moon River (High Note, 2008)
Ray Barretto and New World Spirit, Trancedance (Circular Moves, 2008)
John di Martino's Romantic Jazz Trio, Music of the Night (Venus, 2007)
Houston Person, Thinking Of You (High Note, 2007)
John di Martino's Romantic Jazz Trio, Jazz Mozart (Venus, 2006)
Freddy Cole, Because Of You (High Note, 2006)
Mary Foster Conklin, Blues For Breakfast (Rhombus, 2006)
John di Martino's Romantic Jazz Trio, The Music of the Night (Venus, 2005)
John di Martino's Romantic Jazz Trio, So In Love (Venus, 2005)
Freddy Cole, This Love Of Mine (High Note, 2005)
John di Martino's Romantic Jazz Trio, The Sweetest Sound (Venus, 2004)
Sara James, Intimate Dialogs (Kilimanjaro, 2004)
Bob Kindred, Blue Moon (Venus, 2004)
Bobby Sanabria, Quarteto Ache (Zoho, 2004)
Grady Tate, All Love, Grady Tate Sings (Village, 2002)
John di Martino, Birds Of The Heart (Panda Moon, 2001)
Bobby Sanabria, Afro-Cuban Dream: Live And In Clave (Arabesque, 2000)
Ray Barretto, Portraits in Jazz and Clave (BMG, 1999)
Carlos "Patata" Valdez, Unico y Differente (Connector, 1999)
The Troubadors, Terra Mars (CAP, 1996)
Ray Vega, Ray Vega (Concord Picante, 1996)

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