I love my piano. It stands in the middle of my living room. Every time I play it, it feels like I am connecting to an external part of me. There is a bond that is special and fragile. Last December when I spent a lot of time writing music on my piano, an acquaintance came by and played on my instrument in an insensitive, fearful and disrespectful way. I felt that the vibe around my piano and the bond and trust between me and my instrument was violated and that I needed to rebuild my connection with it.
So if you develop such a connection with your instrument how does it feel to not be able to take it with you on the road?
The reality of a pianist's life is that you have to make a connection with many instruments and quickly find a way to express yourself on them. Your sound has to come through and you have to find a way to be at ease technically on the instrument. A considerable amount of my music was improvised or written on pianos I had just 'met' or barely known. The instruments we play on stage or in the studio are not our own, we can't lower the bridge, get new skins or change the frets to make the instrument fit us better. The solely personal space for our music is only within us, the instrument is already in the outside world waiting to speak in our voice. It is a beautiful symbol of how the best outcome of your life is what your spirit will do with your circumstances.
There are a million ways to touch a piano and you can practice that but even more you learn about it on the road. If our desire is to speak through and with the instrument, inspiration teaches us those million ways and our touch and technique can adjust to get our sound out of any instrument. It, of course, starts with listening to the piano, how it responds and what it is willing to do. That's what I do during sound checks (which are sometimes very short). Even those few who insist and have the privilege to request a certain piano for their concerts have to get to know the instrument. We have to welcome a new partner every time we open ourselves up to tell our most intimate stories and quickly form a bond with it so we can do it together. It is often a lesson in humility but more often than not it is a pleasant experience that serves our music well.
There are near horror stories, of course: like my recent solo piano appearance as a headliner of a small festival where the pedal of the piano fell apart during the second tune. Together with Randall Horton (a pianist and once close associate of Duke Ellington who happened to be in the audience and offered to help) we had to come up with a makeshift solution involving a roll of duct tape so I'd be able to go on with the concert and make it a musical success. We pianists are not the only ones who have to or are able to sound like ourselves on anything we find on stage. But we do it all the time. And since we are expected to deal with it we rarely get credit for it unless the story is a memorable one like the one I mentioned above. Bob Moses was telling me a drummer's story about Philly Joe Jones who came to a jam session Bob also went to. Bob, who was a teenager at the time, tried the drum set and found it terrible, practically unplayable. Then Philly Joe Jones walked in, sat down at the drums, quickly adjusted them and immediately sounded like Philly Joe. Bassist John Lockwood told me his story about the time he played with Gary Burton and the presenters forgot to get a bass for him. The band went to a college party the night before the concert and John found a coat rack therean old stripped down bass. He borrowed it, put strings and a bridge on and played it the following night.
Personally, for concerts, I draw the line at the following: the piano's action has to be well regulated, also not too light, the piano has to be in tune, the pedal needs to work and the instrument had to be built by a reputable piano builder. When it comes to recording I am extremely particular about the piano since I have the chance to choose which studio I go to. Our latest trio CD Natural Instinct
was recorded in a small New Jersey studio that has a 9-foot very well maintained Steinway.
There is a great photo of Art Tatum enraptured in music playing a very questionable-looking old piano with glass rings on it. It is a reminder that jazz piano music was put on the map by early jazz greats playing often poorly maintained instruments. We must find inspiration in their ability to transcend their circumstances and also realize our own fortune to be able to play on mostly good instruments. When occasionally a heroic effort is needed to compensate for an instrument's shortcomings, it, so to speak, separates the men from the boys. But the quality of a performance really comes down to our reason for playing, whether we have something to tell. If our stories are strong they will find a way to be heard.