Leslie Pintchik: Two Different Kinds of Art

Bruce Lindsay By

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The title of Leslie Pintchik's third album, We're Here To Listen (Pintch Hard Records, 2010), says much about the pianist and composer's musical philosophy. She recognizes the importance of technical skill, but she also values instinct, the open mind and the dismissal of boundaries between musical genres. It's an approach that Pintchik emphasizes throughout this interview, conducted by phone from her New York home. It's also readily identifiable in her writing, her playing and her selection of songs by other writers. The result is a body of work that is often understated yet always evocative and beautiful.

Pintchik's own route into the life of a jazz musician was unconventional: her early career was as an academic specializing in 17th-century English literature, and she was a Teaching Assistant at Columbia University when she made the decision to move into music. This was not so much a leap into the unknown as a return to her musical roots, as she explains: "My father played tenor sax as a hobby. He loved music, and I think he hoped to get me or one of my two brothers to take up an instrument. I refused to learn to play—it's about the only thing I've ever refused to do—and it wasn't until I was at college that I started fooling around a little bit with music. But I spent most of my time reading, because I was aiming for a career as an academic. ... While I was in graduate school, I was still casually playing a little. Then things changed gradually. I was drawn to the music as I began to really listen and hear the depth in it. Then I decided that if I wanted to play this music with the depth and intensity that it demands, I couldn't be both a musician and an academic."

Eventually, in the early '80s, Pintchik made the decision to concentrate on music. "Some of my colleagues and friends at Columbia romanticized my decision," says Pintchik, "telling me that I was leaving 'dry academics' to go into jazz. But for me, both of them are terrific things to do, but I didn't feel that I could actually achieve both. So I made a pretty sharp left and became a jazz musician. That was it."

Pintchik turned to the piano with enthusiasm, but decided against a return to formal college-based study, preferring to work privately with tutors, including Bruce Barth. She also started to perform publicly, "Definitely before I knew as much as I would have liked to," as she puts it. Her early gigs were "tricky," and did not put Pintchik into the world of jazz. "My first gigs were in a Hawaiian Revue—with dancing girls, really commercial—and I felt like a fish out of water. This was not what I went into music for."

Things gradually improved, and Pintchik began to play a regular brunch gig at Bradley's in Greenwich Village. It was this gig that led to her first major jazz job, with bassist Red Mitchell. "Red was living in Sweden, but he would come back to the States for a month or two at a time. He met me at Bradley's and heard a tape of me playing with Scott Hardy (now Pintchik's husband and bassist). Scott was playing guitar at the time, and Red liked the warmth of the music. He asked us to play with him for a series of Sunday night gigs at the club, and finally I was free from playing the Hawaiian shows."

Pintchik's longstanding trio of fellow musicians is another big part of her music. As well as Hardy, drummer Mark Dodge and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi have also worked with her for around 13 years. "I met Scott at a jam session when I was just a beginning player. Music came before the personal side of things. He was already an accomplished player and seemed so musical, as well as being a terrific person. I met Mark when I was playing at a restaurant, and he was in another band at the venue. He sounded like he might be a nice fit for my music, it was an instinctual thing. I heard Satoshi play at the Blue Note. The minute I heard the subtlety and power of his music, I just loved it. I don't get the chance to play with him as much as I'd like to, but he's always a terrific addition to the group."

Pintchik has been a professional musician since the mid-'80s, but she did not release a recording as leader for almost 20 years. Her debut album, So Glad To Be Here (Ambient Records) appeared in 2004. The second album, Quartets (Ambient Records), came out in 2007. The third, We're Here To Listen, and a DVD, Leslie Pintchik Quartet Live In Concert, were both released on Pintchik's own Pintch Hard label in 2010. Such a release schedule suggests that the pianist has a very considered approach to recording: she agrees, but also says that "It probably should be less considered. Even before a recording session, I have more new tunes ready to come to life. So yes, there is probably too much space between albums, especially if you want to keep some sort of presence on the scene."

The DVD, Leslie Pintchik Quartet Live In Concert, shows her performing in an intimate setting. The performance was part of the Shandalee Music Festival's winter series of concerts known as the New York Showcase, and the venue is a family townhouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. "That's why the surroundings are so nice. One thing that cracked me up when I saw the footage is that there's a Buddha over my shoulder through the performance," says Pintchik, laughing. "The room is full of wonderful paintings and sculpture; there's some wonderful Asian art. Also, the piano is really excellent."

Leslie Pintchik Quartet, from left: Leslie Pintchik, Scott Hardy, Mark Dodge, Satoshi Takeishi

Pintchik's comment about the quality of the piano is a reminder that pianists must always be ready to play a different instrument every time they perform at a new venue. Her description of how she deals with the issue reveals a very organic relationship with the instrument: "I like a warm, round sound, and sometimes I feel like the piano I'm playing is shrieking. That's not the mood I want to convey. So I might change what I plan to play—take a certain part of my repertoire that's more suitable for the instrument. Ideally you try to create a sound in your head and reproduce it through the instrument, and there is something spiritual about that. So in difficult situations, I try to remind myself that it's up to the musician—the instrument wants to play music, but it can be a challenge. Sometimes I fail that challenge. Once I was playing a piano that decayed really quickly—it had no bloom, like speaking to someone with no affect. The first half of the gig, I was almost whacking it because I was so upset, but then after the break I decided to be more relaxed, to try to get a more vocal quality from the instrument. And it helped, at least in terms of how I was feeling."
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