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Misha Piatigorsky: Invent Your Own Bicycle


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If you want to learn how to play jazz, you've got to invent your own bicycle.
Misha Piatigorsky Russian-born pianist Misha Piatigorsky fled from behind the Cold-War-era Iron Curtain with his family to make a new life in a small New Jersey town. He started out as a classical pianist before discovering jazz. Since that discovery, he's moved from bebop to Brazilian to groove music, melding them all seamlessly on his record, Uncommon Circumstance (Misha Music, 2007). Jason Crane, AAJ contributor and host of The Jazz Session, spoke with Piatigorsky in April 2007.

All About Jazz: All but one of these tunes are your compositions, right?

Misha Piatigorsky: Actually, all but two. One was written by my father.

AAJ: Let's start there. Your father was a theater composer, right?

MP: Yeah, in the Cold War in Russia, he was composer and musical director for the Taganka Theatre, which was a really cool theater in Moscow which put on a lot of progressive plays and musicals about the West, and jazz-rock operas—that kind of stuff.

AAJ: Was it an underground theater?

MP: A little bit underground, but it was very well known. It was a really nice gig for him. He had a good time.

AAJ: Did you first become exposed to music and composition by watching what your dad was doing?

MP: After I was born, my father started writing songs for me as a kid. He started writing children's songs alongside what he was doing at the Taganka Theatre. He started collaborating with a bunch of lyricists, really hip lyricists in Moscow. And he started writing these children's songs for me to sing that had a lot of double meanings—political double-meanings about going to the West. This was during the Cold War when we were all behind the Iron Curtain.

This is how I started being exposed to all these songs. He and my mom would sing them to me, and he would play them with his friends. I think when I was five years old, I performed some of these songs on the Moscow national television [channel]. The song that is on the record Fishing Boats was one of them, one of the songs that I've known from my childhood. I thought it was the right thing to do to include it on this record.

AAJ: Does it have lyrics?

MP: Yeah.

AAJ: Do they have a double meaning?

MP: It's a metaphor. The Russian title means something like, "What are the boats feeling melancholy about?" That's a loose translation. The lyric is about when the boats go out to sea, what are they missing? There's a lot of hidden meaning in that song. All of the songs he was writing had that sort of double meaning in conjunction with the West.

AAJ: You were born in the early 1970s, and you started playing piano when you were about five. Did you start with classical piano?

MP: Everyone starts with classical music. I was classically trained until I started discovering jazz on my own. My dad made it very clear that he wasn't going to teach me anything. That is, if I wanted to learn anything, I would have to discover it on my own.

AAJ: Why do you think he did that?

Misha Piatigorsky MP: I think he felt that that's the right way to do it. If you want to learn how to play jazz, you've got to invent your own bicycle. I totally agree with him. At some point, he hooked me up with a teacher and said, "OK, now it's time for you to go study with a jazz pianist." Because he's not really a jazz pianist. As a kid I would watch him sit down at the piano and play Beatles songs and sing Beatles songs. He's from the Beatles generation. I was always very jealous of the fact that he could do that. I would play the same songs for half a year—I would learn my Rachmaninoff and my Chopin—and that's all I was able to do.

AAJ: You and your family came to the U.S. when you were eight?

MP: Yes.

AAJ: Why did you do that? Was that your father's decision?

MP: I'm a Russian Jew. Russia is a very anti-Semitic country. It always has been. At some point, I came home from playing outside with the kids—I was like five or six years old—and I came up to my father, and I asked him, "What's a 'dirty Jew' mean?" My dad said, "Why?" I said, "The kids were calling me that in our backyard." So that's when he looked at my mother and made the decision that it was time to go.

The going process was extremely difficult. You had to apply for a visa to leave and you had to wait. We waited for two years to get permission to leave Moscow. In that time, you can't work. You lose your job. You become an enemy of the state. So my father had to stop working at the theater, and my grandfather was supporting us for about two years. But then we got the acceptance to leave, because my parents had no "secrets," and then we went to the West.

AAJ: When your family was asking to leave, were they asking to leave permanently?

MP: Of course. You become an enemy of the state and you're asking to leave for political or religious reasons. We were political refugees.

AAJ: So you were seeking political asylum in the U.S.?

MP: All the immigrants at that time were considered political refugees.

AAJ: Who came to the U.S.? Your mom and dad and you and...

MP: My brother. My parents kept waiting and waiting and waiting to get permission to leave, and they weren't getting it. They wanted to have another kid, so my mom got pregnant. She had my baby brother, who's eight years younger than me, and a month later we got a letter saying, "You have three weeks to leave. Pack your bags and get the hell out."

AAJ: Did your father have a job lined up in the States?

MP: Nope. It was a 100% shot in the dark. We had some friends who invited us to come to New Jersey, to a community where there were no Russians. He was an artist and his wife was a piano teacher. What my father had started doing the minute he lost his job as musical director was learning how to become a piano technician. He started working with a great master and was really honing his skills to become a piano tuner and technician. He knew when we came to America he couldn't support a family of four being a musician.

By the time we came to the States, he was already a great tuner and a great restorer, and so that's what he became. He was prepared to do anything—work in a garage fixing cars, whatever needed to be done to support his family. But it worked out that he started getting calls. People would come to our apartment and pick him up and drive him to their homes. And today he's considered one of the greatest piano technicians and restorers in the area where he lives.

Misha Piatigorsky AAJ: Did any of you speak English when you arrived?

MP: My father spoke—or at least thought he spoke—English. He was studying English in school, I guess. He had an ability to communicate a little bit, but basically we all started from zero. I knew no English. I went directly to third grade, and I started learning English from my friends.

AAJ: This was in the early 80s. Were you in an ESL [English as a Second Language] program or just picking it up as you went along?

MP: ESL didn't really exist at that time. We were the second Russian family that immigrated to Somerville, New Jersey. I was like a Martian, like a freak show. People came around to our apartment just to look at us like, "Who are these people? They're from a different world." I had an ESL teacher that I would spend one hour with a week. But I became fluent in a year. When you're eight years old, you absorb everything like a sponge.

AAJ: When did you first start picking up the taste for jazz?

MP: My father always loved Oscar Peterson. There was always jazz being played at the house. He's always been a big fan of Ella [Fitzgerald], Satchmo [Louis Armstrong]... So I heard that growing up. Plus Blood, Sweat & Tears, the Beatles. That's the record collection that I come from.

AAJ: When you moved to the States, did you continue to study with a piano teacher?

MP: Yes. Even when I came to the States, I always had Russian teachers. I continued studying classical piano.

AAJ: You had Russian teachers even when you were in Somerville?

MP: Yes. [laughs] I've always had only Russian teachers teaching me classical piano. "The Russian School." [laughs] They always stay in the bag. My last classical teacher was a woman that I started studying with when I was about ten years old. I totally attribute my sound to her. All she did with me was work with me on sound for all those years from the age of ten until I was twenty years old. She taught at Rutgers too, and that's where I went. I completely attribute most of my musicality to her. She was a big person in my life.

AAJ: You were talking about your dad's record collection. Were you playing on a piano along with these records? How did you first decide that you wanted to try to play jazz?

MP: When I was about 16 years old, my father had this Claude Bolling record—this boogie-woogie jazz pianist from France. There was this one CD in the house, which was Claude Bolling's Original Boogie-Woogie (Philips, 1968). Solo piano. The first track was this tune called "3/4-6/8 Boogie." That was the first song I ever transcribed. I realized that I wanted to learn how to do it. My dad said, "OK, go ahead. Figure it out." And I did. That was sort of my start to understanding that I had to sit down and figure something out. Hear it five million times and understand what's happening in one measure. And when I get it, it's mine. I own it. That's how it all started.

AAJ: Did the other three people in your house get sick of hearing the "3/4-6/8 Boogie"?

MP: Yeah. It's so funny. My parents, my mother, had to fight with me for years about practicing. I've always hated practicing. Growing up, I came home from school and had to practice for two hours. I couldn't play ball or ride my bike. That's what I really wanted to do, but that was part of my daily duties—come home, sit down and practice for two hours. When I started playing jazz and realizing that this is something I really wanted to do...

Misha Piatigorsky I was about 17 when I realized that this is what I wanted to do. I always knew that I wasn't going to be a classical pianist. I used to play in some classical piano competitions, and I won a few of them. And I would get so incredibly nervous, and I hated that feeling of being nervous to perform. So when I started getting into jazz and spending hours and hours and hours at the piano—in a way, my parents were very happy, because they had never got that out of me.

My grand piano was always in my room. I had a little Steinway baby grand. It's now in my room. I grew up in a small, three-bedroom house in Jersey. I remember my dad walking in at two o'clock in the morning and saying, "OK, that's enough. We can't sleep. You've got to go to bed." But I moved out pretty soon after that and went to Rutgers.

I went to Rutgers because I got to study with Kenny. [Pianist] Kenny Barron was my man from the age of 18 to 22. I attribute so much of what I do to Kenny. I came in completely green. I had no idea what jazz was. I spent about one year studying jazz before college. Then I came to Kenny and I realized, "I need to learn everything that he does." I recorded every lesson, and I would go home and copy. Try to copy what he does and how he does it, measure by measure. His absolutely perfect lines. The most musical lines in the world. That's how I started learning.

AAJ: Did he give you other pianists to listen to and other jazz artists?

MP: Of course. He'd say, "You should listen to this and to this," but I was studying Kenny Barron. I was heavily studying Kenny Barron. I think that's a really important thing to do—to actually take a person you love and really understand what they do and how they do it. How do they make that sound? How do they swing? What are the lines that they use? What do they do rhythmically? That's all I wanted to do. I wanted to be Kenny Barron. And I was playing a lot like him. Not as well, of course, but I was playing all his lines. It took me many years to get out of that.

AAJ: We're almost up to the present day. After you graduated from Rutgers and left Kenny, you went to the Manhattan School of Music and got your Masters there. Who did you study with there?

MP: I had [pianist] Jaki Byard for half a year, and then I had [pianist] Eliane Elias for a year and a half.

AAJ: Wow. Those are two different players.

MP: You think? [laughs]

AAJ: So let's talk about the new record, Uncommon Circumstance. Let's start by talking about the trio with bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Ari Hoenig. How did you meet those guys and start playing with them?

Misha Piatigorsky MP: I've known both of them for a long time. I met Hans when I was still at the Manhattan School of Music. He graduated the year I came in, but we met each other because we played on somebody's senior recital. Right away I thought, "Wow, this guy is a bad cat. I love everything he's doing. Besides the fact that he grooves so heavily, he's hearing every note I'm playing."

There's a relationship that pianists and bass players have. You can really tell when a bassist knows everything that you do. It's the same kind of relationship you have with a drummer. When I play with certain drummers, I know that everything I do, they're in front of it. It's like a game. With a bassist, it's exactly the same thing. I can go to any harmony I want, I can do anything in the world, and Hans knows what I'm going to do before I do it. That freaks me out.

So I've known Hans for many years, and I've always adored playing with him. He's done many projects with me. I've produced many projects that he's been on. When I won the [Thelonious] Monk [Composers] Competition, he played bass on the tune that I produced, called "Low Talk."

Ari I've also known for many years. We're about the same age. We played together in the past plenty of times. I hadn't played with him in a little while. When I started doing this project and writing the music for this particular record—this is sort of the stuff I've been playing for the past few years—I realized I needed to make a recording of this. And I really wanted to put a trio together that would be, "This is what I'm doing today."

His name just popped into my head. I e-mailed him, and I said, "Hey man, I want you to play my new stuff with me." We played a few gigs together, and I realized from the first rehearsal that this is the trio I'm going to record with.

AAJ: A lot of the music on this record is very groove-oriented, very modern-sounding. Will you talk about how you got to here from where you were as a jazz pianist?

MP: [laughs] I went through many different periods of Misha life. I was very much a jazzhead for years, especially when I was studying in school. I was like a little bebop Nazi. I even remember a time when I was at a jazz festival and I went to a major club after one of the main performances, and [trumpeter] Roy Hargrove's band was playing. They were swinging their asses off. At the end, all of a sudden [drummer] Greg Hutchinson started playing a hip-hop groove. Roy picked up the mic and started rapping. I was so offended! I was like, "Oh, what are they doing? This is horrible!" [laughs] Thinking back to that, it really makes me laugh.

And then I got disenchanted a little bit with trying to promote a trio when I was younger, and the fact that no one really cared about the music that I was playing. I completely stopped playing swing for quite some time. That's when I discovered Brazilian music and I got heavily into Brazilian music. I spent three or four years playing only Brazilian music. Then I got really heavily into [singer] D'Angelo. I totally adore him and [singer] Erikah Badu. When she did that record Mama's Gun (Kedar, 2000), it completely blew me away in terms of the grooves. What [Roots drummer] ?uestlove plays.

Then I started writing music that incorporated classical harmonies. Mostly everything I play right now has a sort of neo-classical sound—very traditional classical harmonies. The fact that I adore hip-hop and any kind of groove-oriented music—I kind of put those two together, and that's how the music came out on this record.

AAJ: For how long have you been working on the tunes that are on this record?

Misha Piatigorsky MP: Some of the tunes are really old, like "So High," which I wrote seven or eight years ago and just never had a chance to record. It seemed like the perfect song to add on this record, in terms of the concept.

I lived in Israel between 2004 and 2005 for about nine months, because my wife was studying there. I got a lot of inspiration living in Jerusalem, and I wrote a lot of the tunes on the record there.

"I Fall In Love Too Easily," the standard that I play that goes into that crazy vamp, that happened in Israel.

AAJ: Let's talk about "I Fall In Love Too Easily." As you said, it goes into a crazy vamp and becomes a completely other composition. Did that happen on the bandstand one night?

MP: No. That's way too complex a vamp for me to come up with on the bandstand. [laughs] It was one of those compositional things. I sat down and worked it out one day. I love that song, and I decided to reharmonize it, which I did. And then that vamp kind of came about. Recently there was a review of the record, and one writer called it "a Russian funeral march," which I thought was really funny. Kind of fitting. It just kind of came out, and I have no way of explaining why those two are together. I tried putting that vamp to a few other ballads. I was considering putting it at the end of "Lonely Butterfly." It just didn't work. It was like, "This is the vamp to 'I Fall In Love Too Easily,' and that's it."

Selected Discography

Misha Piatigorsky, Uncommon Circumstance (Misha Music, 2007)

Misha Piatigorsky, Aya (Misha Music, 2007)

Misha Piatigorsky, Trio del Sol (Misha Music, 2005)

Misha Piatigorsky, Piatigorsky Ensemble (Misha Music, 2001)

Misha Piatigorsky, Bootleg (Misha Music, 1999)

Misha Piatigorsky, Pure Imagination (Misha Music, 1997)

Misha Piatigorsky, The Happenin' (Misha Music, 1996)

Photo Credits

All photos courtesy of Misha Piatigorsky

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