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Joe Alterman: The Upside of Down


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Yesterday I spent the day writing and riding out Hurricane Henri while listening to Joe Alterman's new album, The Upside of Down (Ropeadope). Joe not only is a gifted jazz pianist but also is a rarity in jazz—someone who sifts through the history of the jazz piano like an archeologist. He also is immensely likeable. His upbeat disposition serves him well, since he has befriended many of his jazz heroes and learned quite a bit from them. It shows in the music on his new recording. He has reached a new maturity as an artist and the results are quite exciting, as you'll hear at the bottom of this post.

I've known Joe for years, all the way back to 2013, when the late and esteemed jazz writer and critic Nat Hentoff and I used to talk about him over the phone. Nat heard what I heard and it was astonishing. A young pianist was continuing the tradition of the piano's wisemen. That year, when Nat wrote about Joe in The Wall Street Journal (here), he quoted me on what makes Joe special. 

For his new live album, Joe was joined by Nathaniel Schroeder on bass and Marlon Patton on drums. The liner notes were written by Les McCann, Ramsey Lewis and Ahmad Jamal. Not a bad trio to have in your corner.

Here's McCann on Joe:
I first met Joe at the Blue Note nine years ago, but it feels like I’ve known him forever. From the moment we met I knew that I had met someone very special. And then to hear him play…WOW! It was mind-blowing. I said, “Damn! What a great pianist. Damn!” It reminded me quite a bit of my beginning in the business. The joy that I feel in who he is reminds me of myself and how I grew: always having fun, always learning and always evolving.

Here's Ramsey on Joe:
Joe Alterman is a breath of fresh air on the music scene. I love hearing him play! It’s happy music with tasty meat on the bones! He covers all the bases creatively, rhythmically and harmonically, and his playing is destined to reach a wide, wide audience. I've known Joe for the best of ten years and I deeply appreciate our friendship.

And here's Ahmad on Joe:
I have had the pleasure of listening to Joe Alterman’s latest, recorded at Birdland, February 2020. One of Mr. Alterman's gifts is listening to and drawing from the past Masters of this Art Form that has contributed immensely to the present world of music.

Yesterday, I must have listened to Joe's album five consecutive times. Each listen was a joy. Joe plays with a commanding ease but the style is flavored by the elegance of Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, Red Garland, Ramsey Lewis, Les McCann, Erroll Garner and others. Joe hasn't lifted their licks or approaches. He simply has soaked his ears in their sound, and their swing and respect for space has rubbed off on his own style.

What the three artists above recognize is that Joe can play and that he respects his jazz elders and learns from them. It has always astonished me that so many young jazz pianists today live in a time when the three pianists here are still available for artistic advice and technique lessons. Yet Joe is one of the few who bothered to befriend them and talk to them in-depth about their art and craft.

As you listen to Joe's new album, you will hear the feel of these legendary artists coming through Joe's fingers. Joe always had the talent. What makes him exceptional is that he had the good manners to respect older jazz artists and the courage to ask them questions about their playing. Sounds simple but Joe is one of the few who made the effort. And it shows.

JazzWax clips: Here's Steve Allen's Pretty Eyes, Pretty Smile...

Here's Jule Styne and Bob Merrill's Funny Girl...

And here's Joe's own The Last Time I Saw You...


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