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Noah Haidu: Carving Out His Place

R.J. DeLuke By

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New York-based pianist Noah Haidu came to jazz through the blues, listening to the searing, soulful guitar moans of Buddy Guy and Albert King. But his training, at the age of six, had its advent in classical music. He also likes to experiment with electronics.

All these things go into the musical blender of one of the New York scene's young piano talents; out of it comes Haidu's open approach to the instrument—part in the jazz tradition and part willing to extend into other territories.

Haidu grew up in the 1980s, listening to a variety of music. He recalls when rock band The Police broke up and its renowned bassist, Sting, formed his own group, surrounding himself with jazz men including saxophonist Branford Marsalis, keyboardist Kenny Kirkland, drummer Omar Hakim and bassist Darryl Jones to accent his unique sound and bring a sparkling edge to his rock/pop offerings.

"There were some jazz solos on those records. I heard the band play live and that caught my attention pretty well," says Haidu. "I was hearing jazz, Branford Marsalis albums from the '80s. Blues. I used to play guitar as well. I would go hear Buddy Guy and B.B. King. Albert Collins. The blues guys really caught my fancy, [but] I started getting more into jazz. Some of jazz pianists that have a blues attitude in their playing, like Gene Harris, Oscar Peterson, Wynton Kelly—anything with a bluesy, soulful thing" attracted the young man's attention.

"I always think that's an interesting way to get into jazz. Blues. You follow bluesy jazz guys. When you get down to it, Charlie Parker is a bluesy bebop player. Sonny Stitt and Parker have a lot of blues in them. There's a lot of continuity in that music for me."

There's also evidence of that continuity in Slipstream (Posi-Tone, 20101), Haidu's first album as leader. It features an array of fine musicians like trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, saxophonist Jon Irabagon and drummer Willie Jones III. All the songs, save a quirky, catchy arrangement of "Just One of Those Things," are penned by Haidu. It's an album where the songs really lock into a sweet groove and the soloists are outstanding. A funky soulfulness invades the first cut, "Soulstep," which has the delightful feel of a 1950s Blue Note recording. Meanwhile, "Break Tune" has an edgy, modern, funky feel with which Pelt, Irabagon and Haidu have plenty of fun. Pelt, one of the most superb trumpeters on the scene, blazes throughout the disk, while Haidu is rich and swinging.

"I wanted something that had melodies people could easily relate to," said Haidu, who is already writing for his second record. "I've heard about people that have tunes a half-hour long with lots of over-the-top arrangements. I just tried to do something that has a sophistication and hipness to it, but with melodies and groove that people could relate to. That's my approach to music. It can be as complex as you want, as long as people can get into it and it doesn't push people away. You shouldn't have to have a PhD to understand it and enjoy it.

"There are influences on there, everything from '70s R&B," says the pianist, "a little bit of Earth, Wind & Fire on one of the tunes, to stuff that's influenced by Kenny Kirkland, the pianist, that kind of goes a little beyond straight-ahead. There's even a touch of some of the more jazzy hip-hop artists, like MeShell NdegeOcello. Subtle influences I work in from different places." Swing, he admits, is also a big part of his style and it's a sweet, swinging production.

The band he assembled, which operationally gets to play the music on gigs, consists largely of cats he met at New York City's jam sessions over the years. He and Pelt were new on the scene when they started playing sessions at [New York club] Cleopatra's Needle. He says of Pelt, "He's one of the few people who understand how to play a melody. He can really get into the song both as an improviser—the feeling of the song—and also in the melody." Haidu met Irabagon most recently at a gig he was called for. "Right from the rehearsal—the same kind of thing with Jeremy—[Irabagon] understood the tunes and the harmonies. It didn't matter if it was a modern tune or if it had kind of a swinging, soulful attitude. He seemed to be able to bring all that together. He's a cutting-edge improviser, I love hearing him play on my more modern tunes."

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