Roberta Piket: Making a Difference

Victor L. Schermer By

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If you're a jazz musician, and you've immersed yourself in it and mastered the music, then anything you do as an artist is going to be informed and influenced by that tradition. My attitude is that if you're a jazz musician, you're playing jazz.
Roberta Piket is a jazz pianist, composer, and arranger with an exceptional range of expression. In the same tune or performance, she moves fluidly between bebop, hard bop, blues, soft and mellow, up-tempo, contrapuntal, and advanced harmonic motifs, making it all come together in meaningful, coherent statements of ideas and emotions. She thinks hard when she plays, "with big ears," as Dave Liebman once said, and a sense of story. She is a truly contemporary player, pushing the envelope. Among her accomplishments are eight CDs as a leader, a vocal composition based on the poems of Vladimir Nabokov, performances at some of New York's and Europe's top venues, and three-time guest artist on Marian McPartland's NPR radio show, Piano Jazz. Among her mentors have been pianists Walter Bishop, Jr., Jr. and Richie Beirach, and legendary saxophonist Sam Rivers. Piket is equally at home with free-style improvising as she is with standard forms. Rooted in Bill Evans' minimalist/impressionist approach, she can switch on a dime to wherever the music takes her.

All this is amply manifest in her latest recording, Sides, Colors (Thirteenth Note Records, 2011), where she supplements her usual trio format with an artistic combination of strings and horns, in beautiful arrangements of standards and some originals by herself and long-time associate/drummer, Billy Mintz. Insightfully organized into two sets or "sides" on one CD, reminiscent of the two sides of vinyl LPs, the music ranges from standards and ballads to far out harmonic changes and postmodern expressions of chaos and complexity.

All About Jazz: We'll start out with the "desert island" question. Which recordings would you bring with you to that island? The idea is to respond quickly with whatever comes to your mind.

Roberta Piket: Oh, you mean sort of like a nuclear bomb shelter scenario where you have to make a decision in a hurry! [laughter.] OK. Herbie Hancock's Speak Like a Child (Blue Note, 1968). Bill Evans' Paris Concert (Elekta, 1979).. That was the one he did just before he died, with [bassist] Marc Johnson and [drummer] Joe La Barbera. Some people don't like it, but I love it. Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. Arnold Schoenberg's Transfigured Nights. All of Beethoven's Symphonies. Elvis Costello's Greatest Hits. And Miles Davis' ESP (Columbia, 1965).

Musical Influences

AAJ: Which jazz players would you say have had the greatest influence on you?

RP: The first jazz pianists I got into as a teenager were Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans. I think that's because in so many ways they were accessible musically. They're both geniuses in their straightforward simplicity. A jazz writer once commented about Evans that "A child could play anything Bill Evans played, but a child couldn't have created it." So as an adolescent, I found him to be quite listenable. But, to go back further, the first time I self-consciously listened to jazz, I heard a trio album with the pianist Walter Bishop, Jr. My brother introduced me to that recording. As soon as I heard it, I knew I wanted to play jazz piano. Later, I absorbed and transcribed solos by all the greats. I tried to absorb things from pianists of different eras, so I transcribed a lot of Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, and Wynton Kelly, But I also transcribed Earl Hines' solos. I tried to get a good foundation in the early pianists as well as the later ones. Then, of course, I think of Chick Corea and, certainly, McCoy Tyner.

In addition, I was always learning classical music, and when I started studying with Richie Beirach in my twenties, he solidified my interest in blending jazz with classical harmony, because he was already integrating them. I always had an ear for more contemporary harmony, but Richie helped me to find my way through classical influences such as Bartok, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg. And, of course, among jazz players, there was Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, as well as the various musicians I've worked with.

AAJ: You mentioned Monk. Do you ever play his tunes? I don't recall hearing you doing any.

RP: Just last week, I was guest artist on Piano Jazz on NPR, for the third time, with Jon Weber subbing as host for Marian McPartland, and I played a solo version of "Monk's Dream." Monk's tunes are great vehicles, because you can go anywhere on them. You can play them slow or fast, inside or outside. Monk is universal. Of course, he was controversial when he first came on the scene, but now he's considered one of the giants of the music. Whether straight ahead or avant-garde players, everyone can agree on Monk.

AAJ: Monk's music is idiosyncratic yet, at the same time, most musicians can mesh with him regardless of their own style, and his music is adapted to so many diverse formats today. There's a famous duet album with Gerry Mulligan and Monk, and they're playing totally differently, yet it blends perfectly. Monk had such an ear that his music was in synch with many different genres. But, yet, Monk is Monk.

RP: Yeah, I think great composers are universal. As a player, Monk was a bit quirky, yet there's something very straightforward about it that draws you in.

AAJ: Among your early influences, I understand that your father, Frederick Piket, was a composer who grew up in Vienna, and came to the U.S. by way of Spain to get away from the Nazis in the 1930s.

RP: My father was born in 1903, grew up in Vienna, and then went to Berlin to study with a composer named Franz Schreker. Schreker and Arnold Schoenberg were the two composers with whom everyone came to Berlin to study. My father was one of his last students, because the Nazis forced Schreker out of the school, and my father also had to leave Germany. He stayed in Barcelona for a number of years, and then he was able to immigrate to the U.S. in the early 1940s. He met my mother, who was 22 years younger than him, and they married in the early 1950s. He struggled along as a composer, teaching at the New York College of Music and later at NYU. He made some headway, having some of his symphonic works performed by the New York Philharmonic under Dimitri Mitropoulos. He was also the music director for a couple of synagogues, eventually spending the last twenty years of his life at the Free Synagogue of Flushing in Queens, so he became interested in synagogue music, which at the time was musically conservative, using traditional Jewish modes called . Even though he was not very religious as such, he felt the texts were too important to be debased by those clichéd melodies. So he started composing sophisticated settings for these texts. He drew a lot of attention, and became very well known in the field of Jewish liturgical music.

AAJ: Do you yourself have any interest in liturgical music?

RP: No, not specifically. My father was a linguist and spoke English, German, Spanish, and Latin fluently, and picked up Hebrew. I myself never had that kind of interest, other than learning enough Hebrew for my Bat Mitzvah. But I have set texts to music. A few years ago I set some poems by Nabokov to music. I used a classical singer, a violinist, and a pianist. We performed it a couple of times. But I don't feel I have the knowledge or background to set liturgical texts to music.

AAJ: So, what influence did your father have on you musically?

RP: My father passed away when I was eight years old. He gave me my first piano lessons. I was taking violin lessons in school, and he didn't like the way they were teaching me, so he started teaching me violin. But I don't remember anything about how to play violin now.

AAJ: What other musical exposure did you have back then?

RP: After my father passed away, I would go up to his study, and he had a huge record collection. Listening to them, I absorbed a lot of classical influences. He also had a large collection of scores, which I would check out, and sometimes I'd go to the library as well. I grew up in Queens, NY, but I went to high school in Manhattan at Hunter College High School, which didn't have much of a music program. Sometimes I'd go to the Lincoln Center Library and check out both their classical and jazz scores. I don't have a lot of formal training in arranging, other than the standard courses every jazz major takes in music school, but maybe some of that early score reading sunk in subconsciously. Also, my father had a huge book collection, which had a big influence on me intellectually and spiritually.

AAJ: How did you first become interested in jazz as such? You were born in 1965, so you came of age in the 1970s and 1980s.

RP: By that time, fusion was coming in, and I got interested in groups like Weather Report and Brand X, the latter of which no one remembers. Phil Collins was their drummer. It was a really eclectic time, and thank God nobody was debating whether it was jazz or not, it was just about great music.

AAJ: At the time, free jazz was coming into play, and you recently did an artist's residency with one of its innovators, Sam Rivers.

RP: I got to know Sam in 2006 during a residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. He's not only an amazing musician, but also a remarkable intellect.

AAJ: It just occurred to me when you mentioned your pianist influences, you notably left out Keith Jarrett and Cecil Taylor. How come?

RP: Well, I got into Keith Jarrett a little later. I never transcribed or studied him as much as I did the others. Of course, Keith Jarrett influenced everyone who came after him, including me, but I wouldn't say he had a major stylistic or spiritual influence on me. I've listened to Cecil Taylor, and again I didn't study his work intensively, but I was certainly influenced by it. I love Cecil and have many of his records.


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