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Take Five with Josh Hanlon

Josh Hanlon BY

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About Josh Hanlon
Josh Hanlon's love of music has spanned five continents. He has played piano with luminaries of country music, musical theatre and film, and almost every other genre, but he is first and foremost driven by a love of jazz. He has two albums to his credit as a leader and several more as a sideman, and maintains an active career as a freelance musician, and member of Stockton Helbing's Quintet.

He was born in Nova Scotia to a musical family. As a high-school teen, Hanlon was already appearing with the St. F.X. Big Band on national radio program JazzBeat. Following undergraduate jazz study at St Francis Xavier University, he worked as musical theater pianist, jam-band keyboardist, and shipboard musical director. Eventually, Josh moved to Texas to study at the most storied institution in jazz education, the University of North Texas, where he flourished and performed with the "1:00."

Hanlon taught jazz piano at UNT, Brookhaven College, St Francis Xavier University and Southwestern Baptist. He performed with Jimmy Cobb, Ernie Watts and Doc Severinsen and many more. In addition to his position at Tarleton State, He maintains an active playing career in North Texas, with loving wife, Michelle.

Piano, Keyboards

Teachers and/or influences?
I've studied piano with Brent Bannerman, Tony Genge, Peter Allen, Earl MacDonald, Stefan Karlsson, and Dan Haerle, with a couple of lessons along the way over the years from Hal Galper, Oliver Jones, and Bernard Wright. They might have to reset the internet if I try to type in all my influences, but I could narrow it down to say Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Kenny Wheeler, Oscar Peterson, Barry Harris, Charlie Parker, Chick Corea, Joe Henderson, John Coltrane, Michel Petrucciani, and Esbjorn Svensson.

I knew I wanted to be a musician when...
I've always been surrounded by music, making it, singing it, and eventually, playing piano. I come from a large family that is centered around musical gathering.

While I was a terrible piano student at first, I eventually started to catch on, around the time my voice changed... for the worse. My piano teacher was the local band directorlla, so he recruited me for the jazz band. I guess I just needed to sink my teeth into something, and music was that thing. My Dad eventually had to come downstairs one night, and unplugged the headphones I was wearing, telling me that he couldn't stand the clacking of the keys, but I was welcome to play as late as I wanted...

A short time later, I remember going for a walk in the crisp autumn as the leaves were changing... this is really something in Nova Scotia, that definitive sense of four seasons. Anyhow, I remember having the thought... I'm not going to do anything else, music is the thing... I've already moved the ship on course, and now it's time to commit to the journey.

Your sound and approach to music.
Make the composer sound great, make the bassist sound great, make the drummer sound great, etc.

Make a good choice, do something thoughtful, connect with the audience, commune with the lineage.

Try to remember that nuance trumps complexity, and that we should not fear the endings of good ideas, because the memories of good ideas linger best.

Whatever happens, you start from now, always.

Your teaching approach
I start my teaching approach with some trust that my students are here for a reason, and that link to music, and understanding that their quest is mine also links us together. Good teaching is about empathy, association, and content. My job is to figure out what points of navigation my student can chart their course by, by knowing who they are, and what they are good at. Once I do that, I do everything in my power to get them hooked on the lineage, sound, and spirit of the music, to move from their personal narrative that brings them to jazz, and join the larger picture. Theory, Etudes, Listening, Tune-learning, Reading... they are all means to that end.

If I'm lucky enough to get a student that already can converse in the larger dialogue, then I try to offer what I always look for in my own practicing. In that sense, I feel like I'm an agent of the Department of Transportation, or a Municipal Road Crew... first I look for potholes in my playing, making sure the existing pathways are safe, and well maintained, then I chart the well travelled roads, and search for opportunities to build new infrastructure, widening lanes, building bridges, and seeking out new destinations.

Your dream band
I love to play music. Often. The geographical constraints of Dallas, coupled with the busy schedule of my favorite musicians means that we make great music once in a while. My dream would be to build on that with regular performances. That, and the opportunity to throw a wrench in it and have someone new show up... I feel that a combination of musicians that plays together often is great, and playing music with fantastic players you don't know is great, but having a band that mostly knows each other, but with a little "fresh meat" is ideal.

Road story: Your best or worst experience
I had a brand new regular steakhouse gig... Friday nights for the foreseeable future, great piano, my choice of musicians. A couple came up to us on break and the gentleman handed me his business card, asking me to keep in touch, and leaving a note on the card saying that he was thrilled, because they had finally found the kind of music he had been searching for in the city for over a decade. At the same time, a peculiar husband and wife team, claiming to be brother and sister, requested to "sit in" on the break. Well, somehow, the duo convinced the owner, sitting at the bar, to let this happen, and the man brought in a small amplifier, a wireless microphone, and an iPod. She then proceeded to sing karaoke to each table, one after the other, in a very showy, and provocative fashion, singing to tracks. The owner, who is buying this hook, line and sinker, decided that he should feed the band, and orders us a round of drinks, as the gig is scooped out from under us as she pulled out every conceivable way to pander to the room. To sit there, powerless, while eating admittedly great food, and fine beverage, watching our regular gig evaporate before our eyes over the course of an hour, was one of the most surreal experiences of my career.

Road story: Your best or worst experience
I love the Kitchen Café in Dallas. The owner, Tony Hakim, is a wonderful host, and excellent musician. Great sound, good crowds, and a fantastic piano... always well maintained. I always feel that I play to, or above my potential when I'm there, and I can't wait to bring my quartet in to do the new CD release.

Did you know...
Remember the week that Billy Bob Thornton sparred with the now infamous Canadian radio host Jian Gomeshi? Well, I do! (watch video) I was playing piano for country superstar Ray Price, who was touring with his former bassist, the one and only Willie Nelson, and Billy Bob was the third act. Anyhow, Jian had promised not to bring up Thornton's movie career in a radio interview promoting his Massey Hall show. At this point, Billy began to sabotage the interview in legendary fashion. Billy had let out on the radio that the Toronto audiences were like "Mashed Potatoes without the Gravy" Needless to say, he wasn't particularly well received that night in concert.

A few nights later, in Upstate New York, my bandmates and I ended up on Billy's bus on an off night. We sat in the bus and listened to track after track of Billy's band's music, Rockabilly stuff, well produced, but pretty consistent in tone and timbre. Anyhow, somehow it is eventually 5:30am, and we are still listening to tunes... I begin to nod off, and for a second I am unaware of my surroundings. Billy Bob then calls out my name, exclaiming: "Josh!" "Josh!" "Stay with me here... this is what's important!" waking me up to play me another track.

The same night, we had hung out with Woody Harrelson on the crew bus, who had just been in trouble with the media in New York for some reason... for six hours, my bandmates and I were caught in the infamous center of the media universe, and the next day, unlike the stars involved, we simply went on with our lives. I have to wonder if Andy Warhol would count that against my 15 minutes?

The first jazz album I bought was:
Best of Bird on Savoy... on cassette tape, Columbia House. You can memorize every single note in the omnibook, and learn them up to tempo, 12 keys, but it isn't a thing until you hear even fifteen seconds of "Parker's Mood." The completeness of what that man put together with Dizzy... we will never be able to quantify the impact. An infinitely large butterfly has flapped it's infinitely sized wings.

Music you are listening to now
Sonny Clark: Compilation
Keith Jarrett: My Song
Pat Metheny Group: The Way Up
Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um
Kenny Wheeler: What Now?

How would you describe the state of jazz today?
Jazz is for you.

Jazz speaks to your best self. It speaks poignantly and intelligently to the deep human struggles that have marked our country and planet's journey into a modern world. It is a continual invitation to a conversation you can have any time you want, with someone who wants to have an actual conversation with you. Jazz is willing to jump right into the thick of things, like an old friend, because it knows it isn't the first time you've discussed these topics, and joy is found both in sharing your history together, and seeking out new ground.

Jazz reminds us that although we struggle to face ourselves in the mirror of current events, ever tormented with racial challenges, that the gifts that African-Americans have given the world are real and substantial. We can know that the gift of our culture, built upon all too many adversities, has turned us all into something that is better, that can be better, but challenges us with the message that empathy is only available to those who let another join the conversation fully, through the act of listening. If we listen carefully, and perhaps boldly, we can hear that much of the beating heart of American identity lies in this sharing of African American culture. Upon this common ground, jazz offers us insight into one of the most important questions of the 21st century: How do we maintain our strong, vibrant identities and our ability to converse?

Still, there are lots of reasons not to like jazz. Exploration of dissonance, tension, raw emotion, rhythmic intensity, and formal complexity can evoke the perception of the signal becoming noise, often a perfect recipe for cognitive overload. The barrier of complexity is made worse in a world where microchips and operating systems pervade every part of our home and work life, while we clamor for ever simpler interfaces with our precious devices. Although we are ever shutting out the circuitry, the complexity, perhaps we have a responsibility to be aware of the things and processes that shape us: The engineers, programmers, scientists, ever reinventing the "magic" of the world. In that context, the intricacy and nuance of jazz is the perfect soundtrack, a tribute to this ever more wizardly place we call home. In Jazz the complexity is not a faceless world, a blank screen, it is the stuff of individual and collective genius and mastery, heroes of personality and achievement that we can experience on an incredibly tangible level.

In fact, those same magical devices serve to connect us with this great conversation at so many individual points of mastery. A million midnight moods and so many other indescribable and captivating moments stand at the ready, just waiting for you to point, click, and experience them... and as impactful as that personal and intimate experience is, it is transcended by the real thing:

What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing?
Live Music.

You can find live jazz, almost anywhere in the world, every night, not recorded, never to be written down, ever ephemeral, the other end of an unending conversation, ever inviting, waiting for you to join in. Being a part of that unique, deeply shared, experience can remind us that in a world where Facebook, YouTube, the DVR, Periscope, and Spotify give us instant replay of the universe in the palm of our hands, Time's relentless arrow still defines us more than any of the magic mirrors we use to grab at the past.

Jazz isn't smarter than you, or better than you, don't mistake its complexity for condescension... It simply never underestimates you. So while you may never love it, for whatever your personal reason, please remember: Jazz invites you to listen.

What is in the near future?
The Baytree Sessions is unveiled mid-March on Armored Records. Vol. 1 is a collection of my tunes, played with long time friends. I'm very happy with the arc of the record, and that the compositions gave a path to my musical friends that they could build on, and I hope, transcend. We'll play the Stephenville Jazz Festival on March 19th, and some dates around Dallas to support it, including the Kitchen Cafe on March 30th.

I'm a regular member of Stockton Helbing's Quintet, and we've got one in the can from last summer. I think that will come out this year. As well, we backed up the great trombone quartet The Maniacal 4 on their sophomore release. Great writing, and although they've always had some crossover appeal, there is some heavy jazz writing and playing on this outing. Both those releases are also on Armored Records.

I'm very excited to work with Aaron Lington and Paul Tynan on the next iteration of The BiCoastal Collective. We'll be recording a big band album with them in the summer in Dallas, presumably for OA2 Records.

Lastly, my brother Jake, a great guitarist, and I have got the majority of compositions completed for the first Hanlon Brothers disc... we hope to track, tentatively in May.

What is your greatest fear when you perform?
I showed up at a symphony hit with a band I've played with over the years, and they handed me a chart. In the rehearsal, it quickly becomes clear that the chart didn't line up with the symphony. Due to time constraints, we had to figure out some cuts and make it work. My nightmare is that happens live on the bandstand.

What song would you like played at your funeral?
What the people I loved want to hear! My ability to dictate is done, and I don't care to extend it. I can only hope that the music they would choose to associate with me would map that the time I spent with them was valuable, because these are the people that made me who I am. We are creatures always engaged in a social fabric, and when we pass, in this world, what is left is that our impact on that network is who we are. Ego deflects us from that, but it's true the whole time, while we are here. I think that's why interactive music, and listening, is so profoundly engaging, and why I generally seek out players that show genuine empathy.

What is your favorite song to whistle or sing in the shower?
The one that gets my least favorite one out of my head! I have a set of Stevie Wonder tunes I go to if something gets in my brainpan I don't like. Earworms hit me hard sometimes, it can be pure anguish. Fortunately, as I once learned from a "Sherman's Lagoon" comic strip... Stevie always has the right proportion between melodic value and melodic stickiness. Thanks, Stevie!

By Day:
I teach Music Business and Technology at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, TX. I also have jazz piano students, and work with other students on improvisation.

Prospective jazz musician... retired jazz musician...

I thought as a child that I would pursue something mathematically inclined... I think maybe programming, but it's so hard to see another path now. I do enjoy some of the technological things that one has to learn in the music business, I could run a studio if I had to.

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