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Take Five with Julian Hartwell

Julian Hartwell By

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About Julian Hartwell
Julian Hartwell is a sought-after pianist, composer, bandleader, and educator based in Philadelphia, PA. He is inspired by many styles of music which all contribute to his distinctive sound, both solo and in a group setting. For the past 12 years he has performed throughout a wide swath of the Delaware Valley and Philly area—from jazz clubs to rock venues, music ministry to cocktail hours, weddings to jam sessions and everything in between, and now is adjunct faculty at Temple University. Career highlights so far include sharing the stage with jazz legends Christian McBride, Jimmy Heath, and Jon Faddis at Lincoln Center with the TU jazz band, as well as appearing on Dear Dizzy, that band's tribute album featuring the latter two musicians. Julian's full skill-set as a composer, arranger, and pianist are on full display with his group's all-original debut album The Julian Hartwell Project, which released to critical acclaim in October of 2015.

Instrument(s):
Piano, electric keyboards and such. Melodica for the acoustic jams.

Teachers and/or influences?
So many teachers along the way, but the big ones were Jim Walbert, Father John D'Amico, Nick Micholapoulas, Gary Moran, Elio Villafranca, Tom Lawton, Josh Richman, Terell Stafford, Tim Warfield, John Swana...on and off my instrument it's a pretty long list, not to mention many of my peers who can be great teachers on the bandstand!

As far as influences on my writing goes, it's definitely a wide spectrum of hip-hop, funk, fusion, RnB, and a whole lot of jazz in between. Everything from Stevie Wonder, Greyboy Allstars, Snarky Puppy, Soulive, The Roots, MMW, Galactic, Weather Report, Rebirth Brass Band, Robert Glasper Experiment...to artists closer to the straight-ahead side of things like Roy Hargrove, Sean Jones, Christian McBride's Inside Straight, Kenny Garrett, Warren Wolf, Marquis Hill... it all goes into the pot. Pianistically we're talkin' Herbie, Brad Mehldau, Fred Hersch, Bill Evans, Lars Jansson, Kenny Kirkland, McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrett, Oscar Peterson, Austin Peralta...

I knew I wanted to be a musician when...
My first piano teacher Jim Walbert gave me my first jazz CD—Oscar Peterson Trio Live at the Blue Note. Everything about that album was so captivating to my budding 12 year-old ears: Oscar's unfathomable technique (obviously), the energy in the room, the band cohesion/interaction, how friggin' hard they swung...and most importantly, just how much FUN it sounded like they were having on stage! I didn't know the half of what they were doing then, but even now I can still put that album on anytime and fall in love anew. Before that I'm told I always loved to sing and dance around as a young'n too, so I just had performing in my system from the get-go I guess.

Your sound and approach to music.
My sound is a combination of all my influences to arrive at something soulful, evocative, sonically and emotionally satisfying. In terms of the larger group I'm all about a rich balance of written and improvised material on the bandstand, with plenty of room for group dynamics, backgrounds, spontaneous interplay. I feel my job as a bandleader is done if both the jazz purist and novice listener can find a connection to my music; a high standard of quality that can appeal to more down-to-earth sensibilities. I like soulful jazz with a strong emphasis on groove because it can reel in anyone...instrumental music can come off as too heady or esoteric sometimes and it's a challenge to reach just anyone. At the end of the day my sound is just a reflection of me and the rawest version of that I can express.

Your teaching approach
I like to give students the tools they need to start expressing themselves right off the bat. Anything that gives them a new sense of command or confidence on their instrument, yet retaining the element of free play, of fun. Every students' needs are different, so I always try to establish clear goals and outcomes we can work towards. I constantly reiterate that we're playing MUSIC with each thing we do...that rhythm, scales, chords, don't exist in isolation and are there only as the means to our creative expression. I use a lot of duo playing and splitting up accompaniment for that sort of thing. And, because we're surrounded by such a fast-paced, instant results culture —the need for PATIENCE each step of the way.

Your dream band
Tough question, but something like—the sensitivity to sound and technical approach of a Brian Blade or Kurt Rosenwinkel... the raw energy/drive of an Art Blakey or Jaco Pastorius-..the showmanship, audience engagement, and uninhibited spirit of jazz of a Dizzy, Duke, or Louis Armstrong. That'd be an interesting combo right there lol.

Road story: Your best or worst experience
Oh boy... I know just the one. A certain RnB artist from Philly promised an exciting festival in the Poconos that would be great exposure and a fun road trip, so after some negotiating on (average) pay I decided to get on board. This same festival was also supposed to be a cancer benefit as well, mind you. Well, after a long drive we get there and it's like... a Bonnaroo stage for an open mic-sized crowd. Elevated stage, huge PA system, monitor overload, pro lighting rig, you get the idea. After much milling about we finally play our neo-soul/RnB set to this Pennsyl-tucky crowd, which is basically two people in lawn chairs facing the massive stage, the rest a bunch of country bros playing ultimate frisbee in the corner of the field. Literally everyone there was drinking bud light, chain smoking, and wait for it...hitting up a hot dog truck which served mac and cheese and chocolate covered bacon-wrapped hotdogs, to name a few. Remember, cancer benefit LOL. It was absolutely surreal. And to top it off, the sound guy/production manager for the night was named Martian, and had this disconcerting lazy eye among other, um, quirks. But to his credit he invited us to come back to "town" in a few months and rock "LawnStock"! Definitely in my top three most hilarious gig stories.

Favorite venue
Locally I gotta plug Rittenhouse Soundworks right in my neighborhood of Germantown, northwest Philly. It's a complete hidden gem... this immaculately repurposed multimedia production/performance space in the building of an old Chrysler factory, home of the first car-lift in America in fact. The 2nd floor where recording and concerts happen is like a Brooklyn loft space, but warmer, more inviting... with a wood stove, exposed brick, beautiful woodwork. Great piano too. Owner Jim Hamilton implies that the building was destined to be this kind of space all along, as if it had a will of its own..it really does feel that way. Every concert there has a special feeling to it, and people actually listen. I'm planning on doing some video shoots/recordings here in the near future, so look out for that!

Your favorite recording in your discography and why?
Well, the discography is still pretty small haha, but naturally I'm pretty proud of the Julian Hartwell Project's debut album (released 2015). Owing to the fact that I wrote and arranged all the tunes on the record, it was a big milestone for me. I feel like it showcases a good variety of what I can write/play, and also really allowed specific players to shine in the arrangements. That being said, I learned a whole lot in the process! For one, I feel I could've rehearsed the band a bit more before going into the studio. I'd like to have a more focused intention in terms of a unifying concept or theme for the next album, instead of just stringing various tunes together. And I'm excited to really challenge myself even more as writer and arranger, expanding my definition of what's possible for me and the band.

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically?
It's not even intentional per se, but I've been told repeatedly that my music is "approachable" and generally "feel-good." I think I'm not only bringing to the table a fuller, small group sound, but one that is indeed relatable and can meet the listener where they are, jazz fan or not. Straddling a line between intellectually, harmonically satisfying... but also forging that emotional, inviting connection with the audience. And plugging in a whole host of influences from funk, hip-hop, etc that reflects the state of modern jazz, while (hopefully) pushing the genre forward. So I think developing this accessible sound is a big part of my contribution.

Did you know...

I'm a southern boy at heart, originally from Birmingham, Alabama. If I still lived down there and hadn't discovered the piano I could very well be a professional skateboarder right now, that is if my knees weren't blown out or something yet haha. I do miss all those adrenaline boosts sometimes.

The first jazz album I bought was:
Bill Evans Trio: Portrait in Jazz. But my Aunt Diane gave me a Duke Ellington compilation for my birthday and the stuff on that record REALLY turned my world upside down.

Music you are listening to now:
Kurt Rosenwinkel: Caipi (Heartcore Records); Kneebody: Anti-hero (Motema Music), Ben Wendel: What We Bring (Motema Music), Raphael Saadiq: Instant Vintage (Universal), Kuf Knotz: A Positive Light (Ropedope)

Desert Island picks:
Miles Davis: Kind of Blue (Columbia), Herbie Hancock: Headhunters (Columbia), Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life (Tamla), Brad Mehldau: Largo (Warner Bros), Broken Social Scene: You Forgot It In People (Arts & Crafts)

How would you describe the state of jazz today?
It probably depends on who you ask, but it's definitely constantly reinventing itself. I see a newfound interest from my generation across the board in those groups pushing the genre forward, expanding the definition... you know, the big ones like Snarky Puppy, Glasper, Brainfeeder label. I think most people get that jazz is kind of the grandfather in that it can incorporate so many current styles and is musically usually the most sophisticated. Perhaps my general diagnosis would be, healthy in the small scenes and spaces, but still clamoring for respect and appreciation from the culture at large. But in a sense that's the way this music has always been, atleast since bebop... never quite in the "mainstream," and that's OK. The people that will resonate with this music are there but it might take a little more work to find 'em.

What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing?
I think a lot of the cats coming out of schools and such these days need to remind themselves that their purpose on stage is to ENTERTAIN! Yes art for art's sake is great, but when you're dealing in a niche genre that's already misunderstood, the self-important, insular artist thing does more harm than good. At the end of the day nobody really cares about your Coltrane substitutions or how fast you can shred bebop. Are you resonating with listeners, establishing an emotional connection? Does your music evoke a picture or elicit a response greater than the sum of its parts, instead of just a, "woo they're killin?" I think when an artist is really coming from their true authenticity, from digging really deep within themselves, then you're gonna see greater recognition and people coming back. And ya know, look like you're actually having fun onstage too... no one likes to pay money to see a bunch of sour faces on the bandstand, no matter how 'hip' the music is. Jazz musicians could use some lessons in self-awareness and audience engagement if they want to keep this music alive.

What is in the near future?
I have a little solo trip coming up at the end of May to Charleston, S.C. which'll be nice. Getting some gigs lined up down there and playing for my Aunt's art show while the Spoleto festival is happening. On the homefront I'm just really focused on polishing my band's live show and repertoire at the moment, and always looking toward 'the next thing' a la new venues, festivals, etc., so we can continue to play out consistently enough. I'm definitely feeling the call of a new album, but I know this time around I really need to be patient and approach it with a solid vision and workshop the tunes live a bit more first. For that project I'm scheming up a 'JHP video series' of sorts as well that'll document the process a bit more, and thinking of collaborating with some local MC's and/or movement artists for a few bonus tracks. All that will probably really begin to take shape this Summer so I'm excited for that.

What is your greatest fear when you perform?
It's probably only that occasional mental chatter/self-analysis of my playing in my head that says something like "you're not coming from an authentic place... you're not really in the moment right now, and everyone in the audience can tell." I can't stand that feeling the most, but luckily it doesn't happen too often. I'm able to snap out of it pretty quick if I just breathe, listen more to what's happening on the bandstand, and remind myself that this is what I've chosen to do (or it's chosen me) and I'm pretty good at it most of the time. The material I'm playing or the sound of the instrument itself is often a deciding factor in this.

What song would you like played at your funeral?
Hmm, probably something upbeat/celebratory like a New Orleans funeral procession would have... or should we wait on that till after they carry me out? :p Maybe some Chopin preludes playing lightly in the background... yea that'd be nice.

What is your favorite song to whistle or sing in the shower?
"Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" by Otis Redding.

By Day:
Teaching at Temple or the occasional private lesson at home... rewriting/working on a chart for the umpteenth time... handling the daily grind of promotion/booking/strategy when you are your own manager... taking random outdoor explorations/adventures to get out of the house... squeezing in time to actually sit down and practice my instrument in the midst of it all which can sometimes prove elusive.

If I weren't a jazz musician, I would be a:
A gardener perhaps? A craftsperson involving something with my hands... carpenter? Blacksmith? That kind of livelihood has always appealed to me.

If I could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be and why? Probably Salvador Dali. I always loved his art and read a great bio on his life once, leading me to imagine that just being in the presence of his crazy head-space would be absolutely hilarious and fascinating. If he couldn't make it then maybe Duke Ellington, just to peep his swag and ask him how he kept a band together for so long.

Do you have any sort of mission statement or larger philosophy behind your music you'd like to share?
As a matter of fact I do. I came up with this simple acronym a while back to use as a barometer of sorts and to keep me on track for why I'm doing what I'm doing. It's H.U.R.I—which stands for Heal, Uplift, Remind, and Inspire. I believe artists can serve many functions beyond mere entertainment or momentary pleasure—we can be healers, prophets, guides or any number of roles if we so choose. I believe we are living in challenging, stressful times, but also one with great potential. So I feel that part of my call as a musician is to help heal the wounds of the culture, to uplift folks from the mundane; remind them of their true worth and innate creativity and, if I really succeed, go on to inspire them to develop and share their own gifts with the world. So that definitely helps keep me focused ;)

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