Interview with Pianist Kirill Gerstein
Posted 3/27/2012

Born in Voronezh, in southwestern Russia, pianist Kirill Gerstein learned of jazz at an early age while in the throes of his classical training. At 14, he was invited by Gary Burton to attend Berklee College of Music, becoming the youngest student ever admitted. While at Berklee, Gerstein played in Phil Wilson’s Berklee Rainbow Band and continued to study classical piano, along with attending Boston University’s summer program at Tanglewood. By age 20, Gerstein had earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in classical piano at the Manhattan School of Music. He has since gone on to become an internationally recognized artist, performing regularly with the world’s great orchestras. A winner of numerous piano competitions, he has received a 2002 Gilmore Young Artist Award, was a “Rising Star” for Carnegie Hall’s 2005–’06 season and is the 2010 recipient of the $300,000 Gilmore Artist Award. His 2010 album on the Myrios Classics label includes works by Liszt, Schumann and Oliver Knussen.

Gerstein will perform commissioned works by Brad Mehldau and Chick Corea at the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, which runs April 26–May 12 in Kalamazoo, Mich. DownBeat caught up with Gerstein for a conversation about the connections between classical music and jazz.

How do you navigate the highways and byways of jazz with classical music?
As you may have seen with some of the p.r. materials, growing up in Russia, I started with classical music very early on. But by the time I was six or seven, I got interested in jazz; I remember hearing jazz records that my parents had. Then I started teaching myself to play this kind of sound by ear. I was fortunate being supported [by my parents] in the view that classical or jazz, or playing by ear or written, is not so different. As a child, I was very attracted by the sound [of jazz], especially by the harmonic language, so I just tried to imitate that. There were some Dixieland recordings that I can’t remember, but there was one that I do, a duo recording of Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie.

Please discuss your relationship with Brad Mehldau and his commission to write something for you. Also, tell us what you have in mind for your joint performance at this year’s Gilmore Festival.
When I first heard his recordings, around 2000, I think the first one was his record Places. I just remember being drawn to the style of piano playing and music-making that he had. I found him then and I still find him to be the most classically oriented and classically informed from jazz. So that spoke to me because of my mixed background. And I’ve followed his recordings with admiration. When the Gilmore award was announced, I was continually challenged with the question “What are you going to do with your $300,000 of grant money?” Quickly one of the ideas that came to me was that I would like to do some commissioning, to redistribute the money among artists but also because it would be fun for me to premiere these pieces and have something to remain afterwards for anyone interested to play. I was already aware that Brad was doing more traditional, written-down composing for some song cycles and some other things. So I actually got in touch with him out of the blue, letting him know I’ve admired what he’s been doing for quite a few years and that I would like to discuss with him writing a piece for me. And I explained the Gilmore award. My challenge to him—which he certainly delivered on—was that he definitely should write the kind of music that he plays and that he improvises. But, with the additional benefit since he had the time to write it out and not do it on the spot, he could add layers of complexity and challenges and work things out in ways that simply improvising doesn’t allow. It was originally going to be a 10-, 12-minute piece, and he eventually sent me an email saying, “You know, I just don’t feel like stopping.” So, it’s actually a 25-minute set of variations called Variations On A Melancholy Theme. It’s a very, very significant piece—one that navigates between the jazz language and the classical language in clever and sometimes imperceptible ways. And it’s all synthesized into this Mehldau sound; it’s very, very challenging, but a fun one. It allows for extra complexity and counterpoint and really worked-out, instrumental challenges. I think it’s going to be an addition to the American piano repertoire.

As for playing together at the Gilmore, we’re leaving a lot of it up for a later decision. It’s going to be an unusual program, so we haven’t been pressed as you usually are with classical dates. His Variations is programmed once on my recital program, which is at the beginning of the festival, but I will play it a second time at the Mehldau evening. And I suspect Brad will play some solo stuff, but it’s definitely planned that he and I will play some classical pieces, and that we will probably do a bit of improvising. So, it’s going to be a mixed program.

And maybe you’ll throw in a few standards?
Not unlikely.

A double-negative, which always means a positive.
Well, you know I’m Russian; so being Eastern European means being full of double-negatives.

In a related vein, can you talk about your performance in Boston, which also included music by Chick Corea as well as performing with Gary Burton and Anat Cohen?
I went to Berklee, and in my meeting I had with [Berklee President] Lee Berk, I told him I would love to do “Rhapsody In Blue” by Gershwin in the original 1924 jazz band version; I have done it with classical orchestras and classically trained musicians. But, I told him, I would really like to do it once with jazz people, who would obviously read Gershwin’s parts but also have a closer relationship to what the music actually symbolizes. He agreed, and said we should also definitely include Anat Cohen, as she is this wonderful clarinetist and who also graduated from Berklee. So on the program was the band version with old jazz faculty and students from Berklee, with Anat playing the famous clarinet part [a 25-piece ensemble with faculty and an eight-piece student string section]. Anat also played some things from her album Noir with a string ensemble. It developed further with the whole evening dedicated to classical musicians, classical composers looking in the direction of jazz, and jazz people looking in the direction of written-down composition. And, to that end, is the Brad Mehldau piece that was premiered. I also got Chick Corea to write a piece for me and Gary Burton; this was also using the Gilmore funds to subsidize the commission. Gary was one of my teachers, and that is how I first met him. So this had an additional, personal connection.

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Kirill Gerstein

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