Interview with Pianist Kirill Gerstein—Part 2
And Chick, when I was 11 and played a piano competition in Poland that I won, there on the stage were some jazz tapes being sold. That’s where I first encountered Chick’s recordings, which blew my mind; and, of course, like many young aspiring pianists, I tried to imitate that sound and learn from that. So, he really was a childhood hero for me. So I asked Gary to show him some of my CDs. And Chick apparently got enthusiastic about the idea, and said, “I know exactly the kind of piece I want to write for you guys.” It’s a very interesting piece because there are parts that are completely written down and written out and composed, there are parts where there are some written-out lines but at the same time one of the voices can be improvised, and then there are some sections that are completely improvised. So it really explores the whole spectrum between written-out, composed music and improvised music. I find it the kind of fascinating experiment that interests me, and that brings the two art forms closer to each other. The fact that the piece is able to fluctuate from 100 percent written out to completely improvised is very fascinating and works really well. The length is flexible, because of the way it is composed, but basically I’d say it’s about thirteen, fifteen minutes. And we’re very lucky in that there’s a window in Gary’s calendar, so Gary’s actually going to come to the closing gala of the Gilmore festival in May, and we’re going to do that piece there. And it’s going to be a fun program because the orchestra is going to play a Beethoven overture and then I will play Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, and after intermission, Gary and I will do Chick Corea’s piece, titled “The Visitors,” and then I will play Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto with the orchestra again. And then we will have a surprise encore, but I won’t talk about that.
What are your favorite works written by anyone from Gershwin to others in the jazz world, and why are they so appealing to you as performance pieces?
I think Brad and Chick are at the very top of the list, and that’s why I reached out to them, and commissioned them. Obviously Gershwin is to be named, and also some pieces by [Leonard] Bernstein that show an incredible understanding of jazz and a very successful translation of a jazz sound into a written-down context. I think one of the pieces that comes to mind is occurs in his Second Symphony, called “The Age Of Anxiety,” which is basically a piano concerto. One of the movements is called “The Masque,” and it’s basically set for jazz trio and percussion, and it’s really very brilliant. There are so many others who I enjoy listening to … Keith Jarrett, Gary Burton, and musicians of the earlier period, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson. My tastes, generally, are fairly eclectic and open.
My whole point or feeling is that the greatest musicians in the history of classical music were very close to the jazz spirit. And it’s interesting, if you think that improvisation and composition diverged only fairly recently, a hundred, a hundred and twenty years ago. Of course, Bach goes without saying. But then, Mozart and Beethoven and Chopin and Liszt and all of these people were known to be great improvisers. And this is coming full circle to the beginning of our conversation: that I don’t think this is so different, making music that way or this way. Also, I feel in issues of harmony, if you listen to the juicy harmonies of Rachmaninoff, they’re not far from the harmonies of many jazz pianists and vice-versa. Or if you listen to a very good baroque group playing an orchestral suite of Bach, then they also swing. It’s perhaps a different kind of swing, but it’s definitely not the mechanical evenness that’s been the hallmark of some classical performances. And you read about this in Baroque reference work, that the whole idea of playing eighth notes and sixteenth notes unevenly was something that was expected. In addition, the idea of expressing dissonance, which is what a blue note is, has been there since the Gregorian chants. This idea of expressive dissonance would be understandable to Bach or to Coltrane.
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