Larry Goldings: The Variety of Fun

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Larry Goldings’ versatility keeps him in high demand as a leader, collaborator and sideman.

(Photo: Mark Sheldon)

Are you having any fun? Larry Goldings certainly is. Consider just two recent examples:

Scene 1: “If anyone had the blues, it was Beethoven,” says a man with a blond Beatle wig and a pseudo-Austrian accent in a recent YouTube video. He is a character named Hans Groiner, Goldings’ comic alter ego.

“Beethoven had the blues, and I like to bring it out.” He spells out his “three B’s: B.B. King, Bobby’s Blues Band [his mangled pronunciation of the late bluesman Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland] and Beethoven.” Goldings plays the role of Groiner seated at a Hammond B-3, then proceeds to play inappropriate, yet skillful, blues riffs over film clips of Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic performing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Scene 2: In a casual, vertical iPhone video also posted on YouTube, Melinda Sullivan, an attractive young woman wearing a Hans Groiner T-shirt, black sweatpants and tap shoes, dances in the foreground as Goldings, poised behind her, plays his 1916 Steinway Model M with his right hand while laying down synth bass with his left. With impeccable time and an infectious groove, Goldings leads her into a blissful tap-and-keyboards rendition of Red Garland’s classic arrangement of “Billy Boy.” For the sheer joy of jazz, you can’t beat it.

Goldings, 55, may be best known these days as the jazz organ master whose trio, Goldings/Bernstein/Stewart (“I know, we sound like a law firm,” he commented at a recent sold-out gig at Sculler’s in Boston), has been one of the leading organ-based groups in jazz almost since he started it more than 30 years ago with guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Bill Stewart.

But Goldings is also a versatile pianist, an A-list sideman, a devotee of all keyboard instruments (the weirder, the better, he says), a songwriter, a film and TV composer — for example, the Netflix series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker — and a bit of a comedian.

Goldings has an embarrassment of technique at his command, but his “wow” factor is his head for harmony, groove, storytelling and emotional depth. As a leader, he goes for subtle, cinematic effects that one does not always hear in jazz piano or organ. As a sideman, he is intuitive and supportive, leading to gigs with artists across genres, from jazz to pop to funk. His most high-profile gig comes as a member of James Taylor’s band for the past two decades. He was also seen by millions as the sole sideman accompanying Taylor on JT’s 2007 “One Man Band” tour and PBS special.

“There are many incredibly talented keyboard players in L.A., but really there is no one like him,” said producer Larry Klein, who has employed him as a sideman in countless projects. “He’s underappreciated by non-musicians, but by musicians he is certainly known to be a phenomenon. The first time I hired him, on Madeleine Peyroux’s album Careless Love [Rounder, 2004], he just floored me. He has a combination of exceptional musical intuition, humor, a beautiful lyricism and versatility … . He always has a sense of where he needs to step out and make himself a noticeable musical element and where he should just slip into the landscape.”

Fellow pianist Brad Mehldau cites him as an influence and refers to him as “a keyboard master,” but added, in an email, “I hesitate because as soon as you say ‘keyboard,’ people think fusion!” Mehldau refers to his brilliance at “comping, his way of playing with others and giving strong support, not just through rhythmic clarity but through what I would call an arranging/orchestrational talent that is all his own. He can make a rhythm section sound like a big band. We know he does that on organ, but he also can do it on the piano.” He already had that “mojo” in his early 20s, when Mehldau first encountered him at the New School jazz program.

Guitarist John Scofield, a frequent collaborator, said in an email, “When I first played with Larry, I recognized a superior musical brain at work — so knowledgeable, plus he had soul! Hammond organ is a category unto itself, not just ‘keyboards,’ and Larry has gone deep. His musical resources are expansive; I doubt there are many styles that he can’t play well.”

The longtime partner Bernstein cites “his whole musicality, whatever the instrument. He has an incredible understanding of creative harmony based on voice-leading. If you swing, then you can swing with Larry.”

Golding has played with everyone from Norah Jones to Scary Pockets, from Pat Metheny and Steve Gadd to John Mayer and Christina Aguilera — and, earlier in his career, from legendary guitarist Jim Hall to funk titan Maceo Parker. It’s as much a reflection of his eclectic tastes as a tribute to his versatility.

“I remember one year I got off a Jim Hall tour to go onto a Maceo Parker tour,” Goldings said recently via Zoom. “I loved that I was able to go from one to the other — two people at the forefront of their respective styles. To this day, my listening is incredibly diverse.

“I’ve learned that [jazz] is not always about harmony — it can be hard for jazz musicians to turn off that stuff — it’s also about texture, mood, simplicity. Jazz musicians are convinced that harmonic knowledge and tech prowess are the only thing ... but I’m also a big Dylan fan, a big folk music fan.”

That versatility keeps him in high demand as a leader, collaborator and sideman. His current projects include touring with the Goldings/Bernstein/Stewart organ trio, with a new album likely in 2024; a duo tour and recording with tap dancer Melinda Sullivan; duos with rising L.A. singer Dannielle De Andrea and singer/songwriter Jake Sherman; and an adventurous duo album titled Chinwag with under-the-radar trumpeter John Sneider. Goldings recorded the latter on an old upright instrument full of character; he also used a variety of other keyboards, including an 8-bit synth called a “Pocket Piano.” The music, old and new, is cinematic, touching and occasionally weird, sometimes calling to mind the Italian composer and pianist Nino Rota.

He is also the namesake of the L.A.-based group “Scary Goldings” — a melding of Goldings’ jazz organ with the online funk phenomenon Scary Pockets founded by guitarist Ryan Lerman and keyboardist (and Patreon founder) Jack Conte. The latter group, which has recorded a new video every week for more than six years, recently logged 1.1 million subscribers on YouTube and has issued more than 20 album compilations. Scary Goldings, augmented by Scofield on guitar, recently released a live album (Scary Goldings Live Featuring John Scofield on Pockets Inc.), the group’s fifth, and played ecstatic sets at festivals around the world.

When they get together, “Larry is just a fountain of melodic genius,” Lerman said in an interview. “It’s just about turning on the fountain.”

A Comic Side Hustle

His wealth of musical projects aside, Goldings is also the foremost comedian in jazz. OK, that may not be saying much, given the scarcity of the competition, but his popularity says a lot.

His Hans Groiner character is well-documented in many satirical videos and, occasionally, in live shows where, among other topics, he demonstrates how to “improve” the compositions of Thelonious Monk. Groiner has so many international fans that Goldings worries the character may be getting more popular than the artist who portrays him.

Groiner’s origins go back to the days of MySpace. “I used to have a kind of party trick,” he said. “What if a new-age musician were to play Monk? I was exploring how to dumb something down authentically. One day I was doing a record with [singer] Curtis Stigers. We were finishing up, and I was joking around. This is before Hans. I started playing Monk’s ‘Bemsha Swing’ without Monk’s chords. I thought, what if George Winston played that or ‘Well, You Needn’t’?

“Then I thought, what if I put it up on a fake MySpace page? I’ll post five 30-second selections of this guy playing Monk. I looked on the Internet to see if the name ‘Hans Groiner’ was original. I found a darkened photo and wrote a fake bio.

“That was my first experience, just audio clips. It went viral in a MySpace way. An equal amount of people got the joke as said, ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’ and ‘You haven’t got the slightest idea about Monk!’ I really enjoyed sitting back anonymously and watching it happen. People even sent it to me, not knowing it was me, and saying, ‘I think you’re going to like this.’ I didn’t even realize I could fool people like that.”

He considered asking a friend with a good German accent to be the face of Hans, but others implored him to do it himself.

“I bought a wig at Target. Louis Cole’s sister Liz shot it for me … and it really took off. The next time I went to a jazz festival, everyone was coming up to me and saying, ‘Hans!’” A film of Groiner’s “master class” at L.A.’s Blue Whale is in the works.

Early Days & Influences

Growing up in the Boston suburbs, Goldings was a piano prodigy. He discovered his love for the organ early on.

“It all started in my childhood basement, with home organs,” he said. “We had, over the course of my youth, a Lowrey, a Yamaha and a monolith of a Gulbransen that my dad found for free. My mom used to drop me at Baldwin Piano & Organ in Framingham, and she’d go shopping while I’d stay for hours trying out these organ-spaceships, and I’d be in heaven.”

One of his earliest influences on piano was fellow Boston resident Dave McKenna, whose legendary facility at walking bass lines with his left hand were the inspiration for Goldings’ widely admired left-handed and foot-driven bass lines on piano and organ, respectively. He cites many other influences on piano: George Shearing, whose solo album My Ship made an indelible impression, Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal and Keith Jarrett, from whom he took three memorable lessons at Jarrett’s home while still in high school. On organ, he credits Billy Preston (“Before I knew anything about jazz organ, I loved him, and he sparked something in me”), Jimmy Smith, Shirley Scott, Larry Young, Wild Bill Davis and Mel Rhyne.

Goldings met Bernstein when both were still in high school.

“We played gigs as teenagers,” Bernstein said. “He even played on my senior recital. Larry at 15 was pretty mature; he sounded like a grownup, a pro. He had this uncommon composure and polish in his playing. He was already ready to do gigs when he arrived at the New School — a badass.”

Bernstein recounts how the organ trio got its start: “Larry had a gig at Augie’s [on New York’s Upper West Side; the club is now Smoke]. They didn’t have a piano, so Larry had to bring a keyboard. That’s where he started playing organ on gigs. He started by working in a group with Leon Parker, the drummer. One night when Leon’s bass player couldn’t make the gig, he asked Larry to play bass on a keyboard.”

Eventually the two friends started playing as a trio on Thursdays with the addition of Stewart, whom Bernstein had known from William Paterson College. Their first record, on Minor Music, was picked up by RCA in 1991. Performances at the Blue Note, Visiones and the Village Gate followed. Goldings was eventually signed by Warner Bros.; he took Bernstein and Stewart along for his first album for the label in 1995.

Why has the trio lasted so long? “I don’t know,” Bernstein said, “Nothing came along to end it. There is something special about when the three of us come together. It’s a beautiful thing. Some of the best playing we do is in this group. You can reach for stuff because you’re so comfortable being among old friends.”

Considering his remarkable piano playing, how did Goldings feel about being better known playing organ? “I think it’s fine,” he said. “I’m not bitter about it. It was sort of an accident that I find myself at the organ more than the piano. But I think our trio has made an imprint — it stands out as being a little different.”

Goldings won’t be restricted to just one style. “I think the common denominator in any situation I’m in is to make choices that are emotional choices,” he said. “The reason for musicians to become familiar with different ways of playing the same chord — for example, the sound of a seventh or a triad — is so you can pull spontaneously the one choice that is correct or helpful in an emotional way.

“The older I get, the less concerned I am about being ‘consistent’ with my recordings. There are those who might prefer hearing me play jazz organ, but I want to explore all that I can, musically and sonically. I think it’s possible to have an identifiable sound as a musician, even while playing disparate genres or while exploring different keyboards … . The colors may change, even the language one speaks can change, but your personality can remain intact, as well as your overall intent — which for me is to create music with emotion.” DB



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