Aaron Diehl Melds Worlds Of Music


The Vagabond merges Aaron Diehl’s jazz background with his increasing interest in the classical world, in part stemming from his work with composer Philip Glass.

(Photo: Mark Sheldon)

A 2007 graduate of The Juilliard School, he worked closely with elite Russian piano virtuoso Oxana Yablonskaya. But Diehl sought a jazz career. He said, “I never thought that I would entertain classical music seriously because at a certain period I became more interested in jazz piano. So, classical became a dormant side of my playing because I knew I had to learn the jazz tradition. Now, I’m trying to redefine myself, not for anyone else, but for myself.”

In 2002, Diehl won the outstanding soloist prize at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington Competition and was enlisted by Wynton Marsalis to tour Europe with his sextet. He later studied with Kenny Barron and Eric Reed to hone his jazz craft. He settled into Smalls Jazz Club’s late-night sessions presided over by the late drummer Lawrence “Lo” Leathers.

In 2013, Mack Avenue released The Bespoke Man’s Narrative, and the following year the Monterey Jazz Festival made Diehl its commissioned artist, which resulted in the original work “Three Streams Of Expression,” a project he dedicated to John Lewis. From 2014 through 2017, Diehl served as the musical director for vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant’s trio with Sikivie and Leathers. “I was de facto musical director,” Diehl said, “because she is such a singular artist who is so strong on stage.”

Diehl’s musical life took an unexpected twist in 2014 when he was approached by Jennie Wasserman, who had been part of the programming team at Jazz at Lincoln Center and who also had worked with New Jersey-based Pomegranate Arts, which represented Glass. Wasserman told Diehl that they were looking for a jazz pianist to be a part of his études project. There were nine performers from various classical music backgrounds. “Jennie told me that Philip was looking for someone who was from the genre of jazz,” Diehl recalled. “He wanted to see his music through the prism of jazz. I accepted without knowing fully what that would entail. It was a big challenge at first and very revealing as an outsider. I was the jazz musician, which was a little discomforting being in a staunchly Philip Glass world, like a fish out of water.”

Others performing Glass’ études included such new classical stars as Maki Namekawa, Anton Batagov, Nico Muhly, Jenny Lin and Sally Whitwell. The cast of 10 (Glass included) performed The Complete Piano Études for two nights at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House in early December 2014. Diehl played “Étude No. 3” and “Étude No. 4” the first night and “Étude No. 13” and “Étude No. 14” the second. Glass was so impressed that he asked Diehl to go on the road with him.

“I could feel it,” Diehl said. “He was encouraging me to play his music. What I had to do was figure out how to play his works with improvisation through my own knowledge and influences. I had the opportunity to do four or five concerts in a row with him in Europe, and he would give me some good feedback. He was very receptive to my ideas. He didn’t control me at all. It was all so open-ended. He was so confident in his music that he could take me in from the outside. That was a risk, and it spoke to me of his character.”

On the road, the pair talked about music from Africa, Mexico and India, and Glass told him stories about growing up in Baltimore and hearing club shows by jazz greats such as Horace Silver and Ornette Coleman. Of all of Glass’ études, Diehl gravitated to “Étude No. 16.” “There are a lot of lines repeated in that tune,” he said. “I had to figure out how to use the progression of the tune as a vehicle for improvisation. It took me a few tries. My first attempt was in Denmark, but I felt tentative. I tried a few more times, but it finally caught when we played a Philip Glass evening at SFJAZZ. From then on, I was more comfortable with it. It paid off doing several concerts with Philip in Europe. Philip had given me the opportunity to experiment with it and fail. I think that’s what’s lacking with musicians today who don’t have that opportunity. They do one show and don’t have the opportunity to play multiple times to get the music right.”

Another “correct circumstance” that allowed Diehl to spread his wings came a few years ago, when he was approached by the New York Philharmonic. He was asked to help launch the orchestra’s 2016–’17 season by performing Gershwin’s “Concerto in F.” As part of the 175th anniversary gala in December 2016 at David Geffen Hall, Diehl performed with the 80-piece ensemble, conducted by Alan Gilbert. Looking back, Diehl said he thinks there probably were other musicians who auditioned for the role, but that the organization was looking for a jazz musician. In April 2016, he had gone into Gilbert’s dressing room and run through the whole score with him, prompting the maestro to simply say, “OK, you got the gig.”

But again, Diehl was in foreign musical territory. He was nervous. He flew to Spain to meet with Yablonskaya, his former teacher, to help him prep. “I had the concerto memorized by then, so I just went to her for certain technical issues and certain ways of approaching the sound,” he said. “Still, I felt a lot of pressure and it was all surreal. At times I felt I was going to collapse. Cécile was a real support. She came backstage during the dress rehearsal. It would have been difficult psychologically trying to do this on my own. There was a lot riding on this, not just for me, but for jazz musicians and especially for African American music. That Gershwin piece is rooted in the American vernacular of syncopation and swing, and he was experimenting with elemental folk music being inserted into the European concert format. My goal was to explore how my jazz would work in that classical composition.”

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