Since arriving in New York City in 1981, pianist Pete Malinverni has established himself as a highly respected artist, earning accolades and a number of four star reviews in Downbeat, and other publications. His recent release, A Beautiful Thing! on Saranac Records shows why. The music is direct, engaging, and creative, whether he’s playing the Great American Songbook, a newer standard by Burt Bacharach or Billy Joel, or a spiritual. His originals feature purposeful, strong melodies. Every note seems in place, whether he’s attacking the keyboard with verve or barely brushing the keys. We had a short talk by phone Saturday morning, November 20, 2010 during my show on KFAI.
LE: In looking at your biography, I noticed you started out in classical music. How did you go from studying classical music to being a jazz musician? What was the impetus for that?
PM: First I should say that I had a really wonderful teacher as a kid. I started with this particular woman back home in Western New York, in Niagara Falls. I studied with this woman from the age of six until I got out of high school. She was a real taskmaster. She insured that I had all the physical, and I guess interpretive, tools that someone my age could have, and knowing how to play classical music. So she introduced me into harmony and to form and all those things. And of course I loved playing, for part of the time, anyway. There was a time in early high school where all I wanted to do was play ball, so that was a bit of a difficult time. But, I enjoyed being able to do it. I enjoyed being able to play. She was Polish, so she had me playing a lot of Chopin, which I really enjoyed.
But then in high school I was invited to play “Rhapsody in Blue” with the school orchestra. In learning that, I found that no one had to force me to learn that piece. I would steal time in school to run to the auditorium and get inside and play the piano and really practice it. That was something I did because I wanted it. So people telling me that it was somehow akin to jazz had me tuning in to the jazz station back home in Buffalo. I heard things on there that I never really thought I’d hear. At that time I was playing in a rock band with some cousins of mine, and having a lot of fun, but it still wasn’t quite fulfilling, musically. When I heard jazz I understood the difference, which was basically that these musicians in the jazz world really were concerned with sound quality, listening to each other very clearly, and really responding. At that time, the rock thing, what we were trying to do was sound just like the record. Anyone who’s played rock music at a young age knows that scene.
I liked the fact that one could be creative but one’s developed tools were very much necessary. All the work that I had done in classical music to develop technique was then absolutely necessary to trying to improvise and at the same time really cooperate with my fellow musicians. So that was it. I was done. Plus the rhythmic thing, the way it feels rhythmically. That’s really essential to all music and for me, that’s the thing that pushed me over.
LE: Now, you’ve been based in New York City for quite a while, and you’ve played with many musicians. Have there been any musicians that you’ve learned particular things from, or have really helped you along in your development as a jazz musician?
PM: Absolutely. First at the piano there’s a wonderful jazz pianist, I’m sure you’re listeners know who Barry Harris is, the great, Detroit born pianist. He offers classes in the city. When I first arrived in New York I heard about these classes and started to go and got immersed in the whole notion of greats with feet of clay, if you will. In other words, humans who still could aspire to this wonderful art form. Harris was very specific in showing and demonstrating the techniques that he had developed, or at least observed. Musically, that was a very important thing for me.
Then personally, I was very fortunate to be able to call some really great musicians to work with me when I started to get my gigs in New York. I always wanted to play with someone better than I. So the first really great musician I called was Mel Lewis, the great drummer, so I had a trio with him and Dennis Irwin, a wonderful bassist, and we played together quite a bit, and I made my first two recording with Mel. We get together to rehearse, and basically I go over to his apartment and listen to him talk. I learned a lot about the real world of being a musician.
Mel passed way too young, and from there I hired Vernell Fournier when I would work, and he would hire me when he had work, and we got to travel together quite a bit, and play a lot of the clubs in New York. Vernell, of course had made jazz history with the Ahmad Jamal Trio. He was really great about seeing the positive in things, no matter what they were. He was actually a Muslim and he would quote from the Koran all the time. The things he would say were always in the face of this or that, keep your eyes up, everything’s ok, be positive, keep moving forward. That as well as musical things in terms of form and dynamics, etc. which of course were the great earmarks of Ahmad’s trio, of which Vernell was an important part.
LE: Sounds like helpful advice for being in the music business.
PM: Oh yeah, just being in the presence of someone who’s that great and seeing that it’s organic to them. It’s not some thing that, the thumb was put on the forehead from above and boom, all of a sudden they could do it. It’s a lifelong pursuit
LE: You mention that Fournier was a Muslim. In addition to gigging, you currently also participate in services for two different faith based traditions.
PM: That’s right. On Sundays I’m the minister of music at an African American Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York, where I’ve been since 1992. It’s called the Devoe Street Baptist Church. There I work with the choir and choose, and lead music for the congregation. Then on Fridays and Saturdays I’m pianist and conductor at the Westchester Reformed Synagogue in Scarsdale, New York.
LE: On your album, A Beautiful Thing!, you do Go Down Moses, and mention that it is a song that resonated with both traditions when you did something together.
PM: Yeah, it’s interesting. I teach at Purchase College here in New York. I’m in the jazz studies program, but I formed a choir of students from all over campus called Soul Voices. Basically, I arrange all the music for the choir and its music from the African American tradition, so we use a lot of spirituals, and I find it interesting to get into the history of what the songs really are. In fact I was just looking at an article in today’s NY Times about the song Come By Here, and how it’s been called Kum By Yah, and now it’s almost a term of cynicism, you know, left and right, when in fact it really had a strong basis in the civil rights movement.
It’s interesting, when the slaves were brought here, they were not allowed to read, and if they were allowed to read anything, it was the Bible. I found that interesting because here are these slave owners giving the slaves a book, whose hero, Moses, led people out of bondage and out of slavery, and vanquished their captors. And I thought, gee, you’re gonna hold somebody, but give them a blueprint for how to get out, that’s really bright. So Go Down Moses and Let My People Go are songs known and cherished by both traditions. For me we talked initially about the classical and jazz thing. I think, like there, and also as in religion, I don’t mean dogma, I mean spirituality, there is so much more that brings people, who seemingly should be on whole other sides of the spectrum, that brings them together rather than separates them. If you look for it. That’s why I chose Go Down Moses. I always try to put one spiritual on every recording.
LE: On this recording, you have a number of originals, such as the one I played just before you came on the air, In the Garden of the Eternal Optimist, but you also have a House is Not a Home, by Bert Bacharach, a Billy Joel song, and a couple of American Songbook standards, My Shining Hour and Sweet and Lovely. But the surprise to me was La Vie en Rose, which is a popular song, though I haven’t heard many jazz interpretations of it. Why did you choose that particular song?
PM: I’ll tell you Larry, the songs you mention all share one thing, well maybe more, but to me, the thing they share most importantly is melody. I think, rhythm is number one but melody is what gets us in the heart. No one ever says when I hear that beat it makes me want to cry, it’s always the tune. There’s something about a tune that really tugs at the heart. When I first moved to New York, I really didn’t know anybody, so I made a living playing piano in fancy restaurants. In that job you have to learn a million standards. You have to learn standards. Which was fine, because I’d go to hear Tommy Flanagan, or I’d go to hear Hank Jones, and they were playing these tunes, so I knew how beautiful they were. So I learned songs and one of the places I was playing was a really lovely restaurant. Quite often people from Europe would come in, so I made it my business to know songs that I liked from various countries, and La Vie en Rose was something I learned. The melody is simply beautiful and I also like the mood of it, it’s a little bit of a cynic’s view of the world – life is rosy, not really. So I liked the subtlety of the message. But for me, the main thing is the melody.
LE: Well, I want to thank you for calling in. We’ll sign off with La Vie En Rose. I’ve been talking with Pete Malinverni.
PM: Thanks to your listeners, too.