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It’s hard to make a piano sing. You can’t breathe into it, you can’t slide from one note to another. The piano is a mechanical music-maker, and it takes a real artist—an Ahmad Jamal, a Bill Evans, a Fred Hersch—to make it come alive.
Pianist Randy Ingram is one of those artists. He has an immaculately honed touch and an unforced sense of lyricism. His graceful melodies never feel tethered to the ground.
It is appropriate then that Ingram named his new album Sky/Lift (Sunnyside). Featuring an all-star cast of collaborators—Mike Moreno on guitar, Matt Clohesy on bass, and Jochen Rueckert on drums—Ingram’s set of original compositions take flight on the backs of clear melodies and fleet-footed rhythms. We caught up Randy by phone to talk about the inspiration behind his new record.
The Jazz Gallery: You’re going to be celebrating the release of Sky/Lift on Thursday at the Gallery, which is your second record, following 2009’s The Road Ahead (BJU Records). What was your motivation behind putting out this new music?
Randy Ingram: Ever since I made my first record, I’ve been thinking about the next one. I feel on everybody’s first record, you’re just kind of going in and doing it because you haven’t been through the process of it before. I had written a couple of tunes for that record, played a couple of other peoples’ tunes, played a couple of standards, and I sort of knew after that that I really wanted to make a record that focused on my writing and had a band identity to it.
I started playing with guitarist Mike Moreno a little bit and after we did some gigs together, I fell in love with the idea of having piano and guitar together. As I started to write the music for this next album, I didn’t write it specifically for this combination—I think it could work in other contexts—but it really started to come together once I had Mike’s sound in my ear. As soon as I had an album’s worth of music and we had played some gigs and gotten familiar with the material, I felt I was really ready to go for it.
TJG: Bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Jochen Rueckert have played on both of your albums. What do you love about their playing and what do they bring to the group?
RI: I moved to New York in 2003 and Matt was one of the first guys I connected with and started playing with. Matt has an amazing sound, for starters—it’s just huge—and his beat and his economy of notes are really special. There are other bassists that play more notes and can be more virtuosic at times, and he can do that, too, but what he plays has so much intention and groove and emotion behind it.
I first played with Jochen on a trio gig in 2008. He has such an amazing sense of time and support and musicality. He’s one of those drummers that has an incredibly wide beat and an incredibly supportive beat, but also has pretty much metronomic time, which is a pretty rare combination. He can be understated sometimes, he can be in the spotlight sometimes, but it’s always what the music calls for. He always knows what’s needed to get the greater purpose of the music out.
TJG: Let’s talk a little bit about the title track, “Sky/Lift”. Are you trying to evoke something specific about flight here, or is it something more abstract?
RI: I think it’s a little more abstract. “Sky/Lift” is the first song on the record and I was really struggling for a title for it. My girlfriend works in film and is also a writer, and she had an idea a while back that a good title for a tune would be “The Lift”. I was excited by that title for this tune because I felt that it had a lot of upward motion and openness. However, guitarist Larry Coryell put out an album last year called The Lift and I thought it wouldn’t be the best idea to call it the same thing.
I was thinking about a similar title for that song and it just sort of hit me: I was in upstate New York teaching at the state university in Oneonta over the summer. It’s beautiful up there and the sky is incredibly big and open. I was out for a run one morning and the idea of “Sky Lift” sort of hit me. But then I realized I wanted a separation between the two words, just visually, so the slash looked good and it also gave the idea of two sources of thought—the idea of moving upward and just the expanse of sky.
TJG: Another track on the record called “The Sea” also feels very impressionistic. What are you trying to evoke with this tune?
RI: It’s actually one of the first tracks that I wrote; it predates some of the other songs on the record. I feel the best music really evokes a sense of place or emotion or feeling, and I feel in jazz we don’t do enough to capture that. But then you listen to some really truly great records and there’s such a strong feeling coming out of it, like pretty much everything Coltrane did. So many great Miles records have such a close attention to what they’re trying to evoke; that was sort of my goal on The Sea.
I grew up on the beach in California, and I’ve been on the East Coast for a long time now, but I’ve always lived near the sea and it’s always been a very important part of my life. I think this track is a little more representative of what you get on the East Coast—the beauty and the majesty and the ruggedness of it, but more in the wintertime, which you don’t get in California. On that track, Mike Moreno and I thought a lot about blending textures and getting different sounds out of the piano and guitar, and I think we got some great things out of it.
TJG: Have you always been drawn to natural landscapes and settings as a source of inspiration, or is this something you’ve been approaching more recently?
RI: I think it’s always been something I’ve been interested in. Composition isn’t something that comes easily to me. It takes a while for me to write music. Often when I’m trying to come up with a melodic backbone for the song I’m writing, it’s nice to have an image to start with, so nature and geography are really good frames of reference to think about for me.
TJG: You’ve studied with some real living legends of jazz piano: Alan Pasqua, Fred Hersch, and Danilo Perez. What are some of their lessons that have stayed with you?
RI: Alan and I have managed to stay really good friends over the years. I met Alan when I was getting my undergrad at the University of Southern California. I was studying with him privately outside of school, and then they hired him to be a faculty member there my last year. Alan’s always been someone I’ve really looked up to in a lot of ways. He was also instrumental in helping me get to New England Conservatory for my master’s degree. He was very supportive of me going and getting off the West Coast and getting to a place where I could study with Fred and Danilo as well as George Russell and Bob Brookmeyer, who were still there at the time.
Oftentimes, jazz piano teachers are really interested in playing stuff on the piano: voicings, lines. They’re not talking as much about how to play the piano from a technique and sound perspective. One of the great things about Fred Hersch as a teacher is that he’s all about that. He helped me so much in getting my technique a lot better and just being way more in control of the kind of tone I was getting at the piano. I still use a lot of his exercises and approaches when I’m playing and teaching.
With Danilo, his energy is so incredibly infectious; there’s so much going on with him at any given time. He’s such an amazing player in all aspects of the jazz tradition, and, at the same time, he has so much stuff that’s so fresh and creative. He’s worked out so many things that aren’t derivative of other pianists and are unique to himself. There are definitely some harmonic ideas and rhythmic ideas that we’ve discussed that I’ve taken to heart.
Randy Ingram celebrates the release of Sky/Lift (Sunnyside) at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, February 13th. The group features Randy Ingram on piano, Mike Moreno on guitar, Matt Clohesy on bass, and Jochen Rueckert on drums. Sets are at 9 and 11 p.m., $15 general admission ($10 for members) for the first set, $10 general admission ($5 for members) for the second set. Purchase tickets here.