September 01, 2009

by Scott Healy, keyboardist for The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien

When people ask me who I listen to, I don’t know what to say because I listen to everything, and sometimes to nothing.

I once told a great player he sounded exactly like Chick Corea. His response: “Sorry to hear that. By the way, which ‘Chick’ do you mean? Early post-bop Chick? (Now He Sings, Now He Sobs) Modernistic, experimental Chick? (Circle) Or this electric crap he’s been doing lately? (Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, No Mystery) I said something like, “Ham-in-na ham-in-na, like you just sound really good.” Busted! He of course wanted to sound like himself. My ignorant attempt at flattery had backfired. And I started listening harder.

I’ll mention Steve Winwood here, not just because he, along with Richard Manuel of the Band, are often overlooked and underrated rock keyboardists, and not because I was just listening to a great Winwood boxed set comprising most of his great tracks from the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, and his later solo work, but because I was once asked to play “Winwood-y” at a session. Now, I could have leaned back and stroked my sideburns and said, “Perhaps you mean poly-modal trippy and jammy like on ‘Well Alright’ or perhaps English R&B funky like on Dave Mason’s ‘Feelin’Alright,’ or really out there like on ‘Rainmaker.’” But I didn’t; I knew that what was needed for the track was a smeary piano sound with simple voicings, a few fills, and a heavy left hand. It would make a difference what kind of piano I was to play, because lots of pedal on a grand would be too intense, and a sampled piano might not work at all without real resonant overtones. It helped to know that the sound they wanted was probably that of a mildly out-of-tune upright with one mic and some drum leakage — pure magic if done right. If it were Winwood organ, I might know to use a Leslie with a stopped motor, lots of upper drawbars, and maybe C3 chorusing for color. But ultimately whatever the instrument or technique, I’m sure I’d want the track to sound like me.

The other night at a club some cat was raving to me about a young piano player who was tearing up the scene here in L.A. “Man, you gotta hear this guy! He sounds like . . . like . . .” He leaned his head back and mimed playing a keyboard. “Like Herbie!” Whoa! I now know better than to say anything other than “Man, he must be smoking!” I thought about Herbie later that night: Early-Herbie (Takin’ Off), Miles-Herbie (check out his elegant and short solo on “Seven Steps to Heaven”), mature acoustic-Herbie (Speak Like a Child, Maiden Voyage). Then there’s electric Herbie (his Rhodes solo on “Actual Proof” is mind-blowing.) And that’s just a part of what he did before 1975. Keep listening!

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