Larry Goldings - From Jazz Club to Arena Rock

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Larry Goldings has been making his mark on modern, improvised music for nearly three decades. From the singular sound of his organ trio (featuring longtime bandmates Peter Bernstein on guitar and Bill Stewart on drums), to his live and recorded work with artists like Maceo Parker, John Scofield, James Taylor, and now John Mayer, the Los Angeles-based keyboardist and composer is known the world over as a musician with the ears and fingers to do just about anything.

“I grew-up in West Newton, Massachusetts, 20 minutes from Boston,” Goldings says via phone from Los Angeles, just days before joining Mayer for an arena tour slated to last until the end of the year. “Around the age of 10, I started getting attracted to the piano in our house. I briefly took classical lessons, but I quickly realized that while I liked the repertoire, I just didn’t have the discipline to read and practice it that much. So I started learning by listening to people like Billy Joel, and harmonically that led me to jazz, which led me to a music camp in Maine called Encore/Coda. That camp experience was a real touchstone for me – being around people my own age who were as obsessed with music as I was.”

Goldings would continue his studies after returning from music camp. “My teacher at camp Dave Cozzolongo had given me a list of records that I should buy to start understanding the jazz language,” Goldings says. “When I got home, I bought every single one of those records, and many of the artists were new to me – people like Bud Powell, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson and others that really covered the tradition of jazz. That list really helped fill-in many of the holes that were missing in my musical vocabulary. Later I found a teacher named Peter Cassino, and he really helped me. He had me transcribe [saxophonist John] Coltrane by lending me his reel-to-reel tape recorder, so I could slow things down to half-speed. This was ‘old school,’ before any of these incredible apps you can use now. After about three years of studying with Peter, he basically told me, ‘I don’t know what else I can show you.’ He thought I should get a totally different perspective, so he recommended I study with Ran Blake, from the Third Stream department at the New England Conservatory. Ran also taught privately out of his house, so I started studying with him when I was 15. Ran has a very specific way of teaching, and is totally into the idea of eclecticism, and bringing that into one’s playing. For instance, he might send me home with a cassette of an Elvis Costello melody, the first sixteen bars of a Bartok theme, followed by one of his own tunes which was always intervallically challenging. The following week, I had to sing these themes to him from memory, which was invaluable ear training, and it also turned me on to a lot of music. For a few of my high school years, I saw Ran every week, and he was incredibly supportive. For him, it was all about freedom and finding your own voice, and setting a mood when you play with your touch and command of harmony.”

While still in his teens, a chance encounter would afford Goldings the opportunity to study with one of the living legends of jazz piano, Keith Jarrett. “My dad was on a business trip and saw that Keith Jarrett was performing the Samuel Barber Piano Concerto with the Saratoga Symphony,” Goldings explains. “My dad knew that I loved Keith Jarrett, and when he realized he was staying at the same hotel as Keith, he called his room! They had a 10-minute phone conversation and at the end of it, they had set-up a tentative date for my Dad to bring me to Keith’s studio in New Jersey for a piano lesson. So that was both incredible and frightening - I was only 15 at the time - but he was exceptionally nice to me, and I ended-up going two more times, even bringing my good friend [guitarist] Peter Bernstein with me the last time. I played for Keith, and we also played together, because he had two pianos – a Hamburg Steinway and an American one. I remember standing over him while he was talking about simplicity, and he played one chorus of ‘Stella by Starlight’ as a ballad. It was just so incredible - a real dream experience.”

“Keith had a book that he found in London in which the first volume gave you four bars of an elementary but nicely put together melody,” Goldings continues. “Then you would take all the time you needed to compose, as he put it, ‘the inevitable way to end the idea.’ First it would be a single melody, and by volume two, it would get more complex, and by volume six, it would be atonal harmony. Now, this is a brilliant way to describe what Keith Jarrett is able to do in the moment. He does it better than anyone. He’ll set up some great idea, and you’ll think ‘Oh, sh$t! That’s so beautiful. How’s he going to get out of that?’ And yet, he’ll find a melodic and harmonic resolution that just makes it seem like there’s no better way than what he played. And he does that constantly live and on record. Keith is without a doubt one of the deepest musicians I have ever known.”

Goldings continued his studies at New York’s New School [for Social Research] in Manhattan, enrolling in what would become the first year of the now renowned music program. “I actually auditioned for [saxophonist and program founder] Arnie Lawrence and [jazz pianist] Tommy Flanagan,” he says. “I was accepted, and so in 1986 I moved to New York. I actually came down with mononucleosis that first year and had to go home for two months, because I had worn myself down to a degree to which I had never known before! I was just so excited about everything that was going on in the city that I just was hanging out and not sleeping. But almost immediately, by way of the New School, I was leading the house band at the Village Gate jam session. I would open with an hour set at this legendary jazz club, and I’d be exposed to the ‘who’s who’ of the New York jazz scene. A bit later, I had a solo piano gig there as well. Between that and the jam session, which was more often than not on a very high level, you realized instantly what you lacked as a player, particularly in the traditional bebop or post-bop tradition. And to be 18 years old and have that kind of exposure to so many high level players was amazing.”

While Goldings was making an impression primarily as a pianist at that time (with singer Jon Hendricks tapping him for numerous world tours while he was still at the New School), a chance encounter with the electric organ would alter the trajectory of his career. “It was around that time that I was playing at the Village Gate that [drummer] Leon Parker was playing up at Augie’s [now Smoke] on 106th Street and Broadway,” he explains. “When the bass player didn’t show up, Leon called me in a panic because somehow he knew that I liked to ‘walk’ bass lines. So I brought my Yamaha DX-7 up and around halfway through the gig, I switched it from a bass sound to an organ sound thinking, ‘Oh ya, organ! Like on those Wes Montogomery records!’ Soon I realized that I really loved playing organ, perhaps because one of my first influences on piano was Dave McKenna. When he played solo piano, he walked incredible bass lines. And I really got into that bass player role. And when that gig with Leon Parker turned into a steady one, I kept bringing different gear to try and get closer to emulating the real Hammond organ. Subsequently the personnel on the gig went through many changes, and in time it was myself, Bill Stewart and Peter Bernstein. This is how [saxophonist] Maceo Parker first heard Bill and me, and he later asked us both to tour and record with him. Actually, through Maceo’s producer I recorded my first album [with Bernstein and Stewart], and later I was signed to Warner Jazz. Around this time I also met and worked with the guitarists Jim Hall and John Scofield. Gradually, it seemed that people started thinking of me more as an organ player. What I discovered was that if you have eclectic musical tastes like I do, the organ experience can easily lead you into soul and pop and other things outside of jazz. And I love it all. As time went on, I felt like I was developing my own sound on the organ. And being around players like Jim Hall and John Scofield - artists who had their own distinct musical identities - really made me focus on finding my own voice. I guess the other piece of the puzzle was that I had loved synthesizers as a kid. My first keyboards were a Korg MS-10 and a Roland Juno-60, so, somehow the organ seemed like the perfect vehicle for me to combine all of my musical and sonic interests.”

Goldings relocated from New York to Los Angeles in the summer of 2001 and continued his busy schedule. “I still had a good deal of road work,” he says. “From my own group, to a collection of other wonderful people like [saxophonist] Michael Brecker and [drummer] Matt Wilson. But behind the L.A. move was the desire to travel a bit less. I felt like I could start making forays into songwriting, and composing for movies and television. Then the producer Russ Titleman called me to play on the song ‘Mean Old Man,’ on an album he was producing for James Taylor called October Road. So I came to New York, met James and the band, and tracked the song live in a couple of takes. Soon, James started calling me to do some symphonic gigs, which had a mix of American popular songs and his own songs. Not long after, James asked me if I would be interested in going on the road with him. And I’ve been performing and recording with him ever since. But living in L.A. has also provided me with some really satisfying studio work, with great producers like Tommy LiPuma, Larry Klein, Joe Henry, Blake Mills and others. And my composing opportunities are growing more and more, which has been really gratifying.”

Starting in March of 2017, Goldings will temporarily leave his regular role as James Taylor’s accompanist to assume the keyboard slot in John Mayer’s band for his upcoming tour. “John’s drummer Steve Jordan, whom I had known in New York, had called me years ago to play on the track ‘Gravity’ from Mayer’s 2006 album Continuum,” Goldings explains. “I had also crossed paths with John on the John Scofield album That’s What I Say. Recently, I played on much of John’s upcoming album The Search for Everything. I’m sad to be missing many of James Taylor's dates this year. But when John called about touring this record with this band, it just felt right.

On tour with John Mayer, Goldings will play a lean keyboard rig consisting of a Hammond B3 organ and Leslie speaker (along with a Neo Ventilator Leslie simulator for backup), a Nord Stage 2 for piano and other keyboard sounds, and a Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 12 for pads. “I’m now borrowing John’s Prophet 12, which I’m going to use on the road,” he says. “I’m loving it, and John’s totally into me finding sounds that aren’t necessarily true to the ones on the records. So there’ll be a sonic element I can experiment with.”

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Goldings sees similarities between Taylor and Mayer. “James Taylor is so much more than a pop/folk artist...he’s highly intellectual, and has absorbed so much, musically and otherwise,” Goldings says. “Similarly, John’s strong blues influence is only part of his DNA. He crafts songs beautifully and his musical influences, like James, are vast. John likes players with a wide musical range, because the songs require that. He’s a wonderful guitarist and singer, and really a blast to play with. The musicianship of the band is so strong - with John, Steve Jordan on drums, Pino Palladino on bass, David Ryan Harris and Isaiah Sharkey on guitars, as well as two great singers, Carlos Ricketts and Tiffany Palmer. It’s just an incredible band. So this is a really nice opportunity, because it’s a great mix of groove-oriented songs, and beautiful, introspective music. It’s a wonderful group of people to play with. And I think in the end, whatever kind of music you’re playing, it’s so important to play with people you like and respect. I’m very lucky.” 

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