Roundtable: The State of Keyboard Jazz in 2017

Five jazz keyboardists discuss the their careers, new gear, new players, and classic influences that define the genre today
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What’s the current climate for jazz keyboardists? Keyboard spoke to five of today’s most in-demand players about the state of the art, important influences, essential new gear, and the future of the genre. Meet our panel of experts: Jazz giant Larry Goldings has toured and recorded with artists from Maceo Parker to John Scofield and James Taylor, and appears on upcoming releases by his own trio, John Legend, and John Mayer, among others. Session and live ace Matt Rollings has played on numerous records and tours with artists such as Larry Carlton, Lyle Lovett, and Willie Nelson. Jason Lindner has made sonic waves with the group Now vs. Now and with his keyboards on David Bowie’s last album, Blackstar. Veteran Latin-jazz pianist Edsel Gomez can be heard with his own World Fusion Band as well as with jazz icons like vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater. And young keysman Cale Hawkins has been turning ears on projects with Quincy Jones, Nikki Yanofsky, J3PO and more.

How would you describe the current jazz scene for recording and performing?

From left to right: Matt Rollings, Jason Lindner, Larry Goldings, Edsel Gomez, Cale Hawkins.Rollings: What I’m observing is, hopefully, a continued respect and understanding of the roots of jazz.
Hawkins: “Jazz” as a term has expanded rapidly over the past decade. The influence of jazz has pervaded everything from gospel and R&B to indie rock, electronic and hip-hop music. The newest releases from artists like David Bowie, Kendrick Lamar, and Bon Iver have jazz musicians all over them. Today’s scene isn’t strictly relegated to “jazz” in a traditional sense, but jazz’s unmistakable influence across genres and boundaries has ensured the scene’s relevancy in today’s musical landscape.
Larry Goldings: There’s always a plethora of great musicians, but how to get one’s music out there, whether it’s recordings or touring, is a struggle to figure out, unless you’re okay with not making much money. It seems that that the few who are figuring it out are harnessing the power of YouTube, putting in the time to learn video editing and mastering social media. These are tough times to make a living in music.

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Is the jazz scene in 2017 different from when you first started your career?

Lindner: The scene has changed, but so has my perspective, so it’s difficult to say. The most obvious and grandest difference now though is the Internet and social media.
Gomez: I see the same old difficulties with more technology, more competition, and broader reach. It’s a modern, old jungle!
Hawkins: Today’s scene feels increasingly hectic and fast-paced. Social networking and on-demand services like Spotify are ubiquitous as ever, and the exchange of information has never been easier. As a result, today’s artists have to constantly devise novel and nontraditional ways to create, fund, release, and market their music. I’ve found that the ease of information exchange also extends to many other areas of a musician’s career. As a sideman, for instance, I generally have to respond immediately to most gig requests. If I wait more than five minutes, I often find that they’ve already called the next name on the list.
Rollings: Well, one way to describe it is “work harder for less money!” Also, though, I think the hardship of the failing health of the music business is creating very fertile ground for young artists to grow. With the rise of the Internet’s role in music, the playing field has changed drastically and young musicians have greater access to an audience than they’ve ever had. This is bringing to the front some ridiculous new talent, such as Jacob Collier, Joey Alexander, Snarky Puppy, etc.
Goldings: The scene is healthy in terms of great, creative players, but I miss having the elder greats around, the players who were in their 50s and 60s when I moved to New York in the 1980s—Jim Hall, Tommy Flanagan, Jaki Byard, Joe Zawinul, countless others of that generation. They set a standard of greatness, originality, and authenticity that kicked all of our asses.

What trends do you see in the jazz scene today?

Lindner: In the jazz scene today unfortunately there is a trend of disconnected retroactive imitation with commercial branding.
Hawkins: Jazz and electronic music are closely intertwined these days. I see a lot of artists using samplers, synths, and loops to create music directly in the lineage of traditional jazz. I often refer to Kamasi Washington and Thunder-cat as prime examples—artists that aren’t afraid to apply their jazz chops in modern, unexpected contexts, often to great effect.
Rollings: There are some really interesting acoustic/electric hybrids happening now—more subtle and musical.
Goldings: The trend to use laptops and samples, and having openness to all musical influences, is a positive thing, when done with taste, heart, and intelligence. Whether one calls it “jazz” or not is not relevant. The trend to play things in odd meters by default, is something that often bores me. It seems like a way to circumvent what we call “swinging.” Also those of us who still care to swing are more the rarity these days.

Who are some elder jazz artists that still inspire you and why?

Hawkins: Quincy Jones, who I’ve been incredibly fortunate enough to work with over the past few years, remains a huge inspiration. At 83, he keeps the music playing by mentoring young artists, producing fantastic albums, and being a kind and warm soul to all those around him. Herbie Hancock is also a continual inspiration. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him perform many times over the last decade, and no two shows have ever been the same. He consistently challenges musical norms and opens his listeners’ ears to fresh sounds and ideas. Furthermore, he recently gave a series of lectures at Harvard that are absolutely brilliant.
Rollings: My early roots are in cats like Oscar Peterson and Ramsey Lewis. Their swing and pocket deeply inform the way I play rhythm, even nowadays, where I don’t play “legit” jazz that often. The playing of Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, and Keith Jarrett has been very influential in the way I play harmonically. And Dr. Lonnie Smith is killing it!
Lindner: These are far too numerous to mention. Wayne Shorter because of his dedication to true improvisation and his artistic and life philosophy, his openness, his spirit. Simeon of Silver Apples, Steve Reich and Randy Weston.
Goldings: Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, Roy Haynes, Barry Harris, Lee Konitz, Sonny Rollins, Andy Bey, Steve Swallow, Carla Bley, Ron Carter, Billy Hart.
Gomez: Chick Corea, my music and life role model. Eddie Palmieri, the keeper of the traditional flame. Jack DeJohnette, a hero and role model. Herbie Hancock, idol.

Can you name any of the newer generation of jazz keyboardists that impress you?

Goldings: Jacob Collier, Jake Sherman...
Hawkins: Jake Sherman. His original music draws influence from many areas, but we met while studying jazz at Berklee, so I can hear where he’s coming from on his solo releases. His sense of harmony is unrivaled. I like Julian Pollack, Cory Henry, and Aaron Parks a lot too.
Lindner: Big Yuki, Cory Henry, James Frances. They are all fiercely unique and massive creative forces.
Rollings: Well, Joey Alexander is definitely not going away. In the year since I became aware of him he has grown exponentially. Seems like the sky’s the limit for him. Jason Rebello is a monster. And Larry Goldings, while a formidable pianist, is doing things on the organ that are mind blowing, and his writing is beautiful. Gomez: I am not impressed at all by the new generation in jazz, sorry to say. I listen to the old masters and encourage the young to do the same.

Has any recent gear or new technology inspired you or changed the way you make music?

Gomez: The iPhone. It’s all I take on the road and I listen to everything on it. I still write on manuscript paper and then finish [scores].
Rollings: A lot of new technology has made recording and sharing music a lot easier, but I keep coming back to the piano.
Hawkins: Apple’s MainStage software, for sure. I use it to run all my live keys rigs. If you get the right plug-ins, I’d put my money on it any day over any workstation. Plus, MIDI controllers are so much easier to carry around than a 30-pound keyboard.
Goldings: Logic Pro helps me compose, and the Pocket Piano by Critter and Guitari is just damn fun.
Lindner: The [Dave Smith Instruments] Prophet 12 and Prophet 6 synths have each, in their own way, influenced my hearing and composing because they sound so good and represent new technological milestones in sound-design and tweakability in the analog and hybrid-synth world. Combining improvisation with subtractive synthesis on machines is a truly psychedelic experience.

What advice would you give the next generation of aspiring artists?

Lindner: Don’t second-guess yourself. Believe in yourself and in your own ideas even if others around you may not, yet, understand.
Goldings: Know music thoroughly. Know how to read it, write it. Listen to everything. Work on getting a beautiful sound. Concentrate on how to make others sound good. Throw yourself into challenging situations. Use your ears, and if they are not quick enough, work on that. Don’t rush into a “solo” career unless you’re a musical genius. And if you think you’re a musical genius, you might actually not be. So get off your high horse and keep practicing.
Rollings: Be curious. Never let old notions convince you that there’s not something to learn from every musician you encounter. Play as many styles as you can. It won’t diminish who you are as an artist: It will show you the world. And that can’t help but make you a better citizen and musician.
Gomez: There is no lasting musical success—certainly not financially—without homework. Listen to the masters, work on keeping down your ego and do your homework. There are no shortcuts.
Hawkins: Play what you believe in, and never stop exploring. You never know what may become the inspiration that leads to something great.