Keyboardist Jen Gunderman not only rocks hard with acclaimed singer and songwriter Sheryl Crow, she's also an Assistant Professor of Musicology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Get to know our TALENT SCOUT Artist of the Week.
NAME: Jen Gunderman
HOMETOWN: Topeka, Kansas
MUSICAL TRAINING: I received my B.A. from Vassar College in classical piano performance, and my M.A. from the University of Washington, Seattle in ethnomusicology. And I've spent 20 years touring and doing recording session work.
FIRST GIGS: Starting around age 12, I got hired to play piano for every kind of gig you can do while underage: weddings, funerals, theater, choir and solo accompanying, school assemblies, private parties, church services, etc. In college, I played in a disco cover band, and after graduation I worked in the A&R department at Columbia Records/Sony (NYC) for a few years before going to grad school in Seattle. My first real touring band gigs were with Dag and the Jayhawks.
MUSICAL INFLUENCES: Ian McLagan, Benmont Tench, Aretha Franklin’s piano playing, Nicky Hopkins, Chuck Leavell, Donny Hathaway, and Prof. Richard Wilson’s tonal and modal counterpoint classes, which seemed archaic at the time but proved to be incredibly useful later when I started doing session work and had to think quickly about voice leading and chord voicing in an ensemble.
WHAT I’M LISTENING TO RIGHT NOW: I’m working my way through the list from "1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die" by Michael Lydon, which has been a blast. Sarah Vaughan At Mister Kelly’s, Genesis' Selling England By The Pound, and John Martyn Solid Air have been recent highlights. I also went down an Ali Farka Toure rabbit hole after we opened for Robert Plant on a few dates this summer and I heard what his band was doing with African instruments and influences.
MY BIG BREAK: While I was living in Seattle, I got a call from a guitar player whose funk band was on Columbia Records – they were called Dag, and I had met them when I was working at the label in NYC. He asked me if I wanted to drop out of my Ph.D program, move to North Carolina and join their band on tour. I said, "Hell, yes!" And everything else happened from there.
LATEST PROJECTS: Keyboards/Accordion/Percussion/Vocals with Sheryl Crow; Assistant Professor of Musicology at Vanderbilt University; online Coursera course called “Understanding the Music Business: What Is Music Worth?”; various studio recording and gigs in Nashville.
FAVORITE KEYBOARDS AND WHY? It’s got to be a big bright grand piano and a good grungy Hammond B3 and Leslie with a reverb unit, right? Add a Wurlitzer with some fun pedals and an amp and I’m pretty much set! But for sheer power and versatility I love the Nord series. For the Sheryl gig, I’ve got three Nord Stage 2's that all get a lot of use: The one onstage is in an old upright piano shell that was modified to house the keyboard and store percussion, cables, etc.; one is a backup, and I use it to warm up and create and edit new programs backstage on the road; and one is at home, so I can bring it to in-town sessions and create new programs and sounds that I save to my laptop and load into the traveling keyboards. They’re also great for fly dates, because you can rent and clone them so easily.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU? The semester at Vanderbilt is gearing up, and Sheryl always has cool things for us on the horizon. I’m teaching a "History of Rock Music" lecture class this semester, plus a "Women & Rock" seminar in the spring. I’ve been experimenting with technology that allows me to upload lecture material and other media to our course platform on days when I’m performing out of town, which allows me to manage the scheduling conflicts that come up with Sheryl’s tour. Students seem to like the hybrid online format, I think partly because they’re interested in the stories I post from the road… but mostly because they don’t have to come to class on days that I’m gigging, and they can watch the material on their own time!
ADVICE TO THE NEXT GENERATION: Practice everything in all 12 keys, and avoid using the transpose button on any keyboard.
For more information visit www.jengunderman.com