Six of the Best New Keyboard Artists Across Multiple Genres
It’s a question we get all the time: What up-and-coming artists are inspiring the next generation of players and putting keyboards and electronic instruments front and center? The following artists span a multitude of musical styles, and while they may not have started their careers only yesterday, they’re just beginning to get the recognition they deserve outside of deep-muso circles. They have one other thing in common, too: We’ve seen them all perform live, and were blown away in every case.
Our first encounter with Oakland, California’s Kev Choice was at revered jazz club Yoshi’s, where he performed his original hip-hop opera “The Chosen One” with live rhythm, string, and horn sections. His right hand played voicings and solos worthy of Chick Corea, his left hand coaxed Zawinul-like synth textures from the Roland Juno-G atop the piano, and his voice spoke poetry about a possibly messianic child born to struggling musicians. We managed to scrape our jaws off the floor by last call. Whether you’re a hip-hop fan or not so much, Kev Choice will change everything you think you know about the genre.
What was your early music education like?
I had a fascination with piano from a very early age but didn’t begin formal training until age 11 at Westlake Junior High. I took piano class as an elective, in seventh grade, which was offered in Oakland public schools at the time. After four months, I did my first recital playing Muzio Clemente’s “Sonatina.” After my first year, I was accepted into UC Berkeley’s Young Musicians Program.
Which came first: Wanting to be a pianist, or wanting to be a hip-hop M.C.?
My mother was an avid music fan, and kept a collection of records in the living room that I remember listening to as early as eight years old. She had everything from Sugar Hill Records, Prince, the Whispers, Michael Jackson, Maze, and more classic soul. My uncle and cousin were aspiring rappers and DJs, so they had all the latest hip-hop records at the time from EPMD, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, and so on. This was before I started playing piano. As far as playing piano and being an M.C., it kind of all happened simultaneously, because as I was beginning to write rhymes, I was also beginning to play, and had a little keyboard I use to record little beats to rap over.
Who were your big influences at school? At Xavier University in New Orleans, where I got my bachelor’s, it was Professor James Oakes, a concert pianist who specialized in African-American classical composers. The first thing my jazz teacher Herman Lebeaux did was to give me a Bud Powell record and say, “Go woodshed to this.” Getting my master’s degree at University of Southern Illinois, Dr. Willard Delphin was a huge influence.
What was the importance of formal education versus everything but?
They were both integral. As an undergrad, I was doing classical piano competitions and freestyle rap battles around New Orleans. From the beginning I took to non-formal ways of playing music, but I’d apply my knowledge of theory to enhance whatever I was doing as a hip-hop producer or M.C. After I got my degrees and started playing in hip-hop, R&B, and soul bands, most of the music wasn’t written down, so it developed my ear greatly to have to learn from CDs.
What keyboards are in your rig right now?
The Yamaha Motif for its extreme versatility and quality keyboard sounds. It has wide array of Rhodes, nice pianos, and cool synths and strings. I also have a Roland Juno-G, which I love for the synths, basses, and cool pads. Recently, I got a Roland JX-8P, which has great synth strings and brass that I use to pad and add textures while I solo.
In 2001, a 15-year-old Rachelle Lynn Gislason won a contest, allowing her to open for Nelly Furtado in their shared hometown of Victoria, British Columbia. The calibre of her performance won her a standing ovation—the first of a train of accomplishments that’s steadily been gathering steam. Her vocal range and keyboard chops are matched only by the stylistic diversity of her original album, Green Lights.
How would you describe your sound?
Pop, soul, alternative rock. I’m big into melody, probably because of my jazz and classical background, and I’ve been told my music sounds like movie music. That makes sense, since I have a passion for film scores and would love to write them one day.
You come from a very musical family. Describe their influence on you.
My dad is a brilliant electric guitarist and multi-instrumentalist; he toured with Bryan Adams in the band Sweeney Todd. He taught me how to rock out on the piano at a very early age, and more recently, drummed on my whole record. By the time I was eight, I was hammering out songs such as “Taking It to the Streets” by the Doobie Brothers. My pipes are from my mom, who’s a phenomenal vocalist. When I was just six weeks old, she flew to L.A. with me to sing on the show Star Search. She’s also worked with David Foster. It’s pretty fantastic to have parents who are just as passionate about music as I am.
What formal training is in your background?
I started learning piano at age four, and had private lessons through age 17. I studied classical but dominantly jazz for about six of those years. My favorite piano teacher was George Essihos, who introduced me to jazz voicings and improvisation. He’d tell me, “There’s no such thing as a bad note—only better ones!”
Who are your top musical heroes?
In R&B, Stevie Wonder. For rock, Led Zepplin. From my pop songwriter perspective, Alanis Morissette, Chantal Kreviazuk, and Sarah McLachlan. For jazz, Bill Evans.
What keyboards are in your rig now, and why did you choose them?
I grew up with a Yamaha G2 baby grand, so having a rich and dynamic acoustic piano sound is paramount. I had a Yamaha S80, then an S90, and loved their balance of piano and synth. For a track called “Innocence,” I used the S80 arpeggiator on organ along with one of its awesome string patches. I’ve been using the Motif ES8 for the last few years.
I’ve been collaborating with some great songwriters in Nashville. Two writing teams in particular are Daryl and Lee Ann Burgess, and Jon and Sally Tiven. I’ve been invited onboard a new publishing company, The Committee, founded by Morris Hayes [keyboardist and musical director for Prince] and Nicholas O’Toole [film composer and Open Labs expert] as a songwriter.
We first discovered Wes Bailey when his band, Moon Taxi, played a show in San Francisco. Though his solos were as blazing as the best jam-band keyboardists we know of, his playing also had a keen sense of phrasing, melodic statement, and multi-keyboarding that suggested he was a much deeper musician than your average modal-and-blues-scale jammer. Talking to him confirmed our suspicions
How do you describe your sound?
Moon Taxi is a melting pot. We used to be a jam band, but now our music is considered by many to be progressive indie rock. When we play live, I’m constantly trying to widen our sonic landscape. I’m usually playing three sounds on every song: big poly synths, screeching organ, and frenzied arpeggios all at once.
What formal training have you had?
I took lessons from age nine to 21, but faked my way through most of it. I’d be assigned a Mozart piece but would always do my own interpretation. It fooled my mom but not my teacher; fortunately he encouraged that kind of freedom. I’ve been a jazz theory nut since high school, though, and you can’t fake that.
Who are your musical heroes?
I really started to care about the music my teacher assigned when we got into Gershwin and Scott Joplin. The groove so many of their tunes had was ultimately my segue into jazz and funk. When I got into playing in bands, I became obsessed with [guitarist] Trey Anastasio of Phish. He’s been my main influence in composition and soloing style.
What was your earliest memory of synth, B-3, or a sound beyond acoustic piano?
I saw the musical Cats when I was eight, and was entranced with all the crazy synth sounds. That show came out in the early ‘80s and you can hear them from the first note of the overture. I’ll also never forget the first time I saw a DVD of John Medeski playing B-3 organ. My first synth was a Yamaha S90—great keyboard.
What’s in your rig now?
I love the piano sound on my Yamaha S90ES. The Nord Electro 2 is my favorite organ sound, and its Clav, Wurly, and Rhodes sounds are fantastic as well. Then there’s the MicroKorg, which has all my favorite vintage synth sounds all in one tiny keyboard.
This year has been incredible so far. We released our album in February and have played some great festivals like Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza since. We’re currently putting together the songs for what will become our next record.
ELECTRONIC DANCE MUSC
Matt Lange’s achievements in electronic music are the envy of peers and veterans alike. Graduate from Berklee’s Music Synthesis program? For starters. Co-program BT’s seminal electronic album, “These Hopeful Machines”? Check. Release numerous dance hits on the prestigious imprint Anjunadeep? Done. Develop sample libraries for top-notch companies like Sample Magic and WaveAlchemy? No sweat. Run his own artist label on Beatport and iTunes? Yep—and all by age 26.
How did you get started in music?
My parents had me take piano lessons when I was five, though I got bored with them at the time and just wanted to be outside playing. When I was eight I joined the Grace Church Boys Choir in New York City, and was avidly involved for the following six years until my voice changed. That lead to playing guitar in a hardcore punk/metal band, and as we grew apart musically I felt the need to teach myself how to record so that essentially I didn’t need a band anymore.
What were your years like at Berklee?
Berklee was an amazing place to be as an aspiring producer. I always assumed I’d be in the Music Production and Engineering program, but soon found Music Synthesis, which combined elements of MP&E with sound design and music for picture. Two professors in particular really pushed me: Dr. Richard Boulanger and Dr. Jeff Baust. Dr. B [Boulanger], the driving force behind Max/MSP and CSound at Berklee, really honed me in on composition and arrangement, where Jeff pushed me on the technical front. Dr. B’s recommendation eventually led to my working with BT.
How did you become an EDM artist?
Working with BT opened a lot of doors in the EDM [electronic dance music] scene, so I thought that if I played by “their rules” for a couple of years, then later I could do what I really wanted once I had a following. It was a borderline naïve assumption, I know. Around the same time, I started developing sample libraries as a source of income. I created a small one at first for Sample Magic, and soon after, Wave Alchemy approached me about work that later got released as their Tech House and Minimal library.
What’s the most insane thing you’ve done to create a unique sound?
Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anything totally insane. Typically I start my sound design process with recordings I make, and they could be anything from field recordings to taking a screwdriver to an electric guitar, to taking a cello bow to various metals.I’m really attracted to organic, modulating, real sounds.
What are your favorite tools for audio manipulation?
U&I Metasynth, Native Instruments Kontakt and Reaktor, CSound, and GRM Tools.As far as hardware goes, I have an Eventide DSP4000 which I totally abuse, as well as a Fractal Audio AxeFX II, which, while marketed as a guitar processor, is an amazing sound design tool.
Keyboardist and composer Craig Taborn has been creating a sonic storm since bursting onto the Jazz scene in the 1990s. A sought-after sideman who’s equally at home on both acoustic and electronic instruments, Taborn rocketed to international acclaim with his 2011 solo piano release Avenging Angel, his debut for imprint ECM Records.
What formal training have you had?
I had two years of piano lessons in the beginner/classical model starting at age 12, then three years with a great piano teacher in Minneapolis named Peter Murray, who guided me in the basics of jazz improvisation and taught me quite a bit about the larger question of music-making in general.
Who are your musical heroes?
A list would be arbitrary, but a few essentials include Horace Silver, Led Zeppelin, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Minutemen, Miles Davis, Voivod, Anthony Braxton, Brian Eno, Morton Feldman, and Vince Clarke.
What was your earliest memory of synth, B-3, or a keyboardsoundbeyond acoustic piano?
Probably a combination of some Ilhan Mimaroglu recordings with a lot of the electronic music my older brother was into when I was about 12: Kraftwerk, Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, and so on. The industrial stuff and the Mimaroglu made me go crazy for aggressive synth sounds, which led me to ask for my first synth—a Moog Satellite I got as a Christmas gift when I was 12.
What’s in your rig now?
My favorite rig is a good Steinway D piano. With the Chris Potter Underground, I use an 88-key Rhodes Suitcase. With David Torn and my own Junk Magic group—both heavily electronic—the recordings have Mellotron, Wurly, Minimoog, Hammond B-3, Rhodes, Farfisa, and also some circuit-bent gear. I also use quite a bit of computer processing with things I designed in Max/MSP.
A new piano trio recording to be released next spring on ECM. There’s also a new Dave Holland band called Prism recorded that has Kevin Eubanks and Eric Harland. I play piano and Rhodes in it and it runs a gamut from some harder “fusion” to acoustic jazz and spacey, chamber-y kinds of things. Also, more work with the pianist Vijay Iyer, and a group I’m getting together to do more electronic music.
Speed and precision are currency among jazz organists. However, the groove and grease of greats like Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff are harder to come by—some would say you either got it or you don’t. Akiko Tsuruga has it all. Though her playing lacks nothing technically, she swings hard and visibly pours emotion—usually sheer joy—into every note. When she pulls full drawbars for block chord solos, step back and give the awesomeness some room.
What was your early musical training like?
I studied at a Yamaha music school. I played all kind of music: pops, classical, jazz, fusion. As a college student, I played classical organ at church.
What was the first time you heard the sound of the organ and thought, “That’s what I want to do”?
My first Hammond record was The Cat by Jimmy Smith. When I was three, my parents bought a small Yamaha Electone spinet. When it was delivered, the person from the music played a couple of tunes, and I thought, “I want to learn to play that!” That was the beginning of my life in music.
Who are your main influences on the Hammond?
Dr. Lonnie Smith. I met him in Japan before I moved to New York City. After moving, I started hanging out with him and watched his playing as much as I could. Sometime we’d practice together and I learned difference between his playing and mine by ear. By watching him, I also learned how to build up a solo, how to use the expression pedal, how to play bass pedals, and he showed me a great trick about big block chord voicings.
What’s in your rig these days?
I have a Hammond A100 and Leslie 122 at my place, which I play every day. For gigs, I’ve been playing three or four days a week at a club called Showman’s in Harlem, and I bring the Hammond SK1 or SK2, often with a Roland KC100 or Hartke Kickback 12 amp, or a Leslie 2101 Mk. 2 speaker system. Other than a vintage 122, my favorite Leslie to play through is the Hammond model 3300.
Who would be in your dream band?
Wes Montgomery, Stanley Turrentine, and Grady Tate! Also, Art Blakey, Grant Green, Philly Joe Jones, and John Coltrane.
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