Jazz interview with jazz pianist and composer Tony Kieraldo. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Tony Kieraldo: – I grew up in rural Wisconsin in a village called Darien. Both my parents were public school band teachers and my father had an extensive classical and jazz record collection so my interest in music started with him.
JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the piano? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the piano?
TK: – I started taking piano lessons at age 4. When I was in 7th grade my parents found a jazz accordion player named Mike Alongi that lived in Rockford, IL. They drove me down there once a week to study jazz piano and theory with him. I picked up things pretty quickly on the piano and was inspired to play listening to Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
TK: – My sound evolved over time by who I listened to and what I was exposed to. Growing up I listened to classical (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven), traditional jazz and jazz up to the 1960’s as well as old time rock and roll like the Beach Boys and Fat Domino. I then got into music of the day like Green Day, Salt n Pepa and top 40’s radio in the from the 1990’s.
My sound continued to develop after playing with fellow musicians at Interlochen Arts Academy and New England Conservatory as well as experimenting with free jazz and other sounds. I became a musical director for the National Dance Institute in NYC where I started learning diﬀerent genres of music to play for dance classes. I would take some of these songs and start to reimagine them with a diﬀerent feel like ragtime or stride.
I also toured for years as a folk duo, playing and singing simpler melodies and connecting with audiences in a diﬀerent way. I always wanted the music I made to connect with people, especially people who didn’t listen to jazz music. That has always been an underlying theme in the evolution of my sound. I found that melodies and simpler song structures made it easier to connect with listeners of all kinds and from there I could interject diﬀerent colors, rhythms and dirtiness over the music.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
TK: – My practice routine has ebbed and flowed over the years. Sometimes I wouldn’t practice at all and just play. I would feel guilty about this and as a result, I feel my playing in ways plateau’d for awhile. I think where my technique was lacking my sound developed beneath the unpracticed notes, in the dirtiness and messiness of life. Bob Moses was a teacher of mine at NEC in Boston and I worked on diﬀerent rhythms with him as well as Danilo Perez who opened my eyes and ears to diﬀerent rhythms.
I started adding a drum and a high hat to my piano playing with dance companies which added a lot to the music. I eventually decided to add the drums into my own playing which you hear in this album.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?
TK: – I like to use harmonica patterns that lend to a smoother sense and more harmonic than dissonant because in general it is more pleasing to my ear. I appreciate dissonance and have played a lot of dissonant music but at the end of the day I think melodies and harmonies are incredibly important in musical storytelling, especially with the songs I chose for this album. I wanted the songs to spark joy in some way to the listener and be a pleasant if not humorous at times listening experience.
JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
TK: – In music and art we borrow and steal from diﬀerent places and people. What makes this album unique is that I’m playing piano, bass drum and high-hat simultaneously through almost every song. I also mashed together a few songs that I’ve never seen paired together like David Bowie and Thelonious Monk, Mobb Deep and Johann Sebastian Bach as well as Beethoven and Dr. Dre. These mashups were created the week before recording.
JBN.S: – What do you love most about your new album 2018: <Milk Money>, how it was formed and what you are working on today.
TK: – What I love most about my album, Milk Money is the variety of songs that are covered and put together as one statement. I also love the uniqueness of the singers that joined me on the album.
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
TK: – Great question! I think soul is what people ultimately connect to in music. The intellect creates the concepts and structures but it’s ultimately the soul that people connect to. It’s the job of the artist to take technique, intellect, structure and dissolve them into the music to express the feeling of that song, the soul of the music. When you close your eyes, you’re not wondering what kind of degree or knowledge that person has. You hear the expression and their soul coming through the music.
JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
TK: – Yes. I believe that being an artist has a certain level of ego and self importance that comes with it. Ultimately there is a connection between the artist and music whether it be emotional, intellectual, spiritual or some type of combination of these. Music is a human experience and is a gift from the player to the listener. When a gift is given and appreciated you want to give more of that gift. If my fiancé loves flowers, I want to give her more flowers and things of that nature. If instead I give her a 2 x 4 or a some rocks, there will be a diﬀerent response and diﬀerent connection. That being said, I think it’s also important to give people what they don’t know they want. Steve Jobs was a genius at that.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
TK: – One of the most memorable gigs was playing for President Barack Obama and Michele Obama at the White House for Michele’s program, Turnaround Arts which helps turn around failing public schools through the arts. I accompanied Sarah Jessica Parker who sang You’re Never Fully Dressed without a Smile from Annie.
Another great gig was playing the The Late Show with Stephen Colbert with the rock group, Bash & Pop. The show ended with Stephen unplugging all of our instruments while we were still playing, tearing up our new record and wrestling the lead singer, Tommy Stinson to the ground. That was a memorable night and awesome shaking hands with Stephen Colbert.
With Milk Money, I recorded it in two days at an awesome music venue next to my apartment, Club Helsinki in Hudson, NY. The first day I recorded all of the singers in costume. The second I was all by myself and had to get everything in one take.
One highlight of the singer recording day was of my friend, Ella Loudon who sang an arrangement I did of the Beatles, We Can Work it Out. Ella was named after Ella Fitzgerald. She’s an actress professionally and this was her first time singing on a recording.
I had a bottle of Buﬀalo Trace Bourbon for everyone at the session which ended up becoming a prop for her. We ended up using it as a prop because I also had the session filmed so we ended up having her to come to the piano and pour a shot of bourbon and then drink it during my piano solo which she heartily drank down. (You can see it in the music video). She had a bit of a heavy pour so the shot was more like three shots which she took down and finished the later half with a sassy British sultry drunken attitude. We did a few more takes though I realized that doing each take and taking shots for the piano solo was not going in the right direction. It made for a dynamic performance however.
My album release party I was joined by an amazing group from Brooklyn called the Xylopholks led by xylophone extraordinaire, Jonathan Singer. I went to high school with Jon and the bass player, Steve Whipple as well as to NEC with the pianist, Carmen Staﬀ. They are all incredible players in their own right and it was a blast reconnecting with them all. The Xylopholks play novelty ragtime music in animal costumes, a perfect fit for the vibe of what I’ve been going for.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
TK: – I think what Scott Bradlee has done with Post Modern Jukebox has done a lot to raise awareness about the style of jazz by taking popular songs of today and reimagining them in jazz, swing and diﬀerent acoustically performed feels. Jazz songs were pop songs of the day, a lot of times coming from Broadway shows. I think that some jazz artists of today have understood this and covered songs of today like Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman and groups like the Bad Plus. I think that getting young people to hear a song they know and like done with a jazz or swing feel is a good way to bridge the gap in accepting jazz music. From there, it can open the door to explore where this music comes from and what other songs there are that were popular more than half a century ago.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
TK: – Wow! Deep question! I understand spirit as the essence of what it means to be human. There is no other being on this earth that creates art and music for enjoyment and expression. Music is everywhere around us, whether it is organized on a recording, sung or played or natural like the sounds you hear while walking in the woods. Sound is an important color and component to spirit which is the building block of finding any meaning in life.
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
TK: – I would have music and the arts be a fundamental requirement in public schools and be valued as important as math, science and reading. I would also have them stand alone as being an important part of being a well rounded person and not tied to how they help math, science or reading but how they are valuable on their own.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
TK: – I find myself listening to Spotify playlists like Chopin, Bach, Art Tatum, Bill Evans, Release Radar. I also like 80’s rock and new music that is coming out from friends in diﬀerent musical genres.
JBN.S: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
TK: – The message I choose to bring through my music with this album is joy and a little bit of humor.
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
TK: – I’d love to see Art Tatum perform in NYC. He is absolutely humbling as a pianist and it would be incredible to hear and see him perform live.
JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
TK: – How did you become interested in jazz?
JBN.S: – Thank you for answers and for cooperation with us. Since 2001, when I was at live cocerts in festivals. I am journalist and since the beginning of 2005 I became a jazz critic.
JBN.S: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?
TK: – I’m not sure I understand this last question.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan