For the past 20 years, pianist Aaron Goldberg has led his own band — and been a sideman for some of the stars of jazz. He sees larger lessons in the interactions between musicians as they perform together. “To play in a great band and become part of a whole that’s more than a sum of its parts, that’s a beautiful selfless act of unity that can stand as a model for social interaction in general,” he said in a phone call from New York City. “Musicians lead and follow. We take turns as we converse together. We listen. And we take the audience along with us.”
Goldberg’s dual trajectory as leader and sideman isn’t unusual for jazz musicians — especially for those in the rhythm section (bass, drums, piano, guitar, and other instruments). But it’s been especially fruitful for Goldberg, who fronts his trio with bassist Matt Penman and drummer Leon Parker, on Wednesday, May 1, at Gig Performance Space. He’s polished his own direction while working in support of noted saxophonist Joshua Redman, and with jazz legends Wynton Marsalis and the late vocalist Betty Carter, among others.
“Being both a leader and a sideman has been an important issue in my musical life,” said Goldberg, pointing to McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Wynton Kelly, and Bud Powell as renowned pianists who developed their skills and artistry as accompanists or sideman. “Brad [Mehldau], Mulgrew [Miller], Kenny Kirkland — I love all of them because they’re both master collaborators and accompanists, as well as master band leaders. They embraced both sides of the craft and aspired to improve and enjoy doing both.”
Raised in Boston, Goldberg moved to New York City when he was seventeen to study at the School of Jazz and Contemporary Music at the New School in Greenwich Village. He returned to Boston a year later to pursue an undergraduate degree from Harvard University while hanging out with musicians from the Berklee School of Music. He met Betty Carter in her inaugural Jazz Ahead program at Harvard, an intensive seminar for promising young jazz musicians that now operates under the auspices of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.
Goldberg returned to New York after graduation from Harvard and began to work with guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and saxophonist Mark Turner — both of whom would later appear on Goldberg recordings — and with Carter, the veteran vocalist with a reputation for nurturing the young musicians she employed in her ensemble. “The biggest lesson I got from Betty was about fearlessness — to have the courage to go for it and take risks,” he said of the singer, who died in 1998. “She wanted you to be yourself, no matter what, and to be completely in the moment, not to think so much but to enter the flow and go for it with the other musicians. For me, that was intimidating at a young age. She was constantly on you to be yourself. She didn’t want you to play like Wynton Kelly or anybody else. She could be tough on you when she heard you quoting things from other players. She knew what it was all about.”
Goldberg’s experience as a sideman also includes gigs with trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Nicholas Payton, vocalist Madeleine Peyroux, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, under the direction of Wynton Marsalis. His long association with saxophonist Redman began at about the time of Goldberg’s first release as a leader in 1998 (Redman makes a guest appearance). The pianist is heard on Redman’s 2000 recording Beyond, as well as on Redman’s latest, Come What May, which was released in March. “Josh and I share musical intuition,” said Goldberg, who is forty-five. “We share musical tastes and values. If you’ve heard someone play so many times, if you know their musical personality, it encourages you to search together for something new. You have to have trust to take risks. Joshua constantly pushes me to be better than him.
“He hears everything I play, and it’s reflected in what he plays,” said Goldberg, who is a smart pianist known for a crisp, responsive style of accompaniment and for cogent, convincing improvisations that sound as if he’s unraveling some kind of musical puzzle. “That’s the joy of it, this constant conversation, the bubbling up of the unknown. We feed each other ideas.”
His latest album, At the Edge of the World, is something of a departure for the pianist, not so much in its music — the disc includes compositions from hard-bop legends McCoy Tyner and Bobby Hutcherson, as well as Goldberg originals — as in its personnel. His long-standing trio of bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland, who go back with the pianist all the way to Turning Point, gives way to bassist Matt Penman and percussionist Leon Parker. The latter created a sensation in the 1990s for his work with pianist Jacky Terrasson and saxophonist Dewey Redman ( Joshua’s father), and for a handful of recordings he issued as a leader.
Parker was known for coaxing a big sound from a very small drum kit, often appearing with a single cymbal, a snare, and a bass drum. Sometimes, he used no drum kit at all, instead employing sounds drummed from his own body, with his hands. He largely disappeared from the jazz scene after moving to France in the early 2000s, until he was coaxed out of retirement by Goldberg, who was touring in Europe and needed a drummer. “None of my usual replacements were available. Then I thought of Leon.”
After some detective work, Goldberg was able to locate Parker and was surprised the percussionist remembered him. “He said he would play the gig as long as I could supply the cymbals, drums, and drumsticks. I made sure that I did. He came to rehearsal and sounded magnificent. He seemed to enjoy himself and asked me to call him again.” Parker, who told Goldberg he didn’t want to be anybody’s sideman, eventually signed on for a few dates and discovered he was ready to get back into music. He’s now touring the United States with Goldberg and involving himself in several other projects, as well.
Parker’s role in Goldberg’s trio made the pianist reconsider his role as a leader in relation to his sidemen. “I was interested in tailoring the repertoire so that it would make for a bond between Leon and me. We have a shared love for similar kinds of music, and I was looking for material that would increase the element of simplicity in the trio and utilize Leon’s minimalist approach to the drum kit. His sense of groove and swing take on a sense of adventure. It gives me opportunity to work on my artistic skills at the piano. It’s a chance to step outside myself and see my role in the larger whole.” ◀
The Aaron Goldberg Trio with Matt Penman and Leon Parker
▼ 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 1
Gig Performance Space, 1808 Second St.
$22; 505-886-1251, gigsantafe.com
▼ 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 2
Outpost Performance Space, 210 Yale Blvd. SE, Albuquerque
$20-$25; 505-268-0044, outpostspace.org