Aaron Diehl on Jazz, Rhythm and the Spirit of American Music

Yes, Aaron Diehl is a classically trained pianist with accolades from Wynton Marsalis to The New York Times. And yes, his performance roster includes the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic, but he’s more than that.

Much more.

He’s also an explorer and an interpreter. Diehl delights in the hidden nuances of a piece, pulling back the curtain on jazz and pushing the limits in classical performances. Diehls’s joy of uncovering something new in a song is palpable and infectious, a feeling he hopes his audiences experience with him.

Diehl’s musical roots were planted in his Columbus, Ohio church, where he began playing piano as a young boy. His grandfather, Arthur Baskerville, a pianist and trombone player, further encouraged his natural talent. Diehl considers him one of the great musical influences in his life.

Diehl discovered Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum recordings while at Interlochen Arts Camp as a pre-teen, but it was at the age of 17, when as a finalist in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington competition, he caught the ear of jazz great Wynton Marsalis. Dubbed the “Real Diehl” by Marsalis, he toured Europe with the Wynton Marsalis Septet. He graduated from The Juilliard School and became interwoven in the fabric of the New York jazz scene.

His latest foray into George Gershwin’s songbook has led him to the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra and now Da Camera on Friday, Oct. 12 at Zilkha Hall where he will perform the works of Jimmy Yancey, George Gershwin, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Jelly Roll Morton, W.C. Handy, Aaron Copland, Fats Waller, Mary Lou Williams and Dick Hyman.

Q: You feel at home with many different genres of music, but are there some that you identify with more personally?

A: Certainly American Music and American Folk Music. I have a relationship with folk, rhythm, swing, jazz, blues. I also have a relationship with sacred music, hymns and spiritual music. These kinds of traditions are rooted in Americana. They’re varied, but inner-connected.

Q: Your Da Camera program is incredibly varied. What’s your approach to putting together a program? What do you want the audience experience to be?

A: Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite is in 12 movements and the challenge is figuring out what should stay and what can be developed. That’s the fun part of that music.

I feel like it’s a long form of communication and hopefully over time, I’ve become a better communicator with the language I’m using. My objective is to continue that form of communication using the roots of my upbringing…that’s important to me.

Q: How do you define the spirit of “American music.” Is there an essence like what we find in other nationalistic music styles?

A: The spirit of American music reflects the spirit of restlessness, unease and tension with an ultimate resolution after periods of unrest. Jazz and rhythm have a certain tension, they play with each other rhythmically. Ultimately, if people are dedicated to finding common ground, it will happen and it’s always a beautiful thing.

Q: Do you have a pre-concert routine to prepare for performance?

A: I get a lot of nerves before I go on stage, so I either sit in silence or I listen to music unlike what I am performing. It helps me capture the general feeling of what that music is saying to me, and hopefully I can pass that along to the audience.

Q: How do you keep yourself in tip top musical shape?

A: Practice, practice, practice. If I am confident, then I can get through my nerves. When I get onstage I forget all that. I just play

Q: Who or what inspired you to follow a career as a pianist?

Honestly, I just love it. I love music. I never thought it was something that was going to get me recognized, I just love it. I tell students all the time, first you have to love it. That’s essential. If you can make a career out of it, that’s incredible, but it’s not about being recognized. I’m grateful I get to do it.

For more information and tickets, visit Da Camera or call 713-524-5050.