Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

March/April 2012: Dee Daniels

Aaron Goldberg: The Collaborative Approach

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Meet Aaron Goldberg. Now in his mid-30s, this piano genius has long established himself as a mainstay in the worldwide jazz community. A man of many interests, Aaron is also an academic, and has recently completed a Master’s degree in Analytic Philosophy. I found him to be warm, articulate and engaging. I called him at his NYC home to discuss his career, philosophy, and upcoming trio concert here in Winnipeg.

After high school did you know that you wanted to go into music?

I didn’t know—in fact all I knew was that I didn’t want to go right to college. I thought that taking a year of music school would be an eye-opening experience. I did a year at the New School [of Jazz and Contemporary Music, NYC]. Until that point I hadn’t even seriously considered being a professional musician.

So after a year at the New School, you left and did a degree at Harvard. What inspired that decision?

It was a combination of factors, one of which was that I had no more money, and my parents were not interested in supporting my career in music. However, they were interested in supporting my going to liberal arts college.

How did you balance your academic studies with your musical life?

After my year of music school I realized that you didn’t have to go to music school to be a professional musician. My heroes—Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis—didn’t learn how to play in music school. I figured out that the real way to learn how to play is to copy what you hear on records and to play with people better than you.

At this time you were playing a weekly gig in Boston with Jimmy Greene, correct?

We had a gig at a club called Wally’s Cafe. Darren Barrett was the trumpet player, Reuben Rogers played bass, and the drummer was John Lampkin. We were all 20 years old or something!

Do you have any incriminating stories that I can use against him?

Jimmy has always been an angel—a towering angel! Jimmy’s hometown of Hartford is halfway between New York and Boston, and I was always going back and forth, so I’d stop off at his house all the time. His mom would cook us food, we’d play gigs—it was almost like a second home.

How do you feel your studies impacted you musically?

My degree consisted of a mixture of philosophy and psychology. That type of work puts a premium on clarity, logical exposition and narrative, things I value in music too. That may sound cerebral, but it’s not. You hear that kind of logic in Sonny Rollins, you hear it in Bird, in Bach, in Stevie Wonder!

Ultimately, musicians are brains. What makes Herbie Hancock so great? It’s his brain! Sonny Rollins? Sonny Rollins has a magical brain. Everything that goes into Sonny Rollins’ brain comes out, and not just music. Every thought that he thinks, every feeling that he has, every life experience.

Who has influenced you as a composer?

Every great piece of music that I’ve played and heard has influenced me. In addition to all of the great jazz composers, some of my favourite writers are my peers, people like Omer Avital, Guillermo Klein, Miguel Zenon, Marc Turner, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Avishai Cohen. These guys also happen to be some of my favourite improvisers.

Tell me more!

I don’t like to separate between composing and improvising. I often give advice to young jazz musicians to focus first on their improvisational skills, because no matter how great a composer you are, if you can’t play great solos on your own tunes no one is going to come to your gigs!

What are some goals that you might have for the future?

I’d like to continue figuring out ways to combine my music with my other interests in the world at large, such as political problems and social problems. I think of people like Bono and Sean Penn, people who use their skill in one area to make a difference in another. Harry Belafonte is another that comes to mind—he was a musician and was also a crucial member of the civil rights movement.

You’re playing in Winnipeg on March 10th and 11th with two brilliant musicians, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Greg Hutchinson. What do you look for in your sidemen?

The key is, I don’t think of them as sidemen. I think of them as collaborators, and they define the sound of the trio as much as I do. I almost always try to play with guys that I have long musical and personal relationships with, because those relationships are what shapes the sound of the band.

What can we expect to hear?

It going to be a mix. There’s definitely going to be some original music, as well as some familiar material, done our way, with our spice!

I’m psyched to come back to Winnipeg—bring some warm weather!

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