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Aaron Diehl: The Real Diehl

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What can I say about my good friend, Aaron Diehl? Well…I could mention that he’s been the recipient of numerous awards including the 2013 Jazz Journalists Association Award for Up-And-Coming Artist, the 2012 Prix du jazz Classique recipient for one of his first albums Live at the Players Club, and the 2011 Cole Porter Fellowship from the American Pianists Association. I could also mention that his album The Bespoke Man’s Narrative (2013) reached No. 1 on the JazzWeek Jazz Chart and has received rave reviews from many of the top jazz critics. I could point out that he’s been the pianist and musical director for the Grammy-winning vocalist, Cécile McLorin Salvant, for the past few years.

Yes, I could say all of these things about my young 30-year-old friend, but I find his inner musical architecture even more impressive than his accolades. Let’s find out exactly who the Real Diehl is.

Aaron grew up in Columbus, Ohio, began studying classical piano at age 7, and became interested in jazz at the Interlochen Summer Camp. When he headed for Juilliard, he honed his craft as both a classical and jazz player.

Because he is equally comfortable in both genres, his playing can reflect the polished and charming nature of some European classical music. In particular, Aaron loves Mozart—so much so that his first album (released only in Japan) features entirely his arrangements of Mozart’s music. Working on that album was some of my first playing with Aaron, and it’s still one of my favourite recordings of his.

Another big influence on Aaron’s playing is the Harlem stride genre. From an early age, he grew an appreciation and passion for this genre that very few jazz pianists have dared touch. To see Aaron playing stride is a truly amazing experience. In addition to the sheer virtuosity required to perform stride, Aaron is also able to capture the spirit, joy and spontaneity of the old masters like James P. Johnson, Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson. He can rock the building with his incredible stride playing!

One of my favourite aspects of Aaron’s playing is his masterful touch, something not often seen in such a young musician. You can hear how legendary pianists like Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones and especially John Lewis have influenced Aaron’s classy touch on the piano. These older musicians have also influenced the way he carries himself as a person—he can often been seen on gigs wearing a sharp suit with a matching handkerchief.

Two last important ingredients in Aaron’s playing are the blues and his great swing feeling. These two elements allow him to connect to audiences with emotion, rhythm and feeling. Without these elements, a performance can sound stiff and cerebral.

As grounded as Aaron is in tradition and jazz roots, he is always looking forward. His music always sounds relevant, never trite or predictable. His latest album (which I am honoured to be part of) is excellent proof of that. Time, Space, Continuum is a brilliantly constructed group of compositions which display his ability to fuse the traditional dance elements of jazz with a forward-thinking writing style. This is especially true of the title track, which features one of the all-time legends of saxophone, Benny Golson.

This brilliant young pianist is performing for Winnipeg audiences on April 16 and 17 as part of the Izzy Asper Jazz Performances series. Joining his band is vocalist Charenée Wade, a powerful up-and-coming talent. Like Aaron, she has deep roots in tradition—you can hear clear influences of Betty Carter and Sarah Vaughn—but her sound is contemporary. I know she’ll wow you with her soul and feeling. This concert is not to be missed!


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