Pianist Kyle Zavitz is a relative newcomer on the Winnipeg jazz scene. He grew up in a musical household in Ottawa and started playing the piano when he was just a kid, but it wasn’t until he was nineteen and a friend sent him tunes from Herbie Hancock’s pop-centric collaboration album Possibilities that he got interested in jazz. Now, ten years later, with an undergraduate degree from Carleton under his belt, and a few years on the ground as a musician and arranger, he has opted to pursue graduate work in jazz piano at the University of Manitoba, and is getting acquainted with the Winnipeg community. He’s pleased with his decision: “Most of my musical experience was theoretical, or in transcribing/arranging, so coming to a heavily performance-focused program has been fantastic for me and has really pushed me into a whole new realm of music.” Watch for him at The Hang on Wednesday evenings, and stay tuned for his graduate recital in the spring.
You started university as a computer science student?
My first year of university I was working on a Bachelor of Computer Science with an interdiscipline in Bioinformatics. Even after switching into a Bachelor of Music, I was still taking courses in the computer science stream. A relationship that stands out in both streams is the blending of parameters/structure with creative thinking. In music, you need to understand form and harmonic structure and simultaneously work creatively from this template. In computer science, it is your ability to manipulate constants and variables creatively and efficiently that makes you successful. In both, you need to know every inch of the box—and then think outside of it.
What do you find compelling about transcribing and arranging?
The hardest part about transcribing for me is dissecting unclear horn soli voicings. I’m pretty meticulous when it comes to reconstructing horn lines, and often if a voice isn’t coming through or if the recording isn’t crystal clear, I will wrestle with it until I’m satisfied. Transcribing is a fantastic tool. If you are actively pushing yourself to listen more efficiently, you get to a point where you can lift a bar at a time, then a phrase. As a pianist on the bandstand, that training works wonders to deconstruct what someone is playing in real time and provide more informed support in your comping for them.
The best part about arranging for me is that it uses every scrap of musicality you have. It uses your theory knowledge, your understanding of the strengths and limitations of various instruments, and your experience with the musicians you’re writing for, especially if you’re lucky enough to write for people you know. Often arrangements can be very revealing of strengths or weaknesses.
Who are your most important influences on the keyboard?
The pianist that started it all for me in this music was Herbie Hancock. Every time I come back to Herbie, I’m learning something new. Oscar Peterson is another pianist who heavily influenced me. I learned a lot of my harmonic language working through his Canadiana Suite years ago, and it’s something that I have always held on to. Right now the pianist who is influencing me the most is Bill Evans. Listening to him reminds me just how important technique is in order to be emotionally expressive at the piano. His ability to play delicately while maintaining a sense of melancholy is beautiful and inspiring.
Who’s on your playlist at the moment?
As I’m writing this, I’m listening to Christian Scott’s Stretch Music album, a recent recommendation that I’m really liking. Christian McBride’s trio album Out Here is my favourite of the past couple months, and meeting Ulysses Owens Jr (the drummer on the album) a couple weeks ago when he came to Winnipeg with Alicia Olatuja was an absolute treat. The synergy of the three (McBride, Owens and Christian Sands) is out of this world.
Bill Evans, Benny Green, and McCoy Tyner are three pianists who have been on constant repeat lately as I’m working on specific material for my graduate recital this upcoming spring. The piano duo album An Evening with Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock plays a lot and gets me giddy every time I listen to it—the amount of communication between the two of them is unbelievable. And Chance the Rapper, Frank Ocean, Ben Howard and The Barr Brothers (a folk band out of Montréal) are other musicians who are getting a lot of play time right now, and I think the draw to them is lyrical; all four are fantastic storytellers.