I have an addiction to piano players. I admit it. I first fell before I even started school. Bernard was in my Saturday composition session with my best friend Kristen Austin at Mrs. Nibbelink’s house. By the time we started first grade this meant games of chase around the playground at recess until I switched schools in second grade. Later, I would finally hear him play at a high school vocal jazz competition where both of our schools were competing. I remember how he made my heart flutter when he played and then sink when I saw all the girls from his choir draped around him in adoration. We said hello, spoke of what a great teacher Mrs. N was, and that was it.
I won’t go into detail about all the moments since then, but there have been enough to make the pattern clear. I think it has something to do with that old routine of the female vocalist with a man on the piano. There’s something very intimate about a well matched set. I’ve met a few of those too. In fact one of my favorite moments of the Sacramento Jazz Festival in 2008 was the piano and vocals series on Sunday morning. Listening to John Sheridan and Becky Kilgore together was a dream. Both of them were so tasteful and complimentary to each other that the time flew by seamlessly. They played with each other and for the audience at the same time.
There are several excellent teams in Asheville that have been around since before I landed in town such as Evans & Coppola, Sharon LaMotte & Bill Gerhardt, Stephanie Morgan & Chuck Lichtenberger, and Vendetta Crème & Aaron Price to name a few. Each pair has their own style and special flair that sets them apart in what they do. While it’s always a pleasure to listen to them, there’s still this longing that someday rather than prince charming riding up on a horse, my dragon at the piano might appear. Oops, careful what you wish for…
Now I can’t really call this fellow “my” anything because he will never belong to me or anyone else but himself. However, when he plays a piano I can’t help but dance and sing. When we first met I handed him a book on Jelly Roll and two CDs filled with Scott Joplin, Fats Waller, & Jelly Roll Morton. He immediately aimed for Crazy Chords aptly named for somewhere in the neighborhood of 17 chord changes in the first section alone. He was learning this by ear as well, no chart. Might as well tackle the hardest one first I suppose. That’s what I would have done. Over the next several years we filled the house with music, collecting records and inviting the best players we could find to join us bringing the old tunes back to life in our mountain hideaway.
However, there are no happily ever after stories about paper bag princesses and piano playing dragons, at least none that I’ve read. Dragons prefer their freedom, and paper bag princesses are used to doing things their own way without appearing ladylike. In short, there’s a lot of fire and little willingness to compromise. This makes for exciting music, but a very unstable home.
It’s been over a year since our mountainside in Tryon literally caught fire (not by our doing amazingly). The home has foreclosed and we’ve had several months of separation in different cities this winter conveniently missing each other. But, the word keeps reaching my ear that he’s returning. I’ve seen the signs in complicated dreams, getting caught behind a Reese trailer, or just being tormented by Reese’s peanut butter cup commercials. I’ve even had people ask, “When are you going to bring that piano player back?” as if I had any control over his doings. Asheville has missed the fire of the passion that Reese Gray puts into his music and inspires in the musicians around him. Now that the deep freeze of winter has passed, things are about to get hot. “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen,” they say (whoever they are). If you see me running off to the west into the sunset after next week, you’ll know why, but send me the recordings because I love all that jazz.
Here’s one that someone uploaded to YouTube from Berlin, Germany on New Year’s Eve while he was away: