The Mercury News
Pianists show how to play through pandemic
Musicians used to accompanying others pivot to solo recitals
Whether it’s June, August or November, daily life will start returning to prepandemic rhythms at some point in the not-too-distant future. We all long for a quick transition to normalcy, but in talking with numerous musicians I’ve been thinking about the ways in which more than a year of disruption, lockdown and social distancing will leave an enduring mark on the music scene.
Shuttered venues and artists silenced by the virus are just part of the toll. When it comes to the jazz world, the atomizing experience has changed the way some musicians approach their instruments, their repertoire and their relationship to audiences. Many of those changes are already evident if you spend any time watching livestream performances by some of the Bay Area’s best jazz pianists.
With precious few gigs available and minimal safe opportunities for rehearsal, players who’ve spent their careers as accompanists have turned their attention to solo recitals, a demanding format that leaves no place to hide.
Before the pandemic, Adam Shulman could often be found backing Bay Area vocal luminaries like Tiffany Austin, Ed Reed and Paula West. The vast majority of his previous solo work was at restaurants or weddings “where the stakes are pretty low,” he said.
Looking to keep up his performance chops, he started streaming on Facebook Live from his home in
Alameda at 5 p.m. Fridays. “It was really weird at first, and I kind of hated it,” Shulman said. “Not having an audience it felt like looking in the mirror constantly, but it became a nice focus for the week, getting a set together, thinking about what tunes to play.”
Without other players to interact with, Shulman found he had to buckle down to get his time together. “You don’t even realize all these tiny negotiations that you’re working out with other musicians playing live,” he said. “By yourself you don’t have any of that.”
When he does start playing gigs again, he’ll bring a book of tunes that has doubled in size, as he’s kept learning new pieces to keep the Friday shows fresh.
Tammy Hall is also one the region’s most soughtafter
accompanists, best known for her work with singers such as Kim Nalley, Denise Perrier, Barbara Dane and Holly Near. She’s spent much of the pandemic teaching remotely and writing commissioned arrangements, while carving out a couple of hours every Thursday to livestream from her apartment in San Francisco. A fine composer herself, Hall seeks to soothe her listeners with a repertoire that embraces 1970s pop songs.
“I approached this with the idea of doing service,” she said. “It wasn’t about honing my skills in particular. The intention was helping people find some kind of succor if they could. I have a section I call ‘More Cheese, Please,’ with all the songs we like from the ’70s. Now we’re too cool for them. But I’m shameless about them.
It’s music that informed me musically and emotionally.”
Hall isn’t the only veteran accompanist who’s ventured into new musical territory. In a career stretching back to the 1960s, Larry Dunlap has backed jazz heavyweights such as Joe Williams, Cleo Laine, Mark Murphy (as well as Dunlap’s wife, vocalist Bobbe Norris). Like many of us he had planned on putting his time at home to good use.
“I am practicing, but not as much as I would like,” he said. “One thing that has changed is that I am spending time with some classical composers and songwriters from all eras who I had a hard time fitting into my life pre-COVID.”
Focusing on his solo playing, he livestreams from The Cave (aka the sheet-musicstrewn studio in his Pacifica
home) on Wednesdays and Sundays, offering extemporaneous elaborations on gorgeous melodies and the occasional tale from his many years on the scene.
“Although I am playing along without a physical audience in the room, I feel the presence of the people watching me,” he said. “I am discovering I am pretty comfortable telling stories and expressing my thoughts. Some things come back to me that I had forgotten. The music inspires me to dig a little deeper into my memories.”
With a quarter-century experience serving as a foil for public radio host Sedge Thomson on “West Coast Live” (and his charming British accent), the role of raconteur comes naturally to Mike Greensill, whose primary gig until her death in 2018
was accompanying and arranging for his wife, vocalist Wesla Whitfield. Early in the pandemic he was livestreaming five afternoons a week, but he’s settled into a more comfortable routine performing afternoons Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
From his house in St. Helena, Greensill has cultivated an international audience that often includes renowned singers like Claire Martin, Pinky Winters and Elaine Stritch. He notes that one online show attracts more viewers than six months of pre-pandemic gigs. The regulars merrily chat among themselves “like they’re in a nightclub,” he said. “They can ‘talk’ as loudly as they want and it doesn’t distract me.”
A player known for his elegant phrasing and careful, loving attention to melodies, he continues to refine his craft with each show. “One of the hardest things to do in improvised music is editing yourself,” Greensill said. “Even at my advanced age I’m still learning that.”