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AAJ interviews Noah Haidu….

New York-based pianist Noah Haidu came to jazz through the blues, listening to the searing, soulful guitar moans of Buddy Guy and Albert King. But his training, at the age of six, had its advent in classical music. He also likes to experiment with electronics.

All these things go into the musical blender of one of the New York scene’s young piano talents; out of it comes Haidu’s open approach to the instrument—part in the jazz tradition and part willing to extend into other territories.

Haidu grew up in the 1980s, listening to a variety of music. He recalls when rock band The Police broke up and its renowned bassist, Sting, formed his own group, surrounding himself with jazz men including saxophonist Branford Marsalis, keyboardist Kenny Kirkland, drummer Omar Hakimand bassist Darryl Jones to accent his unique sound and bring a sparkling edge to his rock/pop offerings.

“There were some jazz solos on those records. I heard the band play live and that caught my attention pretty well,” says Haidu. “I was hearing jazz, Branford Marsalis albums from the ’80s. Blues. I used to play guitar as well. I would go hear Buddy Guy and B.B. King. Albert Collins. The blues guys really caught my fancy, [but] I started getting more into jazz. Some of jazz pianists that have a blues attitude in their playing, like Gene Harris, Oscar Peterson, Wynton Kelly—anything with a bluesy, soulful thing” attracted the young man’s attention.

“I always think that’s an interesting way to get into jazz. Blues. You follow bluesy jazz guys. When you get down to it, Charlie Parker is a bluesy bebop player. Sonny Stitt and Parker have a lot of blues in them. There’s a lot of continuity in that music for me.”

There’s also evidence of that continuity in Slipstream (Posi-Tone, 20101), Haidu’s first album as leader. It features an array of fine musicians like trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, saxophonist Jon Irabagon and drummer Willie Jones III. All the songs, save a quirky, catchy arrangement of “Just One of Those Things,” are penned by Haidu. It’s an album where the songs really lock into a sweet groove and the soloists are outstanding. A funky soulfulness invades the first cut, “Soulstep,” which has the delightful feel of a 1950s Blue Note recording. Meanwhile, “Break Tune” has an edgy, modern, funky feel with which Pelt, Irabagon and Haidu have plenty of fun. Pelt, one of the most superb trumpeters on the scene, blazes throughout the disk, while Haidu is rich and swinging.

“I wanted something that had melodies people could easily relate to,” said Haidu, who is already writing for his second record. “I’ve heard about people that have tunes a half-hour long with lots of over-the-top arrangements. I just tried to do something that has a sophistication and hipness to it, but with melodies and groove that people could relate to. That’s my approach to music. It can be as complex as you want, as long as people can get into it and it doesn’t push people away. You shouldn’t have to have a PhD to understand it and enjoy it.

“There are influences on there, everything from ’70s R&B,” says the pianist, “a little bit of Earth, Wind & Fire on one of the tunes, to stuff that’s influenced by Kenny Kirkland, the pianist, that kind of goes a little beyond straight-ahead. There’s even a touch of some of the more jazzy hip-hop artists, like Me’Shell NdegeOcello. Subtle influences I work in from different places.” Swing, he admits, is also a big part of his style and it’s a sweet, swinging production.

The band he assembled, which operationally gets to play the music on gigs, consists largely of cats he met at New York City’s jam sessions over the years. He and Pelt were new on the scene when they started playing sessions at [New York club] Cleopatra’s Needle. He says of Pelt, “He’s one of the few people who understand how to play a melody. He can really get into the song both as an improviser—the feeling of the song—and also in the melody.” Haidu met Irabagon most recently at a gig he was called for. “Right from the rehearsal—the same kind of thing with Jeremy—[Irabagon] understood the tunes and the harmonies. It didn’t matter if it was a modern tune or if it had kind of a swinging, soulful attitude. He seemed to be able to bring all that together. He’s a cutting-edge improviser, I love hearing him play on my more modern tunes.”

Bassist Chris Haney is an old friend from Brooklyn, and Haidu employs two drummers—Jones andJohn Davis, the latter also a Cleopatra’s Needle cohort, as is Haney. He said he called Jones for his great swing. “Whatever it was, it was all going to have a great groove. He’d have all the arrangements down perfectly. He always brings a lot of fire.” Davis, on the other hand, “has a nice relaxed, swinging groove. He’s comfortable on both the soulful, swinging jazz attitude, and also the modern compositions, different harmonies and unusual forms. That’s his stuff, so he’s all over that. He has a good groove. I love his beat.”

Haidu says he’s already had his eye on the next recording project. “I don’t know exactly what it’s going to be. I am envisioning what that session is going to be. I’m looking at things I’ve already written and seeing what would fit with the instrumentation I have in mind, with the players I have in mind, and what things do I need to write to fill in what I don’t have. It’s a process.”

Meanwhile, he’s been involved as a sideman over the years with the likes of bassist Curtis Lundy, trumpeter Duane Eubanks and drummer Winard Harper. He’s also part of a cooperative band Native Soul— which also had a 2011 release, Soul Step (Talking Drum Records)—with drummerSteve Johns, saxophonist Peter Brainin, and bassist Marcus McLaurine, playing music that draws from funk, swing, and Latin.

“It’s a pretty diverse music that we do,” Haidu says of Native Soul. “Everyone in the band writes tunes. Some of the tunes have a soulful, bluesy or gospel element. I play a little bit of Hammond organ and even some Fender Rhodes. Some of the tunes on that record also have some electric bass. They [the group] do a funky version of one of Jimi Hendrix’s tunes [‘Castles Made of Sand’]. There’s a tune, ‘Soulstep,’ that is on my CD, that ended up being the title track of the Native Soul CD. On my CD, it’s a quintet with acoustic piano. On the Native Soul thing, it’s a quartet. It’s got soprano sax, and Fender Rhodes. It has maybe a bit of a Herbie Hancock fusion kind of thing to it. … There’s a little bit more of the electric stuff in that band, although all the music works very well with acoustic stuff. It’s a little different attitude.”

He explains, “I do play around town with different groups playing electric keyboards. I’m still active in that genre,” but notes that electric piano is not really his instrument of choice right now. “It’s part of making a living,” he says lightheartedly. “If I didn’t have to make a living, I would have to decide whether I just wanted to focus on acoustic piano; I think there is a place for keyboards in jazz, [but] I’m not sure if I’m going to be one of the people that explores that—or not right now. But it’s a possibility.”

In that regard, Kirkland’s Kenny Kirkland (GRP 1991) had synthesizers on it, and Pelt’s electric band WiRED—last heard on Shock Value: Live at Smoke (MaxJazz 2007)—is something he enjoyed, and could influence his future explorations.

Haidu—whose piano influences run from one of his teachers, Kenny Barron, to McCoy Tyner, Hancock and Kirkland—comes from a family full of classical pianists. A native of Charlottesville, VA, he really did his growing up in New Jersey, where he took lessons from his grandmother (a classical player) at a young age. His mother and two aunts also played classical, and his uncle, Ian Hobson, performs all over the world at concerts and festivals. All that is on his mother’s side of the family.

But there was plenty of influence from his father as well. “He took me to a lot of jazz and blues concerts, things that I was interested in when I was younger. Rock. Everything.” As a teenager, he began to see that music would be his career path. “It’s not an easy thing as a teenager to convince your family that’s what you’re going to do,” says Haidu. “I felt pretty clear about it from a young age. I played piano and guitar. I used to work on both of them. It took a while to sort out which of them was going to be my main instrument.”

Out of high school, he went into the jazz program at Rutgers University, where piano, and also jazz, jumped into focus. He studied with Barron there.

“He didn’t show me a million technical things on the piano,” Haidu says of his teacher, “Just playing with him, I would really pick up on his musicality and his soulfulness and his phrasing. He’s the type of guy who can take a standard like ‘Darn That Dream’ and at any given time—you could call him up in the middle of the night and say, ‘Hey Kenny, it’s two in the morning, can you play ‘Darn That Dream,’ and he would probably play a masterpiece. It doesn’t matter where or when, what town. Every time he played it, it was incredible.”

He played jam sessions in New Jersey, Philadelphia, and even a little in New York City, while in school. “That kind of musicality seemed like something I couldn’t learn in school, so in a way, I think Kenny [Barron] was the catalyst for me quitting Rutgers,” he notes. “I took a little time off, investigating the scene in Philadelphia. I started getting a few gigs in Philly, but I noticed it was very hard to break into that scene. I ended up moving to New York. I wasn’t a very strong player at that time, but I knew I wanted to move to New York and be around the heart of the jazz community and start to make a living. That’s when I started playing the electric keyboards. That became mighty quickly what I was doing to survive.”

Playing jam sessions and other small gigs got his name around, and his buildup on the scene was gradual. “I still feel it’s building,” he says. “Over the years, I’m getting more and more busy and more in demand with certain people. The schedule filled up to the point where you’re running from gig to gig. Then people want to study with you [he teaches at the Brooklyn Conservatory]. I’m lucky with students and stuff.”

Meanwhile, Haidu has met and played with other rising musicians like trumpeters Ambrose Akinmusire and Gregory Rivkin. “There’ve been a number of people that have called, who I’ve enjoyed working with.”

He’s not just checking out the younger cats, but learning from jazz icons as well. “Recently I got to go hear Keith Jarrett for the first time. I had never heard a concert at Carnegie Hall, and I went to hear him play solo. I was very taken by the music; it was one of the most musical concerts [I’ve ever seen]. There wasn’t a whole lot of ego going on. He just sat there and played music.

“One of the things I try to do with my own group, when I play music, is have a certain variety,” Haidu continues. “I don’t want to play a whole set of ballads, or a whole set of up-tempo. I want to do both. I want to do swinging stuff, modern stuff. As long as there’s feeling in it, I think it’s all there. Keith Jarrett was incredible because he did all of that, all by himself, at the piano. There were moments of gospel, moments of modern classical. There were standards. There were things that sounded like boogie woogie. He never played like anybody except himself. His own voice was there the entire time. It was a beautiful concert. That definitely had an impact.”

Haidu takes on the challenges of being a Big Apple-based jazz musician in trying times, and does so with a positive attitude. And it’s working for him; the cat can play his butt off. “Even though it’s difficult, there’re a lot of people playing. We can all check each other out and pick up things from each other. I’m happy about that. I think it’s a good time for jazz.”

“Even though there’s a million people and not enough gigs, I like all the different people who are playing and all the different influences right now. Brad Mehldau is on one end, then you have Keith Jarrett. Lincoln Center and Wynton Marsalis. There’s a great variety of approaches to the music and attitudes about the music. There’s a lot of good stuff going on, a lot of different stuff going on. I’m open to anything new. If it seems musical to me, I’m all for it.”