My husband, Jim, is one of those gifted humans who plays piano by ear. Name any song. He can play it. Doesn’t look anything up. Music pours out of him through a magical process I’ll never understand.
“How can you play without music? You just hear it??” I asked him out of my fog of my many years of piano lessons learning to read music. I could never, ever play by ear.
I listened to Jim’s answer, then got him (he’s a professor) to write it down:
Playing jazz, or playing “by ear,” means knowing what sounds will come out when you press certain keys. After many years, it becomes second nature. But different people do it different ways. Some have perfect pitch, while others have leaned through practice that certain patterns, chord structures, melody lines, and so forth, will work. For me, it’s mainly knowledge of the theory of music that I then try to put into practice.
On a typical night in our household while our daughter was growing up, I’d cook dinner, she’d do her homework, and Jim would play his Steinway K52 Upright to entertain us.
What would he play? A freeform jazz concert live in our living room. Stuff from the The Real Book of jazz standards, original compositions, Christmas tunes, stuff he was fooling around with to make us laugh — musical jokes, sound effects, hymns. And more jazz, always jazz. Sound we assumed would forever fill the air. Monk, Myles, Coltrane, Jarrett, Hancock, Evans. Especially, Bill Evans — Jim’s muse, inspiration, and touchstone — that divine piano man drunk on an emotional elixir, strung out on junk so he could lay it all on the line for us.
I never knew how much my husband’s piano playing enriched my daily life until he left home. I stayed behind in Ithaca, New York, with our daughter so she could finish high school the year he commuted out of state.
Hallelujah and glory be when Jim came home on weekends Isabel’s senior year, the year he commuted out of state — the cherished, blessed concert resumed. When he was gone, I think we heard the music anyway. It was always there in the house when we lived in Ithaca — in the air, singing, vibrating, maybe like “playing by ear.”
Jim wrote a song during that time, when we lived on East Hill, called “East Hill Waltz,” which I think expresses what it was like to live in our house during the twenty years we lived in Ithaca. My words can’t do it justice, but Jim’s music does.
East Hill Waltz [Click to listen on SoundCloud.]
When our daughter went off to college at Boston University, we followed her because B.U. offered Jim a job. Jim’s song, “Bright Atlantic,” feels like those years we lived in Boston before and after Ithaca, when we loved that city like it was an essential part of who we are. My words can’t do it justice, but Jim’s music does.
Bright Atlantic [Click to listen.]
Jim’s related to the great American song writer, Stephen Foster, on his mother’s side. His mother’s name is Susanna. He often plays “Oh, Susanna” by Stephen Foster for her. I don’t think my words can convey the deep, abiding love Jim feels for his deep-rooted Connecticut Yankee family, but his music does.
O Susanna [Click to listen.]
Back in Boston after his long stint in Ithaca at Cornell, Jim began playing out with a trio. He often had gigs in restaurants where we lived in Cambridge, around town, and on the South Shore. One of my favorite places his trio plays is Joe’s Nautical Bar on the ocean in Hull. My words can’t do the experience of listening to a live trio there justice.
I also don’t think my words can express the love and happiness and depth of feeling that my husband possesses, but his jazz does. His original piece “Felonious Assault” does. I think Thelonious Monk would approve.
Felonious Assault [Click to hear this tune.]
I’ll never again take for granted the great joy live music brings to my daily life. Now that I can listen to Jim play anytime, I’m so thankful for this profound blessing. Especially, while I’m cooking dinner.
Learn more about Jim’s trio and and their music here.
Jim will be playing with the Greg Silva Trio at Joe’s Nautical Bar in Hull on December 11, 2016, from 3:00–6:00.