J A M E S W E I D M A N
New York-based pianist James Weidman is indisputably one of the
world's top sidemen. Over the years he has played and recorded with
musicians as diverse as Max Roach, Woody Herman, Archie Shepp, James
Moody, Greg Osby, Marty Ehrlich, Bobby Hutcherson, Slide Hampton, Jay
Hoggard, Marvin "Smitty" Smith, Gloria Lynne and blues diva Dakota
Staton. For five years he was the featured keyboardist (replacing Geri
Allen) for avant-garde saxophonist Steve Coleman and the Five Elements
and the M-Base Collective. And James was co-leader (with saxophonist
TK Blue) of the Afro-Caribbean-Jazz quartet, Taja. Recently, he has
toured internationally with saxophonist Joe Lovano.
He has also been the accompanist of choice for some of the world's
most celebrated singers , including legendary jazz vocalist Abbey
Lincoln (for nine years), and Cassandra Wilson (for two years), adding
his consulting and arranging talents to the latter's Blue Skies CD --
arguably her best recording -- and performing on three albums with
her. "Working with Cassandra was very liberating. Because her music
was so open-ended, I felt I could do anything I wanted," says Weidman,
of the experience.
Clearly, Weidman -- described by New York Times jazz critic Ben
Ratliff as playing "smoothly and decorously" behind Lincoln at a
recent reunion concert -- is one those rare accompanists to whom
singers feel it is safe to give free rein. For ten years he was the
pianist and Musical Director for Kevin Mahogany. He has also recently
exercised his producing chops on singer Ruth Naomi Floyd's Fan into
Flame (their third collaboration), which features some of his
compositions and arrangements, as well as his expert accompaniment.
"When I first moved here, someone said to me: 'Be careful in New York.
They'll typecast you!'" laughs Weidman, whose incredible versatility
-- developed over 30 years of working in a myriad of styles -- has
made that impossible. "The more genres you are comfortable with, the
deeper your understanding of music," he asserts. It has helped Weidman
to develop his amazing technique and, as he imparts to his students
(he is a faculty member at William Paterson, New Jersey), "the better
your technique, the better your communication." However, the content
of the communication is the most important thing. "You're really
telling a story to your audience," he says. "It's a shared journey.
That's why I called my first solo album People Music, because we are
all supposed to share this music."
Now on the verge of releasing his second solo album, appropriately
entitled It's 'Bout Time, Weidman looks set to strut his stuff and
take his place among the world's top bandleaders. At last. Because --
to quote jazz critic Butch Berman (who described Weidman on his first
solo outing as "powerful, yet graceful, with a unique style that is
all his own." ) -- this extremely talented pianist "kicks butt!"
"Graceful" is a word that comes up time and again in reviews. As does,
"impeccable timing!" (Swing Journal), "sensitive" and "elegant" (jazz
critic Mike Shera). And the accolades keep coming.
A native of Youngstown, Ohio, Weidman was born into a musical family
and first learned to play jazz from his father (a saxophonist and
bandleader) at the age of seven. "He taught me some of the songs he
played in the band," says Weidman. By the time he was 13 he was
playing organ in his father's jazz band. "We played the chittlin's
circuit," he says. Throughout his years at Youngstown University (he
graduated cum laude with a degree in classical and jazz piano),
Weidman continued to divide his time between his studies and
performing in local jazz bands, gradually becoming one of the best
players in town.
Moving to New York, the jazz Mecca of the world, was inevitable.
"Someone told me that I could get work there as long as I had an
electric piano," says Weidman, who packed up his Fender and set off
for the city. Almost immediately, he found himself playing with jazz
greats Cecil Payne, Harold Ousley, Bobby Watson and Pepper Adams,
before falling in with Steve Coleman. "I really wanted to play with
Steve because he was doing something new," says Weidman. "His
compositions force you to think differently and playing his very
demanding rhythms and harmonies is really challenging. That was
exactly what I wanted. It gave me a freer outlook on music." Indeed,
challenging himself musically continues to be very important to
Weidman. "I used to play with this older cat in Brooklyn and at the
end of every gig he would turn to me and say: 'Well, I learned
Weidman has perhaps learned the most with his long term collaborator,
highly acclaimed saxophonist TK Blue, who is also Randy Weston's
musical director. "When I first met TK in 1978 we were both writing
and our band was like a workshop. It was a great laboratory for both
of us in terms of trying out our ideas. And we still constantly
challenge each other," says Weidman. "But our playing together
nowadays is more about intuition than notes," he says. "TK is much
more than just a fellow musician. He's a spiritual brother. And it
takes that learning process to a whole other level," says Weidman. To
hear them together is to be made intensely aware of Weidman's most
important music lesson: It's the story that counts. "I've never
forgotten my father's advice the first time I ever played with him.
'Keep the time, stay out of the way, and tell a story.'"
Weidman has performed at the world's major venues and festivals,
including the Montreux, Monterey, Newport, North Sea and JVC Jazz
Festivals, Carnegie Hall, Birdland, Blue Note, Sweet Basil, Village
Vanguard, Iridium and Jazz Standard.
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