Jazz pianist and composer Jeremy Manasia has already had quite an accomplished career. Having trained at New York’s prestigious Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts (i.e. the school that inspired the movie Fame) and been a finalist for the Thelonius Monk Competition, he has since toured the world as a musician and played with such jazz luminaries as Charles Owens, Peter Bernstein, Ryan Kisor, Chris Potter, Marlena Shaw, Diane Schurr, and The Glenn Miller Orchestra.
Jeremy has also adopted the mantle of bandleader and recorded two albums of his own compositions. His latest one, After Dark, features Jeremy backed by two of New York’s finest jazz stalwarts, Barak Mori and Charles Ruggiero, and includes guest performances by two other notable jazzbos, Jane Monheit and Ian Hendrickson-Smith.
In the midst of a busy performance and teaching schedule (he’s a faculty member at Manhattan School of Music), Jeremy swung by the ol’ blog to talk about the roots of creativity, what it’s like to influence young minds, and his budding career as a film composer. Check it out…
(Editor’s Note: It should be stated, for the record, that Jeremy is also an old friend of this blog and its author. We went to high school together, way back in the day. FYI.)
Dude, I remember back in high school when you looked and dressed like a headbanger. You certainly didn’t look like someone who played jazz. How’d you first get interested in jazz?
High school and mom. I went to LaGuardia High School for piano, and as a piano major you need to take up a secondary instrument. I wanted to play saxophone, and was given the oboe. After a year I wanted out, and switched to double bass. This left a hole in my schedule, so I was tossed into the jazz history class (a senior level elective course) taught by Justin DiCioccio. This ultimately was an experience that would change the direction of my life forever.
My mom was also a jazz singer at this time, and was performing around New York City with very prominent jazz musicians like Harold Mabern, Ira Coleman and Bob Cranshaw. So all of a sudden I was surrounded by jazz everywhere. I also had a private piano teacher at the time, Peter Vianni, from Staten Island who was a jazz player and started to show me some voicing and improvisation techniques.
Yeah, I was a headbanger for a while. I came up on rock ‘n’ roll and folk music. Around the house I was hearing The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, The Stones, Bob Dylan, and also some early disco like Chaka Kahn and Donna Summer. Later on I became really influenced by The Beatles and John Lennon. I was really affected by John Lennon’s death, seeing how hard it hit everyone.
I naturally progressed into some more modern and harder rock, like Van Halen and Rush, and eventually got deep into the 80s metal scene, listening to bands like Iron Maiden, Metallica, and Judas Priest, long hair, leather jackets, and studs. After I was turned onto jazz, I went through a segue period where I was listening to artists like Pat Metheny and John Scofield.
When I look back at it all though, it does make sense, as all American music – rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, country, funk – it all comes from the blues.
Tell us about your new album, After Dark.
I’m really happy with my new record, After Dark. It has compositions of mine that span over a decade of my writing, and were carefully chosen for this date. The final track on the record, “Afterthought,” I actually wrote in college, more than 15 years ago. “Jerry’s Blues” is also an oldie, from around ’97, ’98. Most of the others are from the past two to five years.
I was really happy about the lineup on this record. Charles Ruggiero is one of my oldest friends, and someone whom I have played a lot of music with in my life. He was getting ready to move to L.A., where he is now, and I wanted to make sure we got this date in before he left. And Barak Mori was the obvious first choice for bassist, for the hookup he and Charles have, and his great vibe. Both of those guys took the music really seriously, and worked their butts off to play their best on this record. I could tell from the first rehearsal how good this was going to turn out, and how they were going to give their all in the studio. It made me make sure to kick it up a notch when we got in to the studio.
Ironically, we had done a quartet date with Ian Hendrickson-Smith the week before, in the same studio, with the same rhythm section. As it turned out, Ian was not going to use the material from that session, so I thought it would be a great idea to include one of the tracks on After Dark, and that’s how Ian, and “Soul Eyes,” made it on the record. Which also thrilled me, because Ian is also one of my older friends that I have made a lot of music with over the years.
The record was recorded by Glenn Forrest, who is an unknown master of his craft. He is an engineer of a dying breed; the ones who don’t look at computer screens, but LISTEN to the track as it is being made. He gives great care, and has great knowledge on how to get the best possible sounds, and always does. There is no one that I would have felt more comfortable in the studio, than with G-Bleuy. He is just the man, and made a great sounding record.
About six months after it was recorded, I ended up signing a deal with Posi-Tone records to release After Dark . Posi-Tone is a L.A. based jazz record company who have been putting out great records for the past few years. Once the wheels got rolling everything slowly came together. The Jane [Monheit] recording session, the cover art, Eric Reed wrote the liner notes, and Charles and Nick O’Toole (co-founder of Posi-Tone) mixed the record in L.A.
After Dark is the record I always wanted to make, with some of my best friends, playing a variety of different compositions of mine, and a couple of standard compositions.
Jane Monheit does some guest vocals on the album. How’d you get her on board?
Jane’s husband and drummer, Rick, is old friends with the drummer on my record, Charles. They have all been great friends for a long time. And I have known them as well, just not as close as Charles. After we had recorded the music for After Dark, Charles really loved a song I wrote, then called “Chrisantics,” dedicated to my old teacher, Chris Anderson. Charles said, “I’m going to write lyrics to that song, and get Jane to sing it…” And lo and behold, “When You Smile” was born, and Jane did it. She was really amazing to work with, very professional, and just an amazing singer. The melody on “When You Smile” has a very large range and is very difficult to sing, but it just fit like a glove to Jane. I’m really happy and grateful to have her on the record, it really adds a nice special touch.
As a musician, who are some of your influences and inspirations?
An artist’s influences and inspirations fluctuate throughout the course of his/her life, and I can certainly say that what influences me today is drastically different from what did 10, 15 or 20 years ago.
That being said, the music that pulled me completely into jazz-dom was John Coltrane and his pianist McCoy Tyner. That was the first jazz that I really fell in love with. Albums like Crescent, Live at Birdland, and Coltrane were records I wore out and listened to multiple times daily.
After the fall into jazz-dom, I started expanding my listening and became influenced by pianists Sonny Clark, Wynton Kelly and Red Garland. This was during college, and I spent a lot of time with the great Blue Note records of the 50s and 60s by Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Dexter Gordon etc., that frequently had these pianists on them, as well as McCoy, and Herbie Hancock.
During the years that I was studying in Holland, my musical influences started to really expand, and at the same time that I was being turned onto Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett, I was really learning a lot from listening and transcribing Bud Powell and studying with Barry Harris, and Dutch pianist Franz Elsan. Also around this time I was exposed to the piano music of Maurice Ravel, which has made a lasting effect on my life.
Through the years there have been so many varied musical influences, from Stevie Wonder and Donnie Hathaway to Billie Holliday and Sarah Vaughn to Duke Ellington and Thad Jones, to Robert Johnson and Ghanayan drumming. Nowadays, things other than music are greatly influencing the way I approach music. The work and philosophy of Jackson Pollock is very close to me right now, dealing with art and creativity coming from the unconscious. Also my zen practice is very influential to learning how to completely and fully express myself through art in a sincere way.
What, if anything, are you trying to achieve or communicate with your work?
I’m trying to achieve a state of total and pure expression. Ravel said that the real aim, the ultimate concern, is fullness and sincerity of expression. It is a personal struggle and spiritual path to allow myself to be honest and open in my expression, despite all of the inner critical voices. I believe a human’s greatest joy in life is to creatively express themselves, in any shape or form. There is always an open door in front of us every moment of our lives to be completely sincere in our expression, whether telling someone to screw off, showing kindness, creating art, anything. It is our greatest desire to be ourselves, fully, without any inhibitions. And I know that the people who have affected me the most have been the ones who have lived their lives in this way.
Nelson Mandela said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” This is my path as an artist and as a person. And I find that the older I get, the more and more simple the message becomes. There are no limits to the imagination, and less is usually more. So there is this search for the boundless simplification. Like when you hear a tune like “Mood Indigo” by Duke Ellington, or “Don’t Let Me Down” by John Lennon. They are so simple, yet you have to ask yourself, “Where did they FIND THAT!” Duke Ellington said that every day he is looking for a melody. He’s never sure where or when he will find it. But from the moment he wakes up to the moment he falls asleep, he is searching, constantly looking.
You also teach budding musicians. How’d you first get into that and what do you like about it?
Teaching is a way of directly giving back all that I am thankful for having received from music. It is really a position of service, of giving and guiding.
Also, teaching is quite frequently an experience of looking into a mirror, and can be very challenging, while maintaining integrity for what you teach, with staying open enough for a teaching to enter yourself. I constantly learn from my students.
Teaching constantly challenges me to remind myself who I am, and to maintain the integrity of who I am and allow openness for this other person, this other expression that may be drastically different from myself.
The job of a teacher is to open someone up to the creative expression in the abstract that is within them. Yes, there are definitely techniques, and formalities that must be worked on and learned, and mastered. And these are tools that are acquired to be a vessel that can freely express him/her self, beyond the technique.
At the right moments, a teacher also needs to know when to give a kick in the ass, to keep the student straight. Because what we are dealing with here, is pretty serious business, actually. When you start talking about true sincere expression with no limits, you are treading on sacred ground. Ground that has been tread on by many past masters, who have shown us the many ways. So it is important to be able to see when a student may be being lazy, or goofing off, and provide a good ass kicking.
Don’t get me wrong, it is all about fun, and reaching a point of real good feeling, warm groovy goodness. But that stuff is the most serious stuff there is, and can’t be taken for granted. We should be serious about having a good time, and making that warm groovy goodness with, and for, everyone we contact.
On top of everything else, you’re a budding film composer. Why film music?
Because I love movies. That simple.
As a child, movie music greatly affected me, probably more than I even realize. I would really get lost in movies, and hearing the music (when it is done well) brings you right back there. C’mon, Star Wars, Raiders, Superman… awesome music.
And also, the musician these days needs to have a little more versatility, besides just being a player. I love to write, I love the movies, and I get great joy out of putting music to a scene. It’s like being a child again.