“I don’t view art as contemporary, modern, traditional, old or new,” says pianist-composer Eric Reed. “Nor do I endorse cliques or camps. I promulgate integrity in all things.”
Through more than a quarter-century as a first-caller on the jazz scene, Reed has articulated this inclusive conception as a leader of numerous ensembles, solo performer, composer, producer, educator, and sideman with numerous artists, including extended stints with Buster Williams, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard and Wynton Marsalis. Whatever the context, whatever the style, he consistently animates the flow with fresh ideas, virtuosic chops, intellectual clarity and an unwavering will to groove.
On a remarkable series of recent recordings, Reed illuminates his aesthetic scope, navigating diverse terrain with intense focus and sagely concision. Consider, for example, one of Reed’s most recent releases, The Adventurous Monk, a 2014 date on which he offers idiomatic yet personalized, loose yet cohesive interpretations of ten works by the genius pianist-composer Thelonious Monk. It’s Reed’s third Monk project since 2009, when he made The Dancing Monk, followed in 2011 by The Baddest Monk, on which he addresses the iconic songs with just the right admixture of maverick recklessness and natural command. “I imbibed heavily on Monk’s music as I became more immersed in composition and my journey as an artist,” Reed remarks. “The rhythmic, harmonic and melodic variety in his pieces inspire, allow and compel me to embrace the challenge of trying to convey messages in a non-verbal manner.”
A similar spirit of grounded exploration infuses Reed’s most recent release and first live recording, Groovewise, on which he navigates mainly original music on the bandstand. The spontaneity of live performance comes through on Stand!, a jubilant-to-introspective 2009 studio date on which Reed presents 11 pieces inspired by biblical themes. On two other in-studio trios—Something Beautiful from 2011 and Here, a 2006 session —Reed coalesces his own pieces with repertoire from popular songs, less-traveled jazz classics and gospel, deploying a wide range of moods and dynamics in the manner of a live set. Different in ambiance but equally impromptu is Reed’s Reflections Of A Grateful Heart, a contemplative, subdued solo recital of hymns, spirituals and gospel songs from his pen and, among others, Edwin and Walter Hawkins, Richard Smallwood and Billy Taylor.
“The older I get, the more I start to see my musical, spiritual and personal influences as all one stream of consciousness,” Reed says. “When I was younger, I was exposed to music in my house, my neighborhood or in school; I didn’t care about what it was labeled. When I became a professional musician in my teens, the lines between the different styles were drawn in big red marker. Now, I’m not concerned about highlighting and the imposed differences. The musical experiences are all tied together.”
Reed developed the core principles of his musical sensibility almost from the time he began to speak. “Before I could even reach the pedals,” he recalls, he was playing for and enhancing worship services for the congregants in the small Baptist storefront church in West Philadelphia where his father, a quartet singer, sang and preached. “My earliest experiences in the Holiness church were colored with charisma; people were moved largely by emotion,” he says of that functional setting. “Music played a major role in manipulating these emotions, even inciting people to dance. I developed my ear in an extraordinary way; if someone started to sing, I could quickly find their key and begin to accompany them.”
Noting their son’s exceptional talent, Reed’s parents signed him up for private piano lessons at age 5, which continued at South Philly’s prestigious Settlement Music School. In the meantime, his aunt and uncle scoured flea markets for records. “They found these records by Horace Silver, Art Blakey and Dave Brubeck. Additionally, in our home, all kinds of music could be heard on the stereo and the radio because my parents and older siblings were into gospel and popular forms of music.” Reed recalls. “I listened to everything.”
When Reed was 11, his family migrated to Huntington Park, California, a suburb near Los Angeles with a well-stocked neighborhood library where he continued to self-educate, reading various biographies, theory books and absorbing records. Soon, he enrolled in The Community School of Performing Arts (now The Colburn School), where his mentor Jeff Lavner, introduced him to even more recordings. In 1986, Wynton Marsalis conducted a master class there and took immediate notice of Reed. Marsalis connected the school to tenor saxophonist-educator-arranger Harold Battiste Jr., who was asked to develop an improvisational workshop. Eric reminisces, “Mr. Battiste was a soulful and lovely human being. He was patient and loving with me, taking me to clubs all around L.A. to check out music.”
Wynton recalls, “Eric had great ears and already had formed his musical personality. He had a phenomenal level of talent for his age; I’ve only met four or five musicians with that extreme ability. He’s intelligent and curious; you don’t have to spend a lot of time explaining stuff to him. And there’s his pedigree: he grew up in the church, so he had direct exposure to the vernacular.” By his late teens, Reed, who had won several local music competitions judged by the likes of Horace Silver, Billy Higgins and Ernie Andrews, began to work professionally with tenor saxophone legends Teddy Edwards and Buddy Collette, Gerald Wilson, The Clayton Brothers and Clora Bryant. After matriculating at California State University, Northridge, Reed officially assumed the piano chair with Marsalis in June 1990 — and moved to New York City.
Except for an 18-month return to Los Angeles in 1994-95, when he apprenticed with Benny Carter, Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson, New York remained Reed’s base of operations for the next decade-plus. From the jump, Reed became deeply entrenched in New York’s hardcore jazz scene, entering the rotation at Bradley’s, the legendary New York piano saloon, where masters bonded with students, providing a platform for Reed and his peers to cut their teeth. He documented seminal and now classic works on a series of trio and combo albums, It’s All Right To Swing, The Swing and I, Musicale, Pure Imagination and Manhattan Melodies.
“In the heyday of the ‘90s, we were all devoutly and intensely devoted to the idea of what we thought Jazz was supposed to be,” Reed remarks. “Integrity has always been part of my essence, presenting a wide variety of music in a relevant fashion. Wherever the music goes, I want to go there and be present in that moment, not just a stylist.”
After initial forays at applying this dictum on recordings, Reed curated concerts and produced studio dates for other artists, notably in a series called Jazz Composer Portraits for Manhattan’s Miller Theater from 2001-03, eliciting creative, unified performances of music by pianists Elmo Hope and Donald Brown, drummer James Black, alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy, bassist Ben Wolfe and the legendary Billy Strayhorn.
“I like taking on the challenge of trying to make something my own, while attempting to honor the composer’s intentions,” Reed says. “I’ve embraced the songbooks of many composers and being able to draw from these different sources has helped me to find my own compositional voice. Some people find their voice early; some find it later. Earlier on, composing was more something that I did by default because I had a studio date coming up. On It’s All Right To Swing and Musicale, it was about the arrangement and presentation of the piece. Now, I incorporate more of my improvisational ideas into the way I write. I trust the musicians to interpret it and whatever happens, happens.”
Throughout the ‘00s, Reed provided artistic direction for singers Paula West and Mary Stallings, for whom he produced 2013’s But Beautiful. “The art of accompanying singers has been ingrained in me since I was a child playing in church,” he remarks. Reed also began to teach privately under the auspices of Juilliard School of Music, the New School and Manhattan School of Music, helping to direct young luminaries like Aaron Diehl and Kris Bowers towards paths that “might help enhance what they were already doing and get them to become more developed musicians. This is why I don’t call myself a teacher, but a mentor.”
“The bandstand is where the real education is,” Reed says. “The only way musicians truly learn what’s valuable is by being in the trenches. I thank God that so many of the old guard embraced me. I was truly and wonderfully blessed.”
In 2008, Eric moved back to his beloved Los Angeles, jumping feet first into the local scene as musical director for Regina Taylor’s critically acclaimed musical Crowns, which ran for the entire summer at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center and the Pasadena Playhouse. From 2010-2012, Reed was back in familiar territory – the church. Fondly, he states, “It was almost like reliving a part of my childhood. I played for a while with the Los Angeles Gospel Messengers, the last group formed by the legendary James Cleveland. I also served at a church as a Minister of Music and was working with other groups around the city. L.A. is a place where I feel at my freest; the geography and the climate encourage a certain openness and peaceful existence. This move is the beginning of what will be a challenging and exciting chapter of my life. It has also allowed me to revive and deepen my spiritual connection to God.”
After a brief respite from recording, opting to regroup and revamp, Eric coalesced an ensemble of fiery young talents that include drummer McClenty Hunter Jr. and saxophonist Tim Green (and later bassist Michael Gurrola), releasing A Light in Darkness for WJ3 Records, explaining this latest as “My most challenging recorded project yet. The past couple of years have been emotionally, personally, and spiritually tumultuous, culminating in the music heard on this recording. I’m glad I suffered those setbacks because my growth has been monumental. He goes on to explain, “My evolution as a spiritual being is even more essential than as an artist; one is always listening to and embracing what’s happening in the world – expressing and creating. These elements fuse with your humanity. It’s taken me my whole career to realize what I’m actually supposed to be doing, which extends beyond performing – which is everything! I desire to share all of that with young artists who are looking down the road, offering as much access as possible to those who desire to manifest their innermost self through music.”