Richie Beirach Interview: Solo Piano Album ‘Leaving’ releasing 14 April

American (now German-based) pianist Richie Beirach has enjoyed a career spanning five-plus decades, over the course of which he has played in the bands of Chet Baker and Stan Getz, been part of one of jazz’s most historic duos with saxophonist Dave Liebman, founded the acclaimed quartet Quest and been involved in over 400 recordings as a leader or sideman. An astonishing 26 of those records have been for solo piano, dating back to 1977 when he was selected alongside Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley and Chick Corea to record the first generation of solo piano albums on ECM; the result being Hubris. 45 years later, his newest solo piano record, Leaving, is an exploration of jazz standards in the unique setting of Cháteau Fleur Cardinale in Saint-Emilion, France. Interview by Charles Rees

Photo by Richard Nourry

LondonJazz News: Did you go into this performance intending to record an album, or was it your response after listening back to the recording?

Richie Beirach: Yes, it was going to be a solo piano recording from the beginning. What happened was my friend Jean-Jacques Quesada books gigs in these very fancy chateaus in Bordeaux. He told me about this young couple in Saint-Emilion who own a fantastic chateau – it’s been in the family for years – where they host concerts in this big wine-tasting room that has perfect acoustics. So he asked me if I would like to play a solo concert there… I said “yeah!”. Then my friend Kurt Renker, my producer and patron, said “Why don’t we record it and make a new CD?”. I’ve had a lot of releases over the last couple of years, but I haven’t had a new solo CD in years.

LJN: Excluding the encore, why did you decide to perform standards rather than your own original compositions? 

RB: In the last five years, I’ve been doing a lot of free improvisations with Dave Liebman. We had that gigantic five-CD release on Jazzline called Empathy, as well as a trio CD called Lifelines with Jack DeJohnette. Some other stuff as well, but all improvisations; no tunes. So now it’s time to go back and play tunes. On my previous solo piano recordings, I usually recorded my own originals. So I wanted to do something different – an artist wants to do different things to keep himself occupied and interested. I’m also aware of my audience. It’s not a question of ‘give the people what they want’ – I’m not Michael Jackson – but I did want to make something fresh that contrasted those free recordings.

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LJN: You have recorded most of these standards before in different settings… what is it about them that makes you want to keep revisiting them? 

RB: I wanted to do standards that everybody knows: “Round Midnight”, “Blue and Green”, “You Don’t Know What Love Is”… But I wanted to do them, of course, in my way. I believe in Glenn Gould’s idea of recording, that there’s no reason to record something unless you do it differently. The other thing is, I’m better now than I was five years ago, three years ago; I’m growing as an artist, even though I’m 75 and an old mother-fucker!

Solo piano is great because it’s just you. You get all the attention and all the glory. But you also have to provide the goods. In other words, if it’s ‘not happening’, you’re fucked! So I take the responsibility of it very seriously. Most people who go to concerts are not musicians. If they hear you playing all your own originals, which could be great, they don’t know if it’s good or not; they have no frame of reference. But standards are a frame of reference. If you play “Green Dolphin Street” in a creative way, they will probably know the tune and will hear your creativity. For comparison: In the classical world, there’s Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, the Chopin etudes, the Beethoven sonatas, Bach’s preludes and fugues and the Goldberg Variations. When young people make their classical debuts, you can be sure there will be some of that stuff in there so people can hear their creativity with a reference. That’s why when I teach or run auditions, I demand at least one standard, so I can hear how they play in relation to the legacy. These tunes are tried and true vehicles and they’re all great tunes, which means a fantastic melody, a great set of changes and a vibe. Each has a history; they’re like people. My hope is that I add my creativity to that legacy.

LJN: You don’t often play medleys, but you do it several times throughout this recording… What prompted that decision?

RB: On this I have to give credit to my producer Kurt. There’s always a question of what tunes I will play before a concert. I usually like to have a list, whether it’s originals or standards, because I want to make sure there’s enough contrast between keys, tempos and moods. But Kurt suggested that I make a big list of tunes and decide the order while I’m playing. I’d never done that before.

LJN: So you found your way to each tune in the moment?

RB: I had a list of about twenty tunes, but I didn’t know what I was going to play until I was up there. Let’s say I would start with “You Don’t Know What Love Is”. Then, instead of stopping, I would improvise a transition. While I was transitioning, I would think about what I wanted to play next… and then “Maiden Voyage” would come, or “What Is This Thing Called Love”. It kept going, and what’s interesting is I’d never done that before. It changed the performance because each tune is affected by the tune before and is informed in another way.

LJN: How did you know when to stop and start a new medley?

RB: When it told me to. I think I did four tunes in one of the medleys; that track is thirteen minutes and it felt long enough.

I’m always looking for surprise; I’m looking for something unusual. Not just crap for the sake of it. I wanted to do something different and valid… You can take spaghetti and throw it at the wall, but is it valid? Does it work? No! To do something that’s interesting and fresh that’s valid and musical, that’s the goal.

Photo by Kurt Renker

LJN: Two of your original compositions do make their way into the set as an encore, “Leaving” and “Sunday Song”… why those two tunes?

RB: If you’re an artist and you’re lucky enough to have composed a ‘hit’, that means thousands of people love it and they expect you to play it. I have a bunch of hits: I have “Sunday Song”, “Leaving”, “Elm”, “Pendulum”, “Nightlake”, “Broken Wing”… people know those tunes because they’ve been recorded by myself, Chet Baker, Kenny Barron, John Abercrombie and many others, and they’re in all the Fakebooks. I’m very blessed that they’ve entered the vocabulary and the literature.

LJN: Many of the tunes you perform here are associated with Bill Evans, and his influence seems to flow through the recording. Talk about what he means to you, particularly his solo piano performances and recordings…

“Sunday Song” is one of the first tunes I ever wrote. It’s very simple, it wrote itself; It was a gift. I always talk about the difference between the shoemaker way where you work every day and you polish the leather; you get great things from that. But the tunes that I really love are the inspired ones. They’re usually inspired by bad situations; I wrote “Leaving” after a girl left me. These songs have a simplicity about them that resonates with thousands of people on an emotional level. I thought about doing a couple of new originals or some more contemporary-sounding originals to contrast the standards. But no. Actually I love these songs and, luckily, I had a fresh version of each one.

RB: My early heroes were Herbie [Hancock], Trane, Miles, McCoy [Tyner], Keith [Jarrett] and early Chick [Corea]. But Bill Evans was something different. Bill brought the classical music aesthetic to jazz piano: that elegance, that beautiful tone, that sensitivity and, most of all, a sense of vulnerability. Was it there before? Not really. Oscar [Peterson] was a great pianist, but Oscar was a virtuoso and a crowd-pleaser and an extension of [Art] Tatum. He knew what he was going to play. You could hear it every time on every record. And he was very flashy; that was generational. But Bill brought that sense of Chopin nocturne, Chopin prelude and also Ravel, Debussy, impressionism… Kind of Blue would never have been what it was without Bill.

His life was tragic. They say Bill Evans was the longest suicide in jazz history: His first girlfriend jumped in front of a train in front of him. his big brother Harry, who he loved, also committed suicide. When he finally got clean and had a child, his new wife took away their baby, Evan, from him, so he started shooting cocaine. Bill was terribly sensitive and he couldn’t deal with it. He was also the only white guy in Miles’s band and he got a lot of shit for it. Not from the guys in the band, but from the people in the audience. That combined with Scott LaFaro’s death was a contributing factor to him becoming a junky.

I became friends with Bill in the last five years of his life. He was a brilliant guy: intelligent, educated and a real gentleman. And a beautiful guy: warm, friendly and funny, and a good athlete. He was too sensitive – a lot of artists are – but he was able to bring that universal lament into his recordings. He used to come over to my house and we would hang out. He would play my piano and sound just like Bill Evans, on my piano! He was very supportive of me. I would go and see him at the Vanguard, take him my records, and he would listen to them!

LJN: So he was something of a mentor to you?

RB: He was a mentor to me. He wouldn’t give me a lesson. I asked him, but he said “no, I wouldn’t want to take away your opportunity to discover it for yourself”… heavy shit! We were never friends because you’re not friends with Nelson Mandela. Bill was that to me.

LJN: Among the approximately 400 recordings you’ve been part of over the last 50-plus years, 26 of those have been solo piano recordings… what is different about this new one, Leaving?

RB: I haven’t recorded a whole solo piano record EVER of standards. I haven’t recorded any of these tunes in this way before and I haven’t recorded many of them in years. I have recorded solo piano versions of “Round Midnight” twice before, but I like this version the best because it’s more developed, it’s more rhythmic, it’s more informed and I’m swinging more. I’m still growing every day and we’re all students until we die; at least, we should be. I will go that way until I’m done and I’m glad that I’m still around to do it.

Richie Beirach’s Leaving: A Solo Piano Concert at Château Fleur Cardinale, Saint-Emilion releases on 14 April through Jazzline

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