The piano has a long history of being the instrument of choice for creative Texas musicians. In Texas Piano Players: A Legacy (Part 1) we described the commonality of a piano in most homes throughout Texas at the beginning of the 20th century and profiled Texas-born pianists 'Moon' Mullican and brothers George and Hersal Thomas. Mullican and the Thomas brothers each made hugely influential recordings of boogie-woogie piano. In part two, we name a few contemporary Houston pianists who explore(d) the outer edges of blues, pop, and modern jazz.
From Bartok to BB King Fifth Ward-born pianist and organist Eugene Carrier (1946-1997) could "play everything from Beau Jocque to Bartok" thanks perhaps in part to a Creole family, the influence of Zydeco music he heard growing up, and his time as a jazz studies major at North Texas State University. He's best known as a bluesman who played with Lightning Hopkins, Albert King, and most famously B.B. King. Carrier's slow and thoughtful style could veer into unexpected musical territory much to the delight of those on the bandstand and in the audience. Check out the video below of B.B. King's big band with Carrier soloing on When It All Comes Down about six minutes in. Some truly visceral single-note stabbing and wild cyclic motifs in the extremes of the piano's range call to mind the music of Thelonious Monk and the aforementioned Bela Bartok. B.B. seems to be giving him an "Okay! Time to cut that shit out!" signal around 8:25 but quickly ends up smiling and at the end of the tune asking the audience for a round of applause for Carrier.
The Houston Press' recent Top 10 Honorary Texas Musicians quotes Ray Charles as saying: "If you want to put a great band together, go to Houston, Texas." And that's exactly what so many musicians, including B.B. King, did. It's heartening to know that in his lifetime, Carrier's talents were appreciated both at home in Houston and by audiences in venues all over the world.
Joe Sample and Joe LoCascio
"Unfortunately, we are often a society that not only abides by categorization, but also feel we can measure relevance, even greatness, through categorization." Pianist Joe LoCascio from his essay The Estate of Jazz.
Listening to Houston-born, Fifth Ward-raised and North Texas State alum Joe Sample (b. 1939) playing keyboards on his pop-jazz classic Carmel might prompt you to think: "Well, this is a long way from jazz..." But trying to put a musician of Sample's calibre into a box, be it hard bop, fusion, and/or jazz-pop, is not only pointless but - given the scope of his talent at the piano - pretty much impossible. Of course, Carmel or any other number of recordings made with the commercial marketplace in mind will indeed consciously embrace "categorization" to try and sell units. But instead of dwelling on whatever it is the culture police will have you think when it comes to "jazz" or "pop" (i.e. jazz good, pop BAD!!!) it's much more interesting (and fun) to focus on the breadth of a musician's talent and admire their ability to play convincingly and movingly in different creative contexts.
That said, those who only know Sample's work from one of the first fusion bands The Crusaders might want to explore the palette of Sample's 1981 Swing Street Cafe, a collaboration with L.A.-born guitarist David T. Walker. The influence of Texas blues is heard loud and clear on this recording. Straightforward, timeless production and a rhythm section that includes drummer Earl Palmer - who probably invented the rock and roll backbeat - keeps your ears attuned to the sources of Sample's musical inspiration. On "Woke Up This Morning" for instance, Sample sounds like a moonlighting Professor Longhair, a long way from "pop-jazz."
New York born pianist Joe LoCascio has made Houston his home for over 20 years. He's recorded and performed with an impressive number of jazz musicians including Chet Baker, Randy Becker, Freddie Hubbard and Dave Liebman. His own recordings include the haunting and beautifully played In The City of Lost Things with Richard Cholakian on drums and avant-bassist extraordinaire Thomas Helton on upright. LoCascio's compositions are metrically complex, calling to mind a much spookier Dave Brubeck. His dramatic phrasing - long and legato - and use of the piano's pedals give his melodies a Romantic quality similar to Chopin or great Italian bel canto singing.
In the same essay quoted above, LoCascio writes that the goal of an improvising musician is "...to fuse their total inner self to their musical self in conjuction with their external and ethereal experiences - to join the essence of existence to presentation of sound - to find their own voice." Does this also describe the work of 'Moon' Mullican, George and Hersal Thomas, Eugene Carrier, and Joe Sample?
Here's Joe LoCascio with Cholakian and Helton playing the composition Our Story:
For further listening, more pianists that are kicking it here in Houston: Kris Becker, Harlan Hodges, Bobby Lyle, Robert Pearson (check out Avant Garden the last Wednesday of every month), Jade Simmons, and Paula York.
And let's not forget High School for the Performing and Visual Arts alum and recent Macarthur Award winner Jason Moran. Jason! We need you to do one gig a month down here in Houston!
Special thanks to author Roger Wood.
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