Pianist Erik Deutsch Takes a Journey Through Jazz History With Decades, Octave Records’ Latest

Pianist Erik Deutsch Takes a Journey Through Jazz History With <em>Decades,</em> Octave Records’ Latest

Written by Frank Doris

Jazz aficionados and music lovers will be sure to appreciate Octave Records’ latest release, Decades by pianist Erik Deutsch. Decades takes listeners on a journey through jazz history, though somewhat off the beaten path: rather than the usual standards, the album features deep cuts from artists like McCoy Tyner, Horace Silver, Frank Foster, Jimmy Heath, Cedar Walton and others, along with an Erik Deutsch original, “Amor Eterno” – all recorded in up-close-and-personal Pure DSD high-resolution audio.

Erik is a world-class musician who is currently on tour with the Black Crowes and who has played with dozens of artists including Norah Jones, Shelby Lynne, Leftover Salmon, Don Byron, Warren Haynes, Art Lande and countless others. On Decades he’s joined by longtime musical companions Dean Johnson on upright bass, and Tony Mason on drums. “The band formed about 10 years ago, and this is our first recording together,” said Erik. “We formed as a way to get together and play this kind of traditional jazz piano trio music. The band members were born in 1956, 1966 and 1976, so we called the band Decades. The three of us just connected, even though we’re different ages.”

Decades was recorded using the Sonoma DSD system and mixed on the Pyramix DSD 256 system. The music is captured with realism, from the body and harmonic complexity of the Yamaha grand piano to the richness and depth of the acoustic bass, and the dynamic presence of the drums. The feeling of the trio performing live as it happens is palpable, communicating every musical intent with nothing between the musicians and the listener.

The album was recorded by Steven Vidaic, mixed by Jay Elliott, and mastered by Gus Skinas. The album features Octave’s premium gold disc formulation, and the disc is playable on any SACD, CD, DVD, or Blu-ray player. It also has a high-resolution DSD layer that is accessible by using any SACD player or a PS Audio SACD transport. In addition, the master DSD and PCM files are available for purchase and download, including DSD 256, DSD 128, DSD 64, and DSDDirect Mastered 352.8 kHz/24-bit, 176.2 kHz/24-bit, 88.2 kHz/24-bit, and 44.1 kHz/24-bit PCM. (SRP: $19 – $39, depending on format.)

Decades offers a variety of moods, tempos and styles. Jimmy Heath’s “CTA” takes hard-bop swing and fills it with unique harmonic and melodic ideas. “Breakthru,” by Erik Deutsch’s teacher and mentor Art Lande, deftly weaves blues-influenced lines, octave leaps, and maybe a little tip of the hat to Monk into an engaging mix. Denny Zeitlin’s “Skippy-ing” is, as the name suggests, full of angular melodic leaps and musical turns, played at an irresistible tempo. Erik’s original composition, “Amor Eterno,” brings an introspective feel and showcases the remarkable musical communication and interplay between the trio. The sound is spacious, yet intimate and inviting.

I talked with Erik Deutsch about Decades, about touring with heavyweight artists, and more.


Erik Deutsch.


Frank Doris: Well, I've been listening to Decades and it's blowing my mind.

Erik Deutsch: Oh, thanks, man.

FD: The obvious first question is, why is the album called Decades?

ED: Well, the band formed in Brooklyn, It could be almost 10 years [ago]. It basically formed as a way for me to get together with Dean Johnson (upright bass) and Tony Mason (drums) to just kind of jam and play this kind of traditional jazz piano trio music. It's a body of music that I inherited from my time with Art Lande when I lived in Colorado. This band is very much a tribute to Art Lande in the repertoire. When I was young in Boulder in the early 2000s I had the good fortune of having a piano trio with Lande called Triangle. We would rehearse every Monday for five years, even if we played only two or three gigs a year.

When I went [back] to New York City in 2005, I found that I didn't get to play that much straight-ahead jazz music. [Dean and I] played with a couple of different drummers and then eventually I brought Tony in, who was my good pal from the Charlie Hunter band originally. Tony came in and we just became a thing.

FD: You're on tour with the Black Crowes and you've played with the Chicks and the jam band Leftover Salmon, and Shelby Lynne, who is one of my favorite of favorites.

ED: Oh, yeah. She's cool.

FD: But for this album you're playing straight-ahead jazz and all this other stylistically different stuff.

ED: I came up as a musician in Washington, DC as a kid, and in Nashville. I was always around lots of different kinds of music. Just glued to the radio all day long, glued to MTV throughout the ’80s, you know what I mean? In DC we listened to a lot of different music. A ton of rock and roll, a ton of hip hop. I was going to reggae clubs every week. There was Go-go music on the radio all the time, which I thought was normal music, but it turns out it’s just really a DC local sound, unique to that area.

I always liked blues, and then became a jazz club regular in my late high school years. We also got into the Grateful Dead and I was a little bit of a hippie guy, you know? You take all that stuff and I'm fortunate that I do have chops in these different genres.

I'm not somebody who's bored by pop music. I dig it. I like playing parts. I like playing jazz. I like classical music, although it's too hard for me. (laughs) In fact I enjoy the challenge of switching between genres.

FD: How did you learn how to play piano?

ED: I've had many great teachers.

FD: Your tone is just gorgeous. What kind of piano did you play for Decades?

ED: A Yamaha [that was in Animal Lane Studios]. I forget which one.

FD: The Decades album swings, it has flowing ballads and it showcases your musicianship without hitting you over the head with it.

ED: Thank you, brother. You know, another thing about this Decades name is that the three of us just connected, even though we're different ages. That's the beauty of the language of this jazz music that we can [connect], all three of us coming from different places. Dean is from Seattle, Tony's from North Carolina, I'm from DC. And I think that our band leans a little on the groovier side rather than the super-experimental super-chops thing that you can do with jazz.

Tony Mason is known in New York City as one of the great groove pocket feel guys. Dean is a virtuoso on the bass – he’s a big, strong, powerful guy who can get around that thing and play very beautifully in a way that a lot of folks can't.

Yeah. It's not like we're not trying to prove something. We're not trying to reinvent the wheel. We're just trying to play, dig into some nice repertoire by some classic artists, and there's an original of mine (“Amor Eterno”) in there too. Maybe [music that’s] underplayed, not really standard stuff.

FD: I'd be shocked if you told me there were any overdubs on Decades.

ED: There aren’t any. And a lot [of the songs] were the first take.

FD: Thelonious Monk wouldn't even want listen to the playback. In the documentary Straight, No Chaser, there’s a part where the producer, maybe Teo Macero, says, “okay, you wanna hear what you just played?” Monk says, “no, no, let's keep going.” (laughs)

ED: We didn't either, to tell the truth.

FD: No kidding.

ED: We made it all in about a day and a half. And we probably had time to spare. We were having fun doing it that way, and we didn't see any reason to… none of us are really perfectionists. It was just like, great, let's move on. Next one.

FD: Jazz gives you a lot of room for improvisation and doing your own thing, but when you play with other bands like the Black Crowes, do they want the parts to be the same every night?

ED: Black Crowes is a mix of [playing] parts, and rock and roll piano and organ. The Black Crowes is a gig that has a lot of, a lot of space, probably 40 percent parts and 60 percent space to make your own part.

Their different albums have different levels of that. OK, you gotta hit the organ on this chord, and you gotta hit the pianos on the verses, [let’s say]. But within that, it's kind of open. It’s an old style and it comes from Chuck Leavell, who played on their first album. Rick Rubin hired him. Chuck is one of the masters of rock and roll piano. The band is basically a British rock and roll band that people mistake as a Southern rock band. I really enjoy it. It's a great gig.

FD: I would have to think Leftover Salmon would also give you a lot of room…

ED: They gave me a lot of room. (laughs). You could do anything.

FD: Like the Grateful Dead, you can hit the heights, you can miss, or anything in between. Just shifting gears a little bit: on Decades you had to cover the melody, the harmony, the rhythm, but when you play with guitarists like Charlie Hunter and Jim Campilongo, who are mind-bogglingly good, how do you work with them and figure out what kind of musical spaces you’re going to occupy?

ED: Generally, musicians on this level hire me because they want to hear me do my thing, not to tell me what to do. I think that [it’s because of] my willingness to be an accompanist, or be a lead guy, or be a moody guy or be an energetic guy. The gig dictates what it needs.

FD: Who are your favorite pianists, and people that you hear today that you like?

ED: Oh, you know, the, the Keith Jarretts and the Chick Coreas, and Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner…these have always been the masters, you know what I mean? And then Chuck Leavell and John Medeski and Dr. John. I’m interested in anyone who can play, to tell you the truth. I love all kinds of playing.

FD: I don’t know if you can play without being influenced by what's gone before.

ED: I do think that kids coming up these days, teenagers and college kids, don't seem to be as interested in the history of the music. I know that’s a generalization. But I've heard it from enough folks, and I've seen it myself enough times and I have plenty of friends who are teaching college. I'm not sure if it's just like rebellion or there's something more to it. I don't think it's good, but we will see how it plays out.

But this new generation [can be] so smart, so talented. And it's a really nice thing that you can make music without having to spend a fortune [on equipment] these days.

FD: But don't ignore the lessons of history. You could really learn something. If you listen to somebody like Bill Evans you might think, oh, that sounds easy. Then sit down and try to play it.

ED: Agreed. Agreed. A hundred percent.

FD: Maybe it goes in cycles.

ED: I think so too. I'm not going to panic or announce that we have an endemic problem. It's just that I like to observe and see what's going on in pop culture and talk about it. It'll be interesting to see what happens with jazz music in the future, that's for sure.

FD: Jazz always evolves, and it went through some phases that I didn't always like, like in the late 1950s through the mid-1960s with free jazz. I liked the fact that the musicians were trying to break barriers, but I also found there was a little bit too much of, let's just go in the studio and screw around and they'll put out an album and the critics will rave about it, and it's really the emperor's new clothes. Then again, who are we to judge?

ED: Yeah, exactly. It's just another kind of music, you know? People trying stuff.

FD: Is there anything else you'd want to say? I used to ask people how COVID affected their ability to play live, and to make music? But knock on wood, I hope we’re mostly out of that phase, or at least 90 percent anyway.

ED: [The pandemic] changed everything for me. It taught me how to be a good home studio musician, I'll tell you that. I didn't have any chops for it. I had started building a studio, down here [in Mexico City], but really didn't really know how to use it. So COVID forced me to figure out how to use everything. I make a lot of music here from home, and I work a lot in that way, and it's really, really, really rewarding.

FD: Getting back to the Decades album. You can hear that you guys have been playing together for a long time. The fact that professional musicians can just get together, having never played before, and be really creative is great, but there's also something to be said for people who have been playing together so long that you can just give somebody a look and everyone knows what's gonna happen next, which is what I'm hearing on this album.

ED: Absolutely. Thank you, brother. I'm glad you enjoy it. And oh, man, I'm thankful to Octave for letting us record this music. It's a beautiful thing that we got to do it after all these years [of playing together]. You gotta document what you do, especially if you’ve got a good band. So, we're all excited.

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