Saturday, April 10, 2010

Piano Adventures

I just got back from a piano concert by Jim Chappell, a world-renowned recording artist and composer of contemporary piano music, and I wish you could have been there. He's a 50-ish man of slight build and a wry manner. Having listened to his recorded music for the better part of two decades, it was my great pleasure to sit in the front row while he played live for an hour and a half.

I call his style "contemporary piano." Wikipedia calls it "smooth jazz." And others may call it (unfairly) "new age." Whatever you call it, his music is complex, varied, and eminently listenable, whether a given selection is soothing or rousing.

For each piece, Chappell recounted the story that served as his inspiration for the music: running down a mountain, breaking up with an old girlfriend, thinking about his young daughter, etc. You can even read many stories that explain individual compositions in his website, The website also has a lot of samples of the music itself.

Chappell is fundamentally an improvisor, and a brilliant one at that. At one point, he asked for a suggestion from the audience for the subject of an improvisation. Someone asked him to use a book he liked as his inspiration, so he sat down and played an ethereal, on-the-spot composition that was evocative of the book, "Jonathan Livingston Seagull." Then someone suggested he improvise with the thought of a cioppino dinner at an Italian restaurant. Not a very helpful prompt for an improvisation to my mind, but Chappell closed his eyes and produced another beautiful, soulful, thought-provoking piece of music. The most impressive demonstration of his genius, though, was a little later in the program, when he asked someone to come up and give him three random notes on which to build an improvisation. The result should have been recorded: it was absolutely stunning.

During the course of the hour and a half, he played two pieces that were very familiar to me: "Dawn" and "Heart Song." And all of this was presented to an audience of fewer than 50 who were assembled in the 100-seat "concert hall" at the Sherman Clay & Co. showroom in Roseville. And the grand piano he played on has to be one of the best in the Sacramento area. A performance by a world-class musician in a good acoustic setting, on an impressive instrument -- all for $8.

This is now the fourth concert that I've heard at the Sherman Clay facility in Roseville in the past six months. Each concert has been different: classical, Broadway, rock, and smooth jazz. And each was brilliant.

I am friends with at least eight excellent pianists in this area, and none of them was present at any of these concerts. But it doesn't take a pianist to appreciate what I've heard. These concerts are ongoing, and are inexpensive and in many cases free. Do yourself a favor and attend one. I'll cover them in my Placer Performance Calendar, but better yet, get on the Sherman Clay e-mail list. Send an e-mail to or call 916/771-0808, and ask to get their notifications of coming events. I know you'll be glad you did.

And by the way, if you're a fan of classical piano music, you can visit any of the Sherman Clay local websites, that of the Roseville store, for example -- -- and at the bottom left of the page, there are two buttons under the heading of "Media." Click on "Audio Player" and you can listen, on-the-spot and free, to hours of virtuoso performances of major classical piano pieces. Click on "Video Library," and you'll get a collection of YouTube videos featuring Steinway Artists and other great performers.

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