Pianist and composer Luke Celenza speaks about the music on his independently released debut album, Back & Forth, with a clarity and equanimity that defies his young age. He only recently turned 21-years-old, and it has already been almost ten years since he was accepted into the Manhattan School of Music (MSM) Pre-College Jazz Division. Additionally, GRAMMY® and two-time Latin GRAMMY winner Dominican pianist and composer, Michel Camilo was a friend of the family and a key influence in his development.
Such credentials might spark a young musician to intently compose complex music. However on Back & Forth, the 12 original compositions, including two three-song suite-like pieces, often sound deceptively simple — and for a good reason. “When I write a song,” Celenza explains, “I’m thinking about a groove, what sounds good and feels good — and I’m thinking about the form. I’m thinking about pop songs. I’m trying to be lyrical and melodic. And most of it is in 4/4 [time] whether that’s ‘River Rhodes’ which has more of a backbeat thing or ‘For Charles’ (Charles Flores, bassist), which is straight ahead. The songs on the record are not trying to be math equations,” he says. “There is nothing in 9/8 or 7/16. I’m not trying to make the listener crazy or make it so you have to be a musician to enjoy it.”
The original concept of the title piece is a rhythmic dialogue between groove and swing. “It’s a verse-chorus-verse-chorus form, taking pop music and taking swing and putting them together. And at the end, we have a release after a constant back and forth conversation.” “Jupiter and Mars” is a sly, and personal, commentary on the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” notion and plays with the idea of being both in a major and a minor key. “The idea is to be both at the same time, rather than choosing one or the other.”
Celenza’s diversity in writing comes from a wide spectrum of inspirations he has picked up along the way, artists such as Robert Glasper, Gerald Clayton, and Brad Mehldau, who joined his list of beloved old masters such as Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane and Sonny Clark. The discovery, he says, pushed him to “try to find a way of making them work together.” After all, something that struck him was how artists such as Glasper and Clayton, “let their influences come through in their work and yet how they decided not to pick one or the other but have it all go into the mix.”
Regardless of the conceptual notions or musical structures binding the music, Celenza’s interest is to connect his band with his audience. In turn, much of the music was written with the idea of having Joshua Crumbly on bass, Jimmy Macbride on drums and Lucas Pino on saxophones. “I’ve been friends with Jimmy and Josh since the Brubeck Colony in 2008,” recalls Celenza. “It was so clear even then that Jimmy was the drummer I wanted to play with, we have such a great musical connection that when I write a song, I write it with him in mind; or for example on ’131′ Josh and I built on a bass line without ever saying or writing anything. He knew. He recognized what the music called for, played it and I joined in without saying anything.”
At the Manhattan School of Music, Celenza studied under professor Jeremy Manasia, who directed the big band, the top ensemble and taught piano. “He introduced me to Sonny Clark, then McCoy, Herbie, Barry Harris, Bud Powell. It set the foundation.” In fact, Celenza says, “I’ve always had great teachers, from Elizabeth Porter back then to Kenny Barron now, I’ve been very lucky.” The MSM band, directed by Manasia and featuring Celenza, won the Charles Mingus Competition in both 2009 and 2010, and in both years he also picked up the Outstanding Piano Soloist Award. Celenza grew up in a family of music enthusiasts. His father, a dentist, is an amateur drummer and jazz fan, and his older brother, Frank, plays guitar and drums. The support was crucial for Celenza to win his shelf full of prizes; including several DownBeat Student Music Awards for Outstanding Performance, the Silver Award from the National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts and the honor of being a Presidential Scholar in the Arts.
Meanwhile, family friend Michel Camilo remained close throughout, offering advice and passing on to Celenza his own experiences as an artist and professional musician. “Michel was my dad’s patient for 20 years. They knew each other even before me, since the early 80′s,” he recalls. “My dad has been a fan of Michel forever, Michel and Sandra (Camilo’s wife) are great family friends, we would have dinner parties and he would play and I’d sit right next to him on the piano bench. That was my introduction to jazz.”
“It has been so inspiring and refreshing to see how a promising young talent like Luke thrives and succeeds by seriously committing to develop his improvisational and composing skills while studying and researching the jazz tradition,” Camilo says. So while he was never formally Celenza’s teacher, “over the years we had sessions where we discussed subjects like texture, nuance, touch, groove, timing, piano technique, correct posture, telling your story and structural compositional writing,” Camilo recalls. “Luke brings to the table a fresh sound and an uncommon restrained maturity in his music.”
“People want to hear something familiar from the pop music they love and bridge the gap over to jazz,” reflects Celenza. “We have the grooves underneath with the swing and the improvisatory elements of jazz all within a form that is relatable, catchy and whistle-able. That’s basic ally the inspiration for the tunes on this record: taking melodies that are simple and memorable and putting them in a form in which we have the freedom to explore and improvise.” For Celenza, the secret is hidden in plain sight. “Jazz was once the pop music of the day,” he says. “If the pop music of today is in no way improvisatory, then that’s the missing element and something I want to bring back. Good music is good music, I have no qualms about doing something simple and repeating it. If it sounds good and feels good, then it is good.”