Joe Alterman: 'Simple Life'

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Over the past 95 years, jazz has repeatedly had to drag fans kicking and screaming into the future. Most fans like what they like and don't care much for new jazz styles, especially those that are radically different from the music they favor. While jazz certainly must evolve if it is to survive beyond the museum, most young musicians today seem to go out of their way to ignore yesterday while trying to create a new tomorrow. Not so with Joe Alterman, who just released his second album, Give Me the Simple Life (Miles High).

Joe graduated from New York University's music program in 2011 and is teaching a course there now. Unlike many young jazz graduates, Joe spends a good deal of his time asking jazz legends about their art and incorporating what he's learned into his playing. Conversing with jazz elders and decoding the secrets of their music recorded so many years ago would seem to be a waste of time today. Once upon a time, young jazz artists apprenticed with older jazz players. No more. Now you have to seek them out—if you even care.

What Joe has learned has improved his interpretive style. As a result, his sound often hearkens back to the '50s—blending touches of Red Garland, Ahmad Jamal [pictured above] and Wynton Kelly.

This isn't a parlor trick for Joe. His goal isn't to ape these musicians. Instead, he's merely exploring earlier styles in an effort to find his own bag. That bag clearly includes a healthy respect for jazz's vinyl era, which has been shoved aside by a more percussive attack. Which is a shame, since both are important.

First, a bit of disclosure. I wrote the liner notes to Joe's new album (and his last one). But since I only take on writing projects for albums I truly love, I'm praising music I would have raved about here anyway.

What most musicians like about Joe's personality is that he's gentle and curious. He listens a lot more than he talks, and there's an inviting Southern charm about him that encourages others to share what they know (Joe's from Atlanta). Which is why bassist James Cammack [pictured above] and drummer Herlin Riley [pictured below] agreed to gig and record with Joe. Both work regularly with Ahmad Jamal, and both heard in Joe a kindred spirit and a talent on the move. It's also why tenor saxophonist Houston Person was at the recording session and joined the trio for four tracks.

What did Joe learn from his coversations with Person [pictured] over the past year?

“Houston told me to be mindful of two things. First, connect with the audience. He said, 'People who are coming to see you are paying money. They want to enjoy themselves. Play for the audience, not the reviewers. It's a big responsbility you have.' And second, he said, 'Never lose the blues. Musicians who lose the blues sound like they're practicing.'"

Nearly everyone whose ears have been nourished by music of the '40s and '50s hears something in Joe—a yearning to move forward by reaching back. Joe knows the old stuff and loves it. Maybe he's nuts. Maybe he should be integrating samples and keyboard programs into his music. Or maybe he just hears something that a lot of students coming out of music schools miss: Pianists in the '50s had enormous grace and beauty, and their chord voicings and taste had meaning. [Pictured above: Houston Person]

Joe shows the love on his new album. There are 12 tracks—two are originals and the rest regal standards. Included are They Say It's Spring, I Guess I'll Have to Dream the Rest, An Affair to Remember and Give Me the Simple Life.

Give Me the Simple Life is spare, with a lyrical and swinging Jamal-ian feel. Oscar Peterson's Kelly's Blues is thick and rollicking. I Guess I'll Have to Dream the Rest is a slow and steady ballad, with a smokey solo by Person [pictured above].

Joe is maturing and I dig where he's heading. Love your audience and hold onto the blues. Great advice from Houston Person. I'd add a third: Learn from the past.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find Joe Alterman's Give Me the Simple Life (Miles High) here.

JazzWax SoundCloud: Here are two complete tracks from Joe's album—Give Me the Simple Life and Kelly's Blues: