Since the release of his acclaimed debut album Song of the Sun (featuring legendary saxophonists Wayne Shorter and Michael Brecker) in 1990, Jim Beard has amassed a dynamic discography as a solo artist—including Lost at the Carnival (voted a Top 10 “New CD Pick” by Jazziz in 1995), Truly (same accolades in 1997), Advocate (2000) and Revolutions (2008).
But if you’ve been a jazz fan these past few decades and the celebrated pianist is still a fresh name for you, there’s a good reason—he’s been in such high demand as a session and touring sideman and composer for other greats that it’s been a challenge time-wise to maintain his momentum as an artist in his own right. That all is changing now with the release of his new recording Show of Hands, his first as a solo pianist, which includes a unique mix of originals and standards, intermingled with six short interludes Beard playfully calls “haikus.”
The touring keyboardist with Steely Dan from 2008 through their recent Mood Swings tour, Beard’s history of all-star jazz collaborations is dynamically encyclopedic, starting with his tours with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and early relationships in New York with saxophonist Bill Evans, Mike Stern and Dave Liebman. While producing recordings for Stern, Evans, Bob Berg and Eliane Elias, he began a long working relationship with Wayne Shorter, was a member of John Scofield’s band and toured the world with Pat Metheny’s “Secret Story” project.
The Philadelphia native has recorded over the years with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie and the Brecker Brothers to Dianne Reeves, Meshell N’degeocello, Toninho Horta and Steve Vai. In addition to composing for film and television, he has also performed with the Metropole Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Jazz at Lincoln Center and performed everywhere from the Montreux Jazz Festival to Carnegie Hall and Royal Albert Hall.
JazzMonthly: You have enjoyed a unique career, composing recording, performing and producing for some of the biggest names in jazz. What do you think your greatest talent is? What do you enjoy most about the diverse career?
JB: I will use a quote from Mr. Spock on Star Trek to describe my career to date: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. I have no problem going into a recording session or live performance setting and seeing it as my job to make the music sound as good as possible, while not making my personal agenda prevalent. A lot of musicians, wherever they show up, have this attitude of ‘look out, I’m here, listen to me,’ but I find it just as important to help and be part of the greater cause of the music overall. Sometimes I am called to stretch and toot my own horn, so to speak, and I am happy to do that if I’m called upon. Versatility is the thing I’m best at. I’ve been interested in so many different kinds of music over the years. I always want to know how each genre ticks and what makes the songs and arrangements work.
JM: How and where did your journey in jazz begin? Who were your greatest influences?
JB: I started lessons early in my childhood with a classical piano teacher, but the first thing that turned my head around jazz wise was a birthday present I got when I was 13 – an album by Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra called Potpourri. I had been playing corny charts with the junior high jazz ensemble, and then I heard this and it opened new possibilities for me. Jones’ arranging richness piqued my curiosity. It swung hard and there was powerful soloing and experimentation, even with some pop tunes like Stevie Wonder’s “Living For the City.” When I was 14 my teacher took me to study with a classical teacher from Texas, who led me to a master class that George Shearing was doing at an artist’s colony in Jamestown, New York. Shearing was a revelation to me, a master of restraint who was masterful at creating jazz arrangements of popular songs, standards, even folk songs. He did everything from funky blues to inventive classical styled arrangements. The next summer I enrolled in his workshop. Natalie Cole was one of the other students. My most powerful memory was when I volunteered to be critiqued by him and played the Benny Golson tune “Whisper Not” with a rhythm section. Not realizing that I was only 15, George ripped me apart. He felt so bad about that when he realized my age that he offered to give me private lessons. I wound up studying with him for four years.
JM: I know you were also influenced by a lot of pop music, from Elton John and Stevie Wonder to Steely Dan, EWF and The Beatles. How does that play a role in the music you record with others and on your own recordings?
JB: I think the feeling I have for pop music has come full circle. As a kid I loved so much that I heard on AM radio from Philly Soul to Motown, but then I got to college (Indiana University) and started studying jazz, so I considered myself a serious artist who took the high art of jazz seriously. Then towards the end of my university days, I began playing in a bar band and covering Stevie, Prince and Earth, Wind & Fire tunes and suddenly realized that stuff was pretty good. I’m drawn to anything that is done well, and a lot of pop music involves great craftsmanship and attention to detail. I began to get interested in great productions, how they achieved all of these sounds and this overall feel in the studio. Those kinds of things still interest me when I’m playing and recording now.
JM: After you moved to New York in 1985, you became a touring member of Mahavishnu Orchestra and started working with guys like Bill Evans, Mike Stern and Dave Liebman. What was your career goal when you arrived there and how did you become so in demand so quickly?
JB: Most musicians, including me, feel horror and dread and uncertainty before taking the plunge and moving to New York. I moved there without much money so I said yes to everything so I could pay my bills. That meant everything from club dates with bands to accompanying auditioning Broadway singers and tap dancing classes, plus a lot of jam sessions. There was this great little rehearsal studio on 28th Street called Splash Studios, and I’d go there a few times a week trying out new material I had written. Bill Evans was one of the guys there. Someone asked me if I wanted to play the 55 Bar and Mike Stern sat in on the gig! He was about to put a band together with Bob Berg and asked me if I wanted to gig in Boston with them. Bill Evans flew to Milan to record with John McLaughlin, and played John some of the 4-track demos I had done. John thought he was done making the Adventures in Radioland album, then decided he wanted to include my song “The Wait.” This ultimately led to my touring with them.