"Jazz Monthly Feature Interview"


Our guest here today is Andy Wasserman, a gifted composer, arranger, musician who has received exceptional reviews by critics and the Jazz world alike, has truly arrived and can take his place as one of the premier performers in the music industry.

Jazz Monthly: Andy, you play excellent piano. Talk about some of your influences and how they are incorporated in your music?

AW: Thank you. It's hard to put into words how humbled and eternally grateful I am to have had four mentors, or "musical parents" as I like to call them. They made it possible for me to realize my musical potential.

My first mentor was Anne Bacon Dodge, who I worked with as a young boy at the Metropolitan Music School in Manhattan. She gave me a foundation in Bach's Two-Part Inventions along with a deep understanding of Jazz - especially its cultural history - and music theory, with a focus on the circle of fifths. She introduced me to the harmonic structure of chords and how to play the Blues in authentic styles. We became so close that as a teenager I spent a whole summer living at her country home in the Catskill Mountains.

Then my life's path intersected with Dwike Mitchell - best known throughout the world as one half of "The Mitchell-Ruff Duo" - by way of the Copasetics Jazz tap dancer Charles "Cookie" Cook. Mitchell first taught me how to make the instrument sound like an orchestra. He guided me with wisdom, helping me overcome personal problems that were getting in the way of my musical progress. Dwike enlightened me to the reality that it all comes down to one's intent, listening, emotion and rhythm if you are going to tread the path of mastery in Jazz piano. My thirty year relationship with him changed my life on every level due to his genius, teaching perspective, generosity and kindness. Our teacher-student relationship was honored and discussed in the "New York" chapter of his authorized biography "Mitchell and Ruff," written by William Zinsser.

Later on I gravitated to Boston, enrolling as a full-time student in the department of Jazz Studies at New England Conservatory. It was there that I began an extended relationship with Jazz master composer, bandleader and educator George Russell and his world-renown theory "The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization - the art and science of tonal gravity." The impact I received from him felt like a nuclear explosion! Maestro Russell opened the door for me to compose and improvise on a much higher level than I ever thought possible. Under his guidance I began to understand what the music itself is telling us about it's innate structure of self-organized vertical unity. He was the ultimate mentor in every sense of the word. Working side by side with him as his student and editorial assistant for nearly 30 years energized a fountain of inspiration that electrifies my musicality to this very day.

Finally, I found my main Classical piano teacher, Jeanette Giguere. She brought her connection to Chopin through the lineage of her teachers to my ears: her mentor Alfred Cortot was a student of one of Chopin's disciples. She was very patient with me as a Jazz pianist, allowing me to gain deeper insight into the music of Chopin, Mozart, Bach and Beethoven.

Having been accepted by these master teachers as a student, taken under their wing, and to have been loved and mentored by them set the tone for a very meaningful life in music.

JM: What was the first song you can remember hearing as a child that made a major impression on you?

AW: My parents exposed me to Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" as a child. I was so inspired by this piece in which music is a powerful vehicle for storytelling that I created a theatrical re-enactment of the piece, choreographing all the characters in the story while joyfully prancing around my living room. Each melodic motif represented by Peter and the forest creatures resonated within my mind, heart and soul.

But everything changed for me when I received Erroll Garner's "Closeup in Swing" record for my ninth birthday. A switch turned on when the music inside me connected with his piano playing and rhythmic approach. Once I heard that sound I knew that I was put here on earth to play Jazz piano.

JM: Let's talk a little bit about your playing the piano as well as drums, electric bass and your wind, string, and percussion instruments from around the world.

AW: I've been on a search for what I call "The Universal Sound" as long as I can remember, looking to uncover the underlying qualities of sincerity and authenticity that sustains it. This quest blossomed organically beyond the piano as my ears opened up, enabling me to become a better listener while internalizing a deep affinity with everything and everybody here on earth. My vision changes and evolves daily with the discovery of new sounds and insights. This is the essence of living a creative life - a sonic pilgrimage shaping my story through the many acoustic and electronic instruments I've learned to play.

JM: How did playing all these instruments come about? Do you have a favorite?

AW: My favorite instrument is the piano, which I call "the rainbow drum." It provides access to every color in music with 88 possibilities of melody, harmony and rhythm. So as a rainbow drummer, I was right at home playing other drums. Turns out I ended up doing a lot of drumming while growing up in New York City.

I was a drummer in my elementary school band, my Junior High School band and orchestra, and was accepted into the High School of Music and Art on drums and orchestral percussion. That's where I learned to play timpani and melodic percussion instruments. Meanwhile, I played the drum kit in a rock band, performing at talent shows, private parties and outdoors in the park, while also having a blast on the marching snare drum in New York City parades with my Boy Scout Troop drum corps.

Growing up in Manhattan was a vibrant multicultural experience. It brought me into constant contact with the music and instruments of people from all over the world. The camaraderie among musicians was so tight, warm and friendly back in those days. Everyone was happy to share their musical culture once they saw my genuine interest in what they were doing. They encouraged me to keep exploring and helped me to discern the similarities and differences between Western and non-Western music practices.

The first instruments I purchased were North African clay bongos and an indigenous xylophone from Uganda. I began collecting these instruments from around the world when I was 10 years old and now have of 140 instruments in my collection.

That led me to create original programing in the field of arts-in-education with my audience participation oriented productions "Making Music From Around The World," Music: The Voice of Unity," and "Instruments: Ancient 2 Future." It's my way of sharing a rich heritage of world music, ethnomusicology, social justice and tolerance with the young people of the world. To this day I've presented in many thousands of schools and had more fun than you can imagine!

And in terms of the bass, the importance of the bass in any ensemble can never be underestimated, especially Jazz. I revere everything about the bass and always tune into what the bassist is doing. So it was just a matter of time until I needed to learn to play it.

JM:  How would you characterize your sound?

AW: The piano is the center of my life's work in music and a perfect vehicle for the totality of my creative and artistic vision. Developing one's own "signature sound" fulfills the purpose of Jazz.

I try to do my best at playing my heart out on the piano by interlacing spontaneity, nuance and subtlety, harmonic intimacy and rhythmic intricacy. I aspire to reverberate an eloquent spectrum of polished dynamic gradation. My mentors put forth a poetry of rhythmic invention and harmonic coloring, rooted in a solid technique of massaging the keys. If you pay attention to the way the piano itself wants to be played you can work effortlessly with the force of gravity. That's why I refer to myself as a "piano masseuse." It's all about the touch.

JM:  Do you have a specific teaching method?

AW: When students come to work with me, they benefit by working with someone who is not only an educator, but a full-time professional musician who is involved in producing original music as a creative artist.

I focus on communicating that intensity of dedication, which in turn inspires and motivates my students to grow. Music is a total commitment. The aim is to be able to hear it, then play it - and have fun doing it. That's why we call it "playing" music! This emotional intelligence set the tone for a student to ultimately mature into a self-realized artist.

I teach every student differently based on their unique talents, strengths and goals. No two people can be taught the same way when it comes to communicating the essential beauty and truth within music.

JM:  Please talk about your Holistic Music Healing program and your work with special needs students?

AW: The connection to music as an instrument of healing has been a central theme of my life and artistic endeavors. Ancient music, whether from Africa, China, the Middle East or India, was used for medicinal purposes. It was understood as a language for communication and storytelling, designed to preserve time-capsules of human history, wisdom and knowledge.

For me, music therapy, or "holistic music healing" as I prefer to call it, has been the purifying gravitational force which guides my inner life and intuition. Living a balanced life enables me to be a positive force for change in service to humanity. Since music has healed me as my saving grace, it is essential to share that experience with others. As a result, much of my life as a professional musician has been in researching, studying, performing and teaching music in this modality.

My work with special needs populations has been among the most rewarding of my life. I am of the firm conviction that music is a gift, given by the Creator to humankind in order to make us better listeners. It summons us to listen both outwardly and inwardly to the meaningful things in life, such as listening to our hearts, to the variety of sounds in nature, to each other in conversation, and to our bodies. Even listening to the silence is good medicine.

JM:  Can you tell us about the other programs you offer?

AW: My work had many dimensions to it. As a musician, I work as composer, arranger, recording artist, performer, educator, primarily using the piano, electronic keyboards, World Music (wind/string/percussion from around the world), drums, and electric bass. And as a producer, I run my own recording studio and record label, and do sound design programming, digital content creation, as well as working as a studio musician.

I teach in person and now offer private music lessons online via video chat in addition to my World Music arts-in-education programs in the schools. I love the challenge of trying to stay on top of all these activities while learning, growing and jamming.

JM: Have you used technology in your teaching and performances?

I embraced music technology with my first computer - a Mac Plus, in 1987 - and I've never stopped finding new ways to utilize the creative aspects of technology. I'm into tons of different software programs, electronic instruments, iOS apps on my iPad, and using music for recording, sound design and music making.

Sharing my art through technology in my arts-in-education workshops, master classes and artist residencies has been very enriching. And music technology give me a platform to teach online and conduct video conferencing and distance learning classes to my students around the world.

JM:  At what point did you make the decision to become a professional musician and begin recording your own CD's?

AW: I did not make that decision. My life's work in music was chosen for me and I am doing nothing more than striving for excellence and integrity, trying to pay homage to the Creator who has loaned me my talent by returning the resonance back to It's source. In terms of inspiration to self-produce, I owe everything in that department to Stevie Wonder, who set an example by doing everything a musician can do - all by himself - with total artistic control. That was the impetus to create my TransMedia Sound and Music production studio in 1991.

JM: Why have you chosen to be so active in the teaching profession?

AW: The positive influence and cultural treasure given to me by my mentors needs to live on and flourish. I'm simply "passing it forward." But the roots go deeper than that. My mother was a force for change in the early childhood education methodology of the 1960s as a teacher and school administrator. That made a strong impression on me. She inspired me with her love of teaching and creative philosophy of teaching.

So like my life in music, I did not choose the teaching profession, it chose me and I am honored to be able to aid in the development of the artistic life of my students. I welcome everyone to visit my two teaching websites at these links to find out more and get in touch: https://www.andywasserman.com/private-lessons and https://pianolessoncity.com/