Rising Star Jazzes Up the Philharmonic

Aaron Diehl
The Wall Street Journal

This week the jazz pianist and rising star Aaron Diehl is set to make his New York Philharmonic debut in a prominent slot: opening night.

Mr. Diehl will perform the soloist role in George Gershwin’s Concerto in F on Wednesday, as the composer himself did at the work’s world premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1925. The piece is part of a New York-centric program that will launch the orchestra’s 175th anniversary season, its final one with music director Alan Gilbert.

Classically trained, Mr. Diehl fell in love with jazz in his teens and toured with Wynton Marsalis at age 17.Now 30, the Juilliard School graduate is known for his meticulous touch and for making music that both nods to and expands on foundations laid by past jazz greats. He has released two albums on Mack Avenue Records and can also be heard playing with the jazz singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, a frequent collaborator. “He’s got the soul and the spirit of a jazz player, but he’s got the discipline to play with a symphony orchestra,” said Edward Yim, the Philharmonic’s vice president of artistic planning. “He can fit into our world in the way that not all jazz pianists could.”The Wall Street Journal sat down for a piano-side interview with Mr. Diehl last week at his Harlem apartment to discuss his debut and the musical layers in Gershwin’s concerto.

Tell me about this composition.
It is a classical concerto. What makes it so unique, though, is Gershwin’s embrace and use of rhythms, syncopations and folk material that are native to America.

He’s got blues in there...The Charleston is all over the place in this piece.

He has hints of what we call Harlem stride, made famous by James P. Johnson, Willie “the Lion” Smith, and Fats Waller, who wrote “Honeysuckle Rose.” [He plays a few bars.] 

You have this boom-chick figure in the left hand. It’s almost like ragtime but it’s a more advanced version, if you will. You have the syncopation in the right hand.

In fact, I take it a step further from what Gershwin wrote, and I make it into a full-blown stride sort of style.

What’s your take on Gershwin’s role in American music?
He definitely set a gold standard for American popular songwriting. 

“I Got Rhythm,” “S Wonderful,” “Embraceable You.” They’re just great tunes. I mean... [He plays “Embraceable You.”]

There are several arrangements and orchestrations of classical music of his work. Jazz musicians, we use those songs all the time.

All of these tunes are so rife with harmonic complexity and sophistication. We love that. The more chord changes or harmonic progressions there are, the more we can navigate in our improvisation. 

How are you preparing for the concert? 
I’ve focused on this one piece since March, in addition to everything else I’m doing. I wanted to make sure that I had a specific objective for what I wanted to do at this point, and at that point. 

I met with André Previn yesterday, who has a very definitive recording of this piece.

I told him, I can’t play [the last movement] as fast as you. He said, don’t worry about playing it fast. Worry about being rhythmically accurate. 

I played it three or four clicks slower, and it was much better.

Is it different from what you do before club dates or jazz festivals? 
With classical music, you can basically plan. I know that the orchestra is going to do what they say they’re going to do. It’s not like playing in a trio, or a small jazz ensemble, where you don’t know what’s going to necessarily happen.

[Whether improvising or playing composed music,] you always make the music feel like it’s fresh and it’s real and it’s tangible. It’s not a museum piece.

You said you do plan to improvise in some spots. How is the orchestra going to handle that?
It’s just a solo by myself, so it’s not going to affect them at all.

I was very aware that this was a piece where you have 80 musicians who are used to having it played a certain way. I found places where I knew that this wouldn’t be too much of an issue for them. 

I don’t want to make their job even harder, because what they do is hard enough as it is, and they do it so well.
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