Anyone who has ever sat in front of a piano understands what a charitable instrument it is. Let the hands and fingers drop to the keys and a sound comes upward. Maybe not the most appealing, but something that catches the attention. The piano summarizes the potential of all the instruments in an orchestra and allows you to play in combinations. You can be a big band, a string quartet, a rockin’ rhythm section, a mood changer, accompanist, or a singular artist in control of the most magnificent instrument on the planet! Did I just say that? No offense to all of you lute players out there. Just being a keyboard snob.
I had the good fortune to invite two young women with great skills and deep musicality around the microphone this week at the Bill King Show, CIUT 89.5 FM and talk piano. One comes from the rich Cuban traditions and intense schooling, the other from blues and New Orleans influence. Both are classically trained and focused on their careers.
Danae Olano was born in Havana, Cuba May of 1992. She obtained a Best Bachelor of Arts at the Conservatory of Music Roldan in Havana, then finalized her studies at the Superior Institute of Arts graduating cum laude. She captured a Juno prize in 2015 in the Best Jazz Album category with the band Maqueque, led by saxophonist Jane Bunnett.
Pianist Jenie Thai was born in Chiang Mai Thailand and raised in Edmonton, Alberta. She graduated Grant MacEwan Jazz and Contemporary Music Program as a performance major. After graduation, Thai was offered a part-time teaching position at Grant MacEwan University and gained acceptance into Paul McCartney’s International Music School based in Liverpool. She was nominated “Artist to Watch” 2013 and “Female Artist of the Year” 2014, from the Edmonton Music Awards and 2016 Maple Blues Award nominee as” Best New Artist of the Year”. In their own words.
Around the microphones are three classically trained musicians who have changed course. Jeni, did performing that repretoire live make you uneasy?
Jenie: Yes - much, much stress learning the music. I studied through a campus of music at the University of Alberta and having to learn pages of pages of really difficult repertoire over a few months, then perform.
Is it the performance in front of adjudicators or just an audience that unnerves?
I find with classical music it’s all about the notes on the page and not much room for error. When you are practicing by yourself – by the time you perform, you never really – I think - never really practice enough. By the time I do perform, it’s under high stress to play all of the notes correctly; the tempo – everything as written. With other forms of music, you can play whatever you want.
I must have been sixteen in the Louisville Academy of Music and it’s my first major recital – Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 11 in B flat – it took six months to memorize 28 pages of music. I remember that moment in front of the adjudicators and my head went blank with fear. You talk to yourself. Danae, you gave your first piano recital in Toronto – The Art of Piano – the Cuban Masters. Were you feeling the pressure?
Danae: A little bit. It was my first concert here – Larry Kramer and Jane Bunnett’s idea. They wanted me to play my music and arrangements and classic Cuba piano music. Music from the 19th century to nowadays. Cervantes, Lecouna, and do two pianos with Hilario Duran. In Cuba people, don’t know nothing about pianists like Emilio Grenet. Between jazz and Cuban style. And my music with violinist/vocalist Elizabeth Rodriguez and Jane Bunnett.
Two or three days before a test or audition or concert the music plays in my head and I can’t sleep. It wakes me up all night.
Jenie: Or your hands are playing all of the time on your lap. Then you mess up on a run on your lap. By the time, you get to the piano you don’t know it anymore.
I remember seeing a renowned concert pianist on an airplane with just a weighted keyboard, playing away – quietly go through the motions. Then there were masters like Horowitz who wouldn’t play for a decade- sit down and play the repertoire perfectly. That I don’t get! Do you have a daily practice routine?
Jenie: It starts with coffee and read for a bit and do the things I do every day, but rarely in the same order. I’ll be practicing piano and working on some writing. I like to run a lot. I often go for a run during the day. The rest depends if I have a rehearsal or a show or going to a show.
You play at Nawlin’s.
Jenie: Yes, this cool little club I recently started playing at with these great players; JoJo Bowden drums and Collin Barrett bass. I’m playing every Monday night at the Cameron House – it’s a residency with a full band – guitar, bass and drums backing me and every week I have a special guest songwriter.
How long have you been in Toronto?
Jenie: Since mid-October.
And your routine Danae?
Danae: I stay with Jane and Larry and they have a grand piano. I just have to go down the stairs and start to play. My home is in Havana and I have my own piano in my house.
Jenie, how did you come to play that New Orleans, blues style of piano? Did it find you – or you it?
Jenie: Kind of both. I came across some Oscar Peterson transcriptions from the recording Night Train. And some other albums too. I found a transcription of his composition Hymn to Freedom when I was in high school and asked myself, “What is this?” It was the most beautiful song I’d ever heard played in my life. I went to a record store in Edmonton and searched for Night Train and they had one copy left. Since then, I think I’ve gone through eight copies. I love Duke Ellington’s music too. In fact, that got me on this track and leaving Beethoven behind.
We don’t know why a certain music picks us. One day you’re listening to Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Prokofiev and then another music genre seeps in and you are captivated.
Jenie: It keeps changing. What I didn’t like to listen too when I was younger, I’m getting into now. I didn’t understand Thelonious Monk – the weird dissonances. Now, I think it just the cooilest. I’m excited for the next ten years and the stuff people are throwing at me now and what might hit me.
Are their other music genres you love to play Danae?
Yes, after sixteen years studying classical music I decided to get serious with jazz, Cuban music and my own. I try to improve my career as a pianist. I love classical music, but it makes me crazy.
I’ve had this conversation with classical pianists who marvel at the fact other musicians can improvise; free themselves from the written page. In the past, when teaching beginning students, I have them compose from day one.
Jenie: I like that you did that with students. Transitioning from reading music to playing music was very frustrating at the beginning. I knew I had the technique and knowledge how music kind of works. Then when I sat down with a chart in front of me and no other notes, I felt like an amateur and it was frustrating. I knew I could play the piano but didn’t know how to make those other sounds.
You don’t hear much blues in Havana, do you?
Danae: No, we don’t hear it. I listen a lot and read a lot about jazz music because in Cuba we don’t have jazz education in the schools. If you want to learn, you have to learn by yourself. It’s crazy because we have great jazz players but don’t have a program. In Cuba, they give you one audition in a year, for Cuban music. So many Cubans know nothing about our music.
I remember a piano recital in Old Havana a decade or so back of Cuban piano music in a church with doors wide open. I was one of a handful of people who showed up for this. I was astounded listening to the music. It was that connection between late eighteen-hundreds piano literature and the rise of ragtime piano in New Orleans, Kansas City and throughout America. Those syncopation’s and that Spanish influence is undeniable.
Danae: In Cuba, if you are not a superstar that people know about and you are doing a recital, there will be in the theatre like, ten people. All the people know salsa! It’s still one of the richest music’s around the world. When I play with Maqueque we mix all of the music we know. All of the musicians contribute to the arrangements in the band. You learn through the other musicians. Classical training gave me my technique and I apply that.
Does Jane Bunnett still practice all day?is
Danae: All day and all days!
I’m sure whoever stays with Jane does the same – it becomes routine. Jenie are you always exploring – looking to hear music you haven’t heard before?
Jenie: I don’t have to try too hard. There’s so much I haven’t heard. Actually, I’m looking to get a new record going. That’s my next big project. I have a busy summer coming up doing festivals out west and some in Ontario. I’m looking to enjoy Toronto in the summer. Everybody says it’s amazing.
If there is a place and time in history and a pianist, who would you want to sit close by and watch play?
Jenie: It would probably be James Booker. I’d want to ask him what to do with my tiny hands – how do I play 10ths? What would he tell me?
I’m fascinated with his playing and spent considerable time trying to sort out how he gets that tension between right and left hand and then it dawned on me – he plays in a major key with one and minor key in the other – on corresponding chords. Danae?
Danae: It’s a hard question and it depends on the style of music, but for me, one of the greatest pianists in Cuba was Frank Emilio. It’s just amazing. It’s the feeling in the way he plays.