Featured Musician - February 2009

Name : Ezra Weiss

Ezra Weiss

Instrument: piano, composer.

Early Years/Education: Growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, my dad and mom really liked musicals. I started writing music when I was ten, around the same time I picked up the saxophone. I played for fun, in school groups, but what I really wanted to do was compose. I didn't write anything good until my sophomore year in college. Looking back, that was ten years of writing bad music! I'm glad I stuck with it. At age twelve I started on piano. When I got to college, I dropped the saxophone so I could focus on piano, thinking maybe I could get better as a player if I concentrated on one instrument. After high school I went to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. There I studied with Neal Creque, who was so inspirational I began to look at the piano as more than just a hobby. I graduated with a Bachelor of Music in Jazz Composition.

After Oberlin I felt I wasn't ready to move to New York. A friend of mine had gone on a road trip around the country and really liked Portland. The plan was for the two of us and a tenor player we knew to move to Portland. Anyhow, my bassist friend ended up taking a rock gig for a minute with a guitarist (and Oberlin student) named Josh Ritter who wound up making it really big in the Indie Rock scene and never came to Portland. I think they're signed to Sony now. But I stayed; I love it here. I moved the week before 9/11, so it was rough in the beginning. I did manage to find work teaching music for the Northwest Children's Theater, Self Enhancement Inc., etc. After three years I decided to go to grad school, so I moved to New York to attend Queens College for a masters in jazz piano. After graduation, I was just going to come back to Portland for a summer working for the Children's Theater and then return to New York, but I realized how much I liked Portland and decided to stay.

Teaching: Currently, I'm filling in for Darrell Grant at Portland State University while he's on sabbatical, teaching his improvisation classes, ear training, keyboard harmony, sight singing, etc. I also continue to teach at the Northwest Children's Theater and School and work as musical director for some of the productions there.

Alice In Wonderland: About a year ago, the artistic director of the Northwest Children's Theater asked me to write a show. I thought of “Alice in Wonderland,” and realized jazz would be fun. In the theater world you have a lot of people who specialize in theater or specialize in jazz, but not a lot who do both. This is a jazz musical. There's a song based on “Giant Steps,” songs in the style of  Monk and Ellington. We took the characters in “Alice” and modeled them after famous jazz people ... the caterpillar is based on Miles Davis, the Cheshire Cat is Dizzy Gillespie, and the Queen of Hearts is Bessie Smith. The door mouse is Shirley Horn, and the March Hare is Ornette Coleman. To make this a real jazz musical, the music had to be very specific, otherwise it's just “jazzy.” The band is on stage: Farnell Newton, trumpet, Noah Bernstein, reeds, Lars Campbell, trombone, Bill Athens, bass, Tim Paxton, drums, and I'm on piano. We've got Shirley Nanette and Marilyn Keller as our Queen of Hearts (alternating weeks). I went back to the original Lewis Carroll book and used some of his poems.

Musical Influences: Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Charles Mingus, Maria Schneider, Stephen Sondheim, Horace Silver, Shirley Horn, Wayne Shorter, Joni Mitchell, Ivan Lins, Steve Reich, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, John Coltrane , Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, The Stylistics, The Chi-Lites, The Magnetic Fields, Michael Jackson, Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Mc Coy Tyner, Erroll Garner, Thad Jones, Andrew Hill, Eubie Blake, Charles Lloyd, Egberto Gismonti, Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans, etc.

Most Satisfying Experience: Sometimes it comes down to having a great night, that's really an adrenaline rush. There have been a few nights like that at Dizzy's Club in New York. You get to play a full week, and by the time it's Friday or Saturday night, it's really fun. (Ezra's sextet played Dizzy's Club three times in the space of one year.)  There have been moments as a teacher that are really satisfying, too. I have a student at PSU named Jon Roberts, and his junior recital last year was pretty  killing. He did some amazing things, I felt so proud as a teacher.    
Favorite Recordings: Joni Mitchell - “Travelogue”; Shirley Horn - “Garden of the Blues”;
Ivan Lins - “Cantando Historias”; Roberta Flack - “Killing Me Softly”; Charles Mingus - “Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus”; Frank Sinatra - “In the Wee Small Hours”; Jimmy Scott - “Lost and Found”; Steve Reich - “Tehillim”; Maria Schneider - “Concert in the Garden”; Branford Marsalis - “Requiem”; Wayne Shorter - “Alegria”; Blossom Dearie - “Once Upon a Summertime” and Duke Ellington - “Masterpieces by Ellington.”

Discography: “The Five A.M. Strut” (200,3 Umoja) w/Michael Phillip Mossman, Antonio Hart, Kelly Roberge, Leon Lee Dorsey and Billy Hart; “Persephone” (2005, Umoja) and “Get Happy” (2007 Roark Records). “Alice in Wonderland” original music soundtrack (2009). At the moment musicians hire me to write arrangements for them. I arranged some music for Thara Memory's recent two cd set, and Renato Caranto recorded my tune, “Five AM Strut,” on his “Nice to be Home” cd.

Gigs: From January 23 to February 15, I'm performing in my musical adaptation of “Alice In Wonderland” at the Northwest Children's Theater, 1819 NW Everett St. (503) 222-4488 and nwcts.org). We're using two wonderful vocalists to play the Queen of Hearts role: Marilyn Keller on the first and fourth weekend and Shirley Nanette on the middle two weekends. My current quartet includes Alan Jones on drums, Renato Caranto on tenor sax and Dave Speranza on bass. We'll be back in the clubs after “Alice” closes.

Future: At the moment it's one day at a time. I'd like to write some more musicals, and I enjoy teaching. I like performing, but I don't want to do it six nights a week.

Other: I've never heard a show (Alice in Wonderland) swing this hard and in a context for kids. A six year old will listen to it and get it ... get stuff that sounds like Ornette Coleman.

Interviewer's note: Ezra Weiss won the 2002, 2006, and 2007 ASCAP Young Jazz Composer Award.

-- by Rita Rega


Copyright 2009, Jazz Society of Oregon