Arts

Jazz pianist Joe Alterman discusses his new album ‘The Upside Of Down’ and pays tribute to his legendary mentors

Jazz Pianist Joe Atlerman and the legendary pianist Ramsey Lewis.
Jazz Pianist Joe Atlerman and the legendary pianist Ramsey Lewis.
Credit Jan Lewis

Jazz legend Ramsey Lewis once called Atlanta pianist Joe Alterman’s style “happy music with meat on the bones.” Les McCann, who lent his talents in collaboration on Alterman’s new album, called him “mind-blowing.” Decades younger than his heroes, Alterman has a knack both for classic, authentic, joyful jazz and for fostering real connections with musicians who defined earlier generations of music. Alterman’s new release is called “The Upside of Down“. He joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to talk about the album and some stories of his encounters with jazz greats such as Ramsey Lewis, Les McCann, Ahmad Jamal, and Oscar Peterson.

Interview highlights:

A burst of upbeat music in a difficult time:

“We made this recording and then the pandemic hit, and it wasn’t ’til around April of 2020 when I basically had more time than ever to sit at the piano, with nothing to prepare for,” said Alterman. “And it occurred to me, ‘Well, what do you want to play?’… to try to use this time as an opportunity to grow and see what you feel like playing when you have nothing to prepare for, that I was trying to look for some good in all the bad — and that’s when the title, ‘The Upside of Down,’ hit me.”

“Unfortunately, he’s not in good shape, and [Les McCann] can’t play the piano anymore. But when he gets an idea for a melody, he’ll call me,” said Alterman. “In 2018, he called me with this melody in his head, and he sang it to me, I wrote it down, and he said, ‘Put your thing on it,’ which means, ‘put some chords to it.’ So I put the chords … and then played it for him, and he said, ‘Great, now let’s think of a title.’ And I thought back to his voicemail before he went into the rehab center, which was always, ‘Hi, this is Les. Give me time to get to the phone, but don’t forget to love yourself. Yea-yea-yeah.’ And I thought, ‘Don’t Forget to Love Yourself — that’s perfect.’”

Alterman’s notorious dancing left hand:

“A lot of these pianists back then were playing solo gigs for dances, and they had to make people dance, so they had to have a strong left hand,” said Alterman. “But basically, when the be-bop era came around, they were playing more in small groups, and you didn’t really need to have such a strong left hand – you more accented in between, like little punctuation marks. From the be-bop era on, people were using it more like a single-line instrument, like a trumpet or a saxophone, and punctuating with the left hand. And so the two-handed piano thing became seen kind of as passé to some people, kind of a lost art to many others.”

Alterman’s cross-generational friendships with legends Ramsey Lewis and Les McCann:

“When I was opening for him, my back was to the stairs, so I couldn’t see when he was watching me, but my bass player … gave me this look, like, ‘Ramsey Lewis is standing right behind you watching you play the piano,’ and at that point, I got kind of excited,” said Alterman. “Afterward, I got off the stage. His manager at the time said ‘Ramsey wants to see you.’ I didn’t know what to expect, but I went into his dressing room, and he was just so kind to me … At the end of the conversation, I asked if we could keep in touch.”

“I got a voicemail, and it was [Lewis], and he was telling me about a time when he used to slide his fingers all the way down the piano,” Alterman recalled. “And he did it one time, when he was younger, so hard that he actually fell off the bench of the piano.”

“I think when I met both Les and Ramsey, I wanted to learn how to play like both of them,” he said. “And the message that they’ve both imparted on me, without really saying it, is basically ‘You’ll never sound like me because we haven’t lived the same life. But you’ve lived a pretty cool life, so lean into that.’ I’m very lucky that a friendship was formed. I think it has something to do with why our music sounds the way it does.”

Joe Alterman’s new album “The Upside of Down” is available on all major streaming platforms and can be purchased at https://joealterman.bandcamp.com/album/the-upside-of-down

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