New York-based pianist James Weidman is indisputably one of the world’s top sidemen.
Over the years he has played and recorded with musicians as diverse as Max Roach, Woody
Herman, Archie Shepp, James Moody, Greg Osby, Slide Hampton, Jay Hoggard, Marvin
“Smitty” Smith, Gloria Lynne and blues diva Dakota Staton. For five years he was the
featured keyboardist (replacing Geri Allen) for avant-garde saxophonist Steve Coleman and
the Five Elements and the M-Base Collective. And he was part of the Spirit of Life Ensemble
that held the Monday night spot at Sweet Basil for five years, as well as co-leader (with
saxophonist TK Blue) of the Afro-Caribbean-Jazz quartet, Taja.
He has also been the accompanist of choice for some of the world’s most celebrated singers, including legendary jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln (for nine years), and Cassandra Wilson (for two years), adding his consulting and arranging talents to the latter’s Blue Skies CD -- arguably her best recording -- and performing on three albums with her. “Working with Cassandra was very liberating. Because her music was so open-ended, I felt I could do anything I wanted,” says Weidman, of the experience.
Clearly, Weidman -- described by New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff as playing “smoothly and decorously” behind Lincoln at a recent reuinion concert -- is one those rare accompanists to whom singers feel it is safe to give free rein. Since 1992 he has been pianist and Musical Director for Kevin Mahogany, with whom he’s been investigating the bluesier side of jazz, particularly on their latest CD Pride and Joy -- which features special arrangements of Motown songs. He has also recently exercised his producing chops on singer Ruth Naomi Floyd’s Fan into Flame (their third collaboration), which features some of his compositions and arrangements, as well as his expert accompaniment.
“When I first moved here, someone said to me: ‘Be careful in New York. They’ll typecast you!’” laughs Weidman, whose incredible versatility -- developed over 30 years of working in a myriad of styles -- has made that impossible. “The more genres you are comfortable with, the deeper your understanding of music,” he asserts. It has helped Weidman to develop his amazing technique and, as he imparts to his students (he is a faculty member at William Paterson, New Jersey), “the better your technique, the better your communication.” However, the content of the communication is the most important thing. “You’re really telling a story to your audience,” he says. “It’s a shared journey. That’s why I called my first solo album People Music, because we are all supposed to share this music.”
Now on the verge of releasing his second solo album, appropriately entitled It’s ‘Bout Time, Weidman looks set to strut his stuff and take his place among the world’s top bandleaders. At last. Because -- to quote jazz critic Butch Berman (who described Weidman on his first solo outing as “powerful, yet graceful, with a unique style that is all his own.” ) -- this extremely talented pianist “kicks butt!” “Graceful” is a word that comes up time and again in reviews. As does “impeccable timing!” (Swing Journal), “sensitive” and “elegant” (jazz critic Mike Shera). And the accolades keep coming.
A native of Youngstown, Ohio, Weidman was born into a musical family and first learned to play jazz from his father (a saxophonist and bandleader) at the age of seven. “He taught me some of the songs he played in the band,” says Weidman. By the time he was 13 he was playing organ in his father’s jazz band. “We played the chittlin’s circuit,” he says. Throughout his years at Youngstown University (he graduated cum laude with a degree in classical and jazz piano), Weidman continued to divide his time between his studies and performing in local jazz bands, gradually becoming one of the best players in town.
Moving to New York, the jazz Mecca of the world, was inevitable. “Someone told me that I could get work there as long as I had an electric piano,” says Weidman, who packed up his Fender and set off for the city. Almost immediately, he found himself playing with jazz greats Cecil Payne, Harold Ousley, Bobby Watson and Pepper Adams, before falling in with Steve Coleman. “I really wanted to play with Steve because he was doing something new,” says Weidman. “His compositions force you to think differently and playing his very demanding rhythms and harmonies is really challenging. That was exactly what I wanted. It gave me a freer outlook on music.” Indeed, challenging himself musically continues to be very important to Weidman. “I used to play with this older cat in Brooklyn and at the end of every gig he would turn to me and say: ‘Well, I learned something!’”
Weidman has perhaps learned the most with his long term collaborator, highly acclaimed saxophonist TK Blue, who is also Randy Weston’s musical director. “When I first met TK in 1978 we were both writing and our band was like a workshop. It was a great laboratory for both of us in terms of trying out our ideas. And we still constantly challenge each other,” says Weidman. “But our playing together nowadays is more about intuition than notes,” he says. “TK is much more than just a fellow musician. He’s a spiritual brother. And it takes that learning process to a whole other level,” says Weidman. To hear them together is to be made intensely aware of Weidman’s most important music lesson: It’s the story that counts. “I’ve never forgotten my father’s advice the first time I ever played with him. ’Keep the time, stay out of the way, and tell the story.’”
Weidman has performed at the world’s major venues and festivals, including the Montreux, Monterey, Newport, North Sea and JVC Jazz Festivals, Carnegie Hall, Birdland, Blue Note, Sweet Basil, Village Vanguard, Iridium and Jazz Standard.