The delicacy of Jeremy Siskind’s piano work is both floral and flavorful; a sensory bounty whose story unfolds minute by minute. We listen, fixed in place, not only because the music is so absorbing, but also because of its surprises, chord changes and colorations.

In 2012, Jeremy won the Nottingham International Jazz Piano Competition; in 2011, he claimed second place at the Montreux Solo Piano competition. His 2015 CD, “Housewarming,” is tonally rich. A leader in the in-home concert movement, Jeremy – who at 30, has so much ahead of him in a full and promising career – has brought music to over 100 households.

Your classical mastery is evident in “Autumn Leaves” and also “Twilit Water, Vanished Music.” How closely related are classical music and jazz?

I feel that the further we get into musical history, the more all genres are coming together, whether it’s classical, jazz, world, pop, or electronic.

The piano has an incredibly long and rich history in the classical tradition long before Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton entered the mix. It’s such a gift to be an instrumentalist who has the option to delve into the styles as varied as Bach, Chopin, Debussy, stride, Schoenberg, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk, among many others. 

Age when you became musically aware?

I started taking piano lessons at age 4 and took to music immediately, but I wasn’t really thinking crucially about the music until I was 13 or 14. At that point, I started choosing artists to follow, learning the history of jazz and doing really intense listening and practicing. 

I was taught with the Yamaha Music Education System, which was great because it wasn’t “traditional’ piano lessons, but rather very holistically taught. Yamaha makes sure that each student is trained in aural skills, keyboard harmony, composition and improvisation from the very beginning. That was a huge gift for me. It never occurred to me that it was “difficult” to improvise. 

Musical influences growing up?

Neither of my parents is particularly musical. However, interestingly, my grandfather (paternal side) was an accountant for a firm that produced Broadway musicals. So my dad got to go to many Broadway premieres as a child and had a love of that era of music. I was raised with lots of musicals because of that influence.

What musicians have informed your style?

That’s a long list! Interestingly, I first was very interested in “hard bop”/”soul jazz” pianists like Oscar Peterson, Gene Harris and Benny Green. As I went to college, I discovered more classically-influenced pianists like Brad Mehldau, John Taylor, Keith Jarrett and my mentor Fred Hersch. I’m interested in classical music (Bach, Debussy), and I love the great singer-songwriters of the classic era (Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Billy Joel) and today (Sufjan Stevens, Iron & Wine, Tom Waits). So many others, too: Hank Jones, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Kirkland, Ahmad Jamal,  etc. 

You do a lot of teaching. What’s the best way to introduce jazz to young people?

I think for many young people, jazz is a complete unknown – you really have to go out of your way to find it these days! Allowing folks to hear excellent live music played by skilled, original and passionate musicians is an experience that is bound to be memorable, regardless of age or knowledge. 

You’ve written music instruction books for beginners. How do you choose the songs that can get them hooked on jazz?

I try to balance pedagogical integrity (pieces and arrangements that will be playable for young pianists) with artistry. If you’re only thinking about pedagogy, your students are bound to be bored, and if you’re only thinking about artistry, you’re bound to be overwhelmed.

The most brilliant pedagogical composers never sacrifice pedagogy for artistry, or vice versa, and I strive to live up to their example. 

How did you come to write for Hal Leonard?

It’s a long story that actually starts when I was about 8 years old, when I first took lessons from Phillip Keveren, who eventually because a beloved Hal Leonard author. Years later, I wrote for a magazine called Clavier Companion, reviewing pedagogical works. I wrote a review for Phillip, and my name rang a bell. We ended up reconnecting and he set me up with the editor for pedagogical works. I sent in a few drafts of pieces, and the rest – as they say – is history.

Describe the Michigan jazz scene.

Michigan has both an incredible jazz tradition and some of the best university jazz programs in the nation. In fact, when I lived in New York City, I roomed with excellent musicians who went to MSU and worked with excellent musicians who went to WMU – which isn’t to leave out U of M, where such acolytes as Robert Hurst and Benny Green teach!  

The amazing thing about this era of music is that there are great players everywhere; not just in New York and LA, but all throughout the country. 

What impact did Kurt Elling make on you when you collaborated together on “Housewarming”?

I got to know Kurt when I accompanied several lessons and masterclasses he was teaching. I’d already been a fan for a long time and was moved by the energy and authenticity of his teaching.

I was very fortunate that he was willing to sing some of my songs – it was a dream come true. As soon as you hear that voice and realize it’s the voice that you’ve heard on countless records that you love…it’s magic! 

Talk about your first composition, and how you feel you’re evolving as a composer?

My first composition was “Finding Bugs,” written at age 5. I certainly hope my composing has evolved since then! Recently, I’ve been experimenting with more songwriting than composing. I’m really interested in the way that lyrics and music interact (in fact, I wrote my master’s thesis about that), and I love trying to make songs that move people. 

What is your role in the “in-home concert” movement?

I’m very active in the “in-home concert” movement. My group has played about 110 in-home concerts in 24 different states and we’re planning a live in-home concert video/audio recording in August (2017). I’ve presented about in-home concerts at the Music Teachers National Association, Jazz Education Network and Chamber Music America conferences to try to spread the word and encourage more artists to try it.

For me, it’s a point of inspiration – introducing music in intimate settings to open audiences is what I love to do more than anything on earth.

What a great album “Housewarming” is! Talk about the interplay between the woodwinds (clarinet), vocals and piano, and letting each one shine.

Well thank you! One of the benefits of playing all those house concerts is that the band feels really comfortable with one another.

We’re all very much on board behind the story of each song, rather than trying to emphasize our virtuosity or individual skills. We’re thinking more about sound, arrangement, narrative, arc and word painting.

I’m so fortunate to work with Lucas Pino and Nancy Harms, two musicians who are willing to be in service of the songs I’ve written. It’s particularly intimate with Lucas, as our instruments overlap so much. We have to really be listening to stay out of one another’s way and complement each other effectively. 

The classic question: which gets written first, lyrics or melody?

For most of my songs, I write the melody and then the lyrics. I feel that this keeps the musical integrity intact.

However, sometimes I get inspired to write a poem and compose the lyrics first. Ironically, I generally prefer the songs where the melody came first whereas audiences seem to prefer the songs where the lyrics came first. One such song from the latest album is “Housewarming,” which started as a poem. 

What do you hope to convey to the listener?

I hope they can forget about the musicians and look inward. I don’t want people to be impressed so much as moved.

One of the perils of jazz in the modern age is that it’s often musician-focused rather than listener-focused, so I hope listeners can lose themselves in an emotion.

Perfect pitch?

 Yep.

Upcoming tours?

I’ll be doing an educational tour of Lebanon, Cyprus, and China in July (2017). The Housewarming Project will be doing four in-home concerts around southern California in August, but other than that, it’s a melange of recording, touring, teaching and creating.

Future plans?

Lots! One of my life goals is to write a Broadway musical. I took a great first step recently and co-wrote a musical with Adam Pasen called “Unfriended” that featured some of my pre-existing songs. It was featured as an “elevated stage reading” (performers read from scripts that include staging, songs and lines) at Farmer’s Alley Theater in Kalamazoo this past March. Adam and I are looking for other opportunities to shop “Unfriended” around, but I’m also thinking about writing another musical from scratch.

Photo supplied by Jeremy Siskind

(c) Debbie Burke 2017