Is “Instant Classic” an Oxymoron? Not in Eric Stern’s New CD Familiar Colors

A new CD radiates with rich chords and subtly resolving dissonances that paint a living, breathing musical portrait of how great music should feel. Pianist/leader Eric Stern’s new CD Familiar Colors has tracks that are smart and cool, pulling emotions from the ether that hit deep.

“To Light the Way” has the feel of a familiar love anthem where affection once grasped is now warmly remembered. Another seemingly instant classic (he has this knack) is “Wonderful” with its honeyed trumpet and heady vibe. The bass solo is strong and full, and drums add a lacy complement. Have you heard any covers of “Scarborough Fair” that add swing and unusual colors? Another tasty morsel Stern gets right.

What’s the meaning of the title of the CD, Familiar Colors?

This album seeks to look at various sounds and colors within American society and bring them to life in a traditional jazz setting. The first track does that by evoking the spirit and message of one of the great orators of American history, Malcolm X. The second track is an original that is about the American experience— it quotes the national anthem and “Pomp and Circumstance” while also having some darker moments but bringing it home with a feeling of empowerment, which is how I feel about America at the moment— sad and dark, but empowered that we can do better. “Joshua” is a reharm of a famous second great quintet standard from Miles Davis, and his inspiration can also be heard in trumpeter Luca Stine’s composition, “Wonderful.” “To Light the Way” is an original of mine, somewhat of an ode to Keith Jarrett’s guidance but also to how music can guide and light the way through this life with clarity and force, and the tune aims to evoke such, with a searching melody that is clear as day.

What was your first intro to hearing jazz?

I first listened to jazz and played jazz when I was 10 or 11 years old. One of my early piano teachers gave me a CD with a number of great jazz tunes, such as “Cantaloupe Island” by Herbie Hancock and “Have You Heard” by Pat Metheny. I really fell in love, though, when I learned Billy Strayhorn’s classic “Lush Life.” That tune was so innovative to me, and after that, I just kept going. The rest is history.

Why piano?

Piano was my first love! I started playing when I was three and never looked back. I guess I was more inclined to a non-wind instrument.

What is the most meaningful takeaway from your formal studies?

Making quality friendships and connections in music is the best way to sustain a successful career. You can be acquaintances with everyone, but gigs, tours, and friendships that can last will take you much further. Also, that it’s important to respect tradition, but you have to keep moving that tradition forward. Otherwise, the music becomes stale. I’ve loved my time at music school—the friends I’ve made and the experiences I’ve had.

What did you want to create with this album and what do you hope audiences get from it?

I wanted to create a project that captured the sound of my quartet, ESQ, which is currently situated in Miami, Florida. I also wanted to record and release the original music and arrangements I’ve been writing at school. So I killed the two birds with one stone. I hope audiences enjoy listening to our take on various classics as well as my new compositions. I also hope they gain the same sense of empowerment and guidance listening to the tunes.

Talk about the skills of the other musicians and why you mesh.

The trio is Henry Mohr on drums and Blake Aldridge on bass, with trumpeter Luca Stine rounding out the quartet. We also enjoyed contributions from Sam Keedy on trombone on “Familiar Colors.” Henry is such a rock on the kit. His time is super solid and very swinging, which is a great anchor for Blake, who is an extremely creative spirit and brings a ton of life to the band and the music. Luca just flies over all the stuff I write and he sounds amazing. He also has brought in some of his compositions to the group.

Where have you played so far that you enjoy a lot? What are your aspirations for traveling and performing?

I had the immense honor of playing in Havana, Cuba, as a teenager, performing with the Arturo O’Farrill Afro-Latin Jazz Fat Cats Big Band. We played the Fabrica del Arte and the Teatro del Museo, both in Havana. It was a lot of fun and I’ll never forget that week we spent in Havana. I also loved playing Le Chat Noir in Miami. Sadly, Le Chat closed in the winter of 2021, but it was a memorable place and I’m sure it will come back someday. 

I would love to tour around the world and play my music with my band! I also would be equally happy to play as a sideman and go on tour. Either way, I am definitely interested in travel and want to do it early and often.

What inspires you when you compose? When you play covers, are you specifically trying to honor the original composer or bring something new, and how do you achieve that?

I generally compose by just exploring at the piano. I play something and if I like it, I write it down and then I try to just nurture the idea into a full-blown piece. This sounds simple but staying focused while doing this can be tricky. But it’s a challenge I like. 

When we play covers, I think it’s important to be able to play the cover exactly like the original because that’s paying respect to the music, and playing it the same way live can be really exciting. But once you can do that, I think it’s important to add your own personal flair to a recorded version of it. It’s a tough balance to both honor the composer and the tradition and also push the tradition forward in your own way. But again, I embrace these challenges, because all great musicians do the same thing.

What is most important as a pianist: melody, harmony, rhythm etc.?

Melody is always the most important. In harmony, if your voicings don’t have any kind of melodic motion, they sound very bland, like a backing track. So definitely melody. Rhythm is also very important, but I think that’s a slightly different category than melody. 

Same question, as a leader?

The same answer. Melody and rhythm drive compositions and bands forward, which is the reason chordless groups have had considerable success in the jazz canon. Because they have rhythm and melody, they can still create a lot of drive and forward motion. So definitely melody and rhythm as essential. Harmony is super important, though!

Favorite story about producing this album.

I think the best story was how I came up with “To Light the Way.” I was having a conversation with a friend of mine at lunch and we were talking about the events of January 6th last year. It was really sad, but then I said something along the lines of, “Man, it can get really dark, but we have music to light the way.” After I said that, I immediately knew that was the inspiration for a tune, and I composed it that night.

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Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.

© 2022 Debbie Burke

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