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'We just let it flow' 

Jazz pianist Eric Mintel and his Quartet play the Jazz Fest and Jazz'd

JAZZ PIANIST Eric Mintel has performed in all manner of venues: from small clubs and restaurants to the Kennedy Center (11 times!), and from large theatres and festivals to the Clinton White House.

When he and his quartet appear as one of the featured acts at the upcoming 27th Annual Savannah Jazz Festival next Wednesday, their tribute to legendary composer/arranger Dave Brubeck will close out an evening of free live music that also features area Dixieland group The Beer Parlor Ramblers and our own Arts Academy’s Skyelite Jazz band.

The following night, Mintel and his impressive combo play another free gig — this time at a popular downtown nightspot. I spoke with the pianist from his home in Bucks County, Pa., about his latest album, the challenges of interpreting Brubeck’s famously tricky tunes, and hanging with the one and only Marian McPartland.

You’ve been playing in Ga. for close to a decade. Where do you usually gig in our state, and what experiences have you had playing Savannah?

Eric Mintel: We’ve performed all over Ga., from Moultrie to Gainesville, to Cordele to Americus, Albany and many other places in between. Usually we’ve played at concert halls, high schools and cultural arts centers. The last time we played Savannah was in 2001 for the Arts on the River Fest. We had a great time and love Ga. audiences. That’s why we keep coming back. We’ve made a lot of friends there.

This is your first time at our Jazz Fest. Do you enjoy festivals more or less than clubs or theatres? Do you re-tool your sets for different crowds?

Eric Mintel: We love playing jazz festivals. Every time we play, whether it’s a festival, club or concert hall, the music is always different. I usually go with the energy the crowd is giving us. That’s the greatest thing about jazz: the energy and feedback we get from the audience. Obviously, when we’re in a quiet club or intimate setting, the volume level might not be as high as at a jazz fest but the energy is still present and our communication still gets across.

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Here's a live clip of The Eric Mintel Quartet from 2007:

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For you as a musician, how do the differences between indoor venues and outdoor settings affect the technicality of your performance, and even your mind-set?

Eric Mintel: As long as the sound system is good, the audience is good and people are listening and we have a well-balanced mix coming through it’s an incredible event. The guys in my quartet, Nelson Hill on alto sax, bassist Dave Antonow and drummer Dave Mohn, are always listening and we constantly play ideas off each other. We’ve been playing together for so long, I think we’ve gotten to the point where the music will come across the way we want and say what we want it to in any setting.

At this year’s Jazz Fest, you’ll pay tribute to Dave Brubeck. So many know his name, but not why his music remains so revered among jazz aficionados. What about Brubeck’s work inspires you the most?

Eric Mintel: Accessibility. I have been at the piano probably since about age three or four figuring out melodies. One day in 1982 I was leafing through my parents record collection when I found Dave Brubeck’s 45 single of “Take Five” on one side and “Blue Rondo a la Turk” on the other. I put the record on and had an instant connection with the music. I knew that’s what I wanted to play. In fact, I knew that I wanted to make jazz my life. The other thing I’ve gotten from Brubeck beyond the music is a very important life lesson and work ethic. By life lesson, I mean that I’ve been given this gift and want to share it with as many people who are willing to listen. In jazz you have to work constantly to make any kind of a living. That’s why we go on the road several times a year and work steadily at home five to six nights a week. Dave is a person I’ve looked up to as a role model in my life and we need more positive role models who are doing the difficult things to make small positive differences in the world.

What are the unique challenges pianists face in doing justice to Brubeck’s work?

Eric Mintel: Brubeck’s use of poly rhythm and poly tonality always appealed to me. I use a lot of those devices frequently in my own playing. What we do is put our own spin on Brubeck’s music, there’s no way to copy that — and why would we? It’s already been done. We present the melodies in their original treatments, but when it comes to the improvisations it’s a whole new ball game. There’s always that element of surprise — which I love about jazz.

Would you say your own approach to the piano is similar to that of Brubeck, or are your forced to rethink the way you view the keyboard when diving into his pieces?

Eric Mintel: No. As a matter of fact, my approach is a reflection of Brubeck but also has my own style mixed in.

Tell me a bit about your latest CD.

Eric Mintel: Our new CD Ground-Breaker has just been released on September 1 and the reaction has been incredible. It’s starting to get airplay on many jazz stations across the country. Most of the songs are originals I’ve written, but we also included one standard. We’ve been playing many of the songs in concert for almost a year and in that time the tunes have evolved. It’s allowed each member of the quartet to put their own stamp on the music. We recorded the CD at Bennett’s Studio in Englewood, N.J., which is owned and operated by Tony Bennett’s son Dae Bennett. As a matter of fact, we ran into Tony that day. He was recording in the studio just before us! Our engineer Jim McGee recorded, mixed and mastered it. We’re very happy with the result.

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Here's another high-quality live clip of The Eric Mintel Quartet:

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You’ve achieved acclaim and success without a manager, label or agent. Why opt to handle all this yourself, and do you ever regret not sourcing it out, so you can concentrate solely on your creative side?

Eric Mintel: I’m still waiting for someone to step up to the plate and help. That’s one of the things that astounds me, too. With all of our success why a booking agent hasn’t come into my life to help bewilders me. We’re getting an incredible response wherever we go, selling lots of CDs, earning new fans all over the country and making a lot of people happy. I’ve been at this for 15 years and yes, I’d like to concentrate on my creative side. But I have a wife and six-year-old daughter to feed, so I’m doing triple duty until one day a booking agent of renown can help us. If you’re out there, give me a call!

What are some of the biggest challenges faced by independent jazz musicians today?

Eric Mintel: Work. You have to constantly keep working and find creative ways to play music and get paid. Don’t play for free. As far as releasing music, these days a lot of jazz musicians I know are releasing their music independently because there is no middle man involved and they can get their music out to a wider audience through iTunes and many downloadable sites that pay the artists for their music.

You were a featured guest on the NPR show Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz. How did that come about?

Eric Mintel: Dave Brubeck and his wife Iola were at dinner one night and Dave mentioned me to Marian and said I would be a great guest for the show. A few days later I got a call from Marian asking if I’d like to be a featured guest on her show. We’d never met or played together before and when I met her that day at Manhattan Beach Studios in New York she was incredible. She put me in a very relaxed atmosphere where it felt like we were old friends having a conversation. We played some duets on some jazz standards and I got a chance to play a few solo piano pieces for her. She was particularly taken with some of my solo work when I played a rendition of “Over The Rainbow”. Afterwards, she said I should be heard. She recently sent me a whole stack of her music for me to record on my next solo piano album, which I’ll most likely do later this year. What a legend!

So many amazing musicians have appeared on that program over the years. Was it an intimidating experience?

Eric Mintel: Yes and no. I was thrilled to be there and wanted to do my best. It was an incredible experience.

What’s it like to be her guest? Is there any rehearsal, or do they just put you in a studio and let tape roll?

Eric Mintel: We basically talked about what tunes we’d play and then they let the tape roll — no rehearsal, no figuring out what we were going to say, nothing. We just let it flow.

How will your club show differ from your festival set the night before? Will folks who attend both see two different sides of the Eric Mintel Quartet?

Eric Mintel: Yes. We’ll play more music from the new CD, more classic jazz and more Brubeck. I also have to say a huge thank you to pianist Eddie Wilson, who is letting me use his Yamaha CP300 keyboard that night at Jazz’d. Eddie is usually there playing solo piano on Wednesdays. Check him out. I also have to say a huge thank you to Trae Gurley for giving up his Thursday night to have the Eric Mintel Quartet perform. Check him out as well. Also thanks to Jeff Beasley and AMR Music for providing us with the equipment we need and owner Brian Curry for having us. Jazz’d is a great place to listen to jazz, so hopefully your readers will support them.

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Here's a rare solo piano performance by Eric Mintel of one of his original compositions:

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Most people assume when they hear a musician play a certain type of music, that’s the only style they’re interested in. What is a type of music (or a particular artist) you especially enjoy, but which folks who know you only from your own shows would likely find surprising or out of character?

Eric Mintel: Bach, Beethoven or Mozart. Those are the true geniuses and where a lot of jazz originated from. Bach was probably the greatest improviser of his day.

“Jazz Goes South”, feat. The Savannah Arts Academy Skyelite Jazz Band, The Beer Parlor Ramblers, The Eric Mintel Quartet’s Tribute to Dave Brubeck

When: 7 pm, Sept. 24

Where: Savannah Country Day School

Cost: Free for ALL-AGES

Info: coastal-jazz.org

The Eric Mintel Quartet

When: 9 pm, Sept. 25

Where: Jazz’d Tapas Bar

Cost: Free for 21+

Info: ericmintelquartet.com

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