Jazz: The backbeat of romance

Kirk Lightsey, the 70-year-old Detroit-born jazz pianist, will give five concerts in Israel as part of this year's Hot Jazz series.

kirk lightsey 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
kirk lightsey 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Kirk Lightsey is a confessed romantic, and certainly lives in the right place. The 70-year-old Detroit-born jazz pianist, a resident of Paris for the past 13 years, will be in Israel between March 6 and March 10 to give five concerts as part of this year's Hot Jazz series. "I like French composers, and I do have a romantic side to me," he said when we spoke, fittingly, on St. Valentine's Day, just one day before he completed his three score and ten years. "Maybe that's what I like about Bill Evans."
Click for upcoming events calendar! Lightsey's upcoming tour will be based on his takes on some Evans compositions, as well as material from his 1997 Goodbye Mr. Evans. The album is something of a motley collection, reflecting Lightsey's eclectic approach. "I grew up with the influence of the first bebop masters, people like [pianist] Bud Powell, and later [pianists] Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan. The Bill Evans thing came along later." In fact, Lightsey ran into Evans in his hometown. "Bill came over to Detroit in the late Fifties, when he was with the Miles Davis group," Lightsey recalls. "It was in a jazz club in a black part of town, and he was probably the only white guy in the club. When I arrived I saw him standing by the door looking a bit worried about going in. I went up to him and said: 'You're Bill Evans, you shouldn't be standing back here. Come on inside.' And we became good friends after that." Evans is known as the man who introduced an element of tension into the more romantic category of jazz. He is also credited with forming the "classic" piano-bass-drums jazz formation, starting with bassist Scot Le Faro and drummer Paul Motian, with Eddie Gomez taking Le Faro's place after the latter was killed in a car crash when his mid-twenties. Back in those days, the jazz fraternity was riddled with substance abuse of the worst kind. When bebop founder and saxophone giant Charlie Parker died at the age of 34, the doctor who examined his body thought he was in his sixties, and legendary singer Billie Holiday met a similar premature fate. Evans himself only made it to 50, dying in 1980. "There was a time when, because a lot of the top jazz musicians were taking hard drugs, they'd be suspicious of you if you weren't on them too. They wouldn't allow you on the bandstand. I was lucky enough to come along after them, so I kept to the softer stuff. Also, I realized that you pay later for what you do at an early age." While acknowledging Evans' influence, Lightsey adopts a somewhat more physical approach to his keyboard work. "Bill had a softer touch than me; I tend to be a bit more dynamic." That comes through loud and clear on Goodbye Mr. Evans, particularly on the title track, when Lightsey teams up with local drummer Shay Zelman and bass player Yurai Yoron. Living in Europe, Lightsey is perfectly placed to voice an opinion about the differences in approach taken by European and US players. "I think Americans feed off the blues more, while Europeans have a more cerebral approach," he states. "There are also more classical influences in the way Europeans play. I trained classically, and I think that part of me has come out more since I've been living in Paris." Tue., Herzliya Camelot Club; Wed., Gerard Behar Center, Jerusalem; Thur. and Fri., Tel Aviv Museum; Sat., Mar. 10, Beit Abba Hushi, 9 p.m.