Monday, January 28, 2008

Jon Weber’s Book of Quotations (And Other Scary Aspects of Genius)

Pianist Jon Weber is a scary guy and not just because you feel like a dwarf when you stand next to him. (He must be about 6’6” in bare feet.) And not because there is anything the least bit intimidating about the way he chats with you between sets or the way he jokes with the audience from the stage. Really, Jon is as personable a guy as you will ever meet and any evening in his musical presence is great entertainment.

Jon Weber’s keyboard talent is undeniable. His fingers do things that clearly are superhuman, most obvious when he takes a stride standard at an Indy 500 clip, but equally awe-inspiring when he twists and turns through what used to be a great songbook standard, now translated into a five-minute magical romp through 100 years of jazz history. But it’s Jon’s musical brain that is truly scary.

Jon has been startling family, friends and teachers since he was a toddler (I’d say since he was barely tall enough to reach the bench, but I doubt he was ever that short). His pitch was perfect and so was his memory—by six he had memorized 2000 tunes from his grandmother’s piano rolls. It’s truly frightening to think how many tunes now rattle around in his tightly woven gray matter. Maybe almost as many tunes as basic facts about the composers, producers, performers and events in music that explode every time he introduces his choices from the bandstand. Before a tune begins, we generally have been given the composer’s vital statistics including date of birth (and death of relevant)… and I don’t mean just the year, but also the date. Once I shouted out “and when did he graduate from high school?” and Jon shot back with a date, not missing a beat. (Later he admitted he just quickly added 18 to the year of birth…. But hey, how many of us can add that fast?)

Jon’s encyclopedic knowledge (and extremely efficient internal retrieval system) makes for great entertainment, but don’t be fooled; this is no vaudeville act. The information is not just sitting in his head awaiting the opportunity to play back. It moves seamlessly and instantly from mind to fingers as Jon tosses in quotes from hither and yon throughout his improvisations. Quoting is hardly a new tactic in jazz but for Jon it becomes its own art form. It’s not just that in the midst of Jerome Kern he will toss in snippets of anything musical from Broadway themes and television commercials to Monk or Evans or even another page from the Kern songbook. Jon Weber can present a cavalcade of disparate quotes such that they not only complement the music but sound as if they have always been there—that this was indeed the way these phrases were intended to be played. Want a challenge? See how many quotes you can identify in a given Weber rendition. The phrases aren't unfamiliar, but they go by so fast you are still searching your memory bank when three more fly by. Sometimes the quote is a mere teeny riff, sometimes that riff becomes a new theme that chases and tag-teams the original melody. And sometimes Jon’s sense of humor prevails, such as when the Windy City resident throws in a whiff of “Chicago Chicago” or when his quote fortells the next tune… or reprises the last.

Last night, Jon Weber made a rare Twin Cities appearance outside of the Hot Summer Jazz Festival, his home away from home every summer. On stage at the Artists Quarter (with the very complementary backing of Gordy Johnson and Kenny Horst), his first set was a whirlwind of mostly Jerome Kern treasures. “Long Ago and Far Away” quoted Mozart and hinted at a later rendition of “Old Man River.” His “All the Things You Are” (with the seldom played opening verse) featured multiple bastings of “Stomping at the Savoy”, and when he really did get to “Old Man River” he inserted “Sing, Sing, Sing,” “Night in Tunisia,” and far more than I could process. Sometimes he is almost too clever, as Jon will use the composer's own songbook to find his quote of the moment—throwing in Ellington to embellish Ellington, Kern to augment Kern.

Watching Jon Weber live, you can enjoy the physical gymnastics of his high-energy playing or the mental gymnastics of his high-flying imagination. There’s no line where one stops and the other begins.

Jon Weber has one scary brain. And you can quote me on that.

Jon Weber will be back as “house pianist” for the summer jazz festival in June. Meanwhile check out his 2004 recording, Simple Complex. That title sums it up. (Photo: Jon bewitched the crowd backing Irv Williams at the 2007 Twin Cities Jazz Festival. Photo by Andrea Canter.)