With a touch that’s as light as a feather and as precise as a German-made machine, Georgia-born pianist Joe Alterman is working to alter preconceived notions of jazz.
Alterman returns to Savannah for a special Father’s Day concert hosted by the Coastal Jazz Association on June 16, which follows his last appearance in the city at the 2017 Savannah Music Festival.
An Atlanta native, Alterman began on the piano at age five, but wasn’t that keen on jazz at the time, despite the Bill Evans and Dave Brubeck albums his father had bought him. He switched to guitar and realized he really enjoyed improvisation. It was through the music of Oscar Peterson, Jimmy Smith and Ramsey Lewis that Alterman would find his way to a permanent piano groove.
“I kept trying to learn Jimmy Smith riffs on the guitar,” Alterman said. “Eventually, my guitar teacher man said ‘you’re a good piano player, why don’t you play it on the piano.’ I had aha moment and loved it ever since.”
Alterman moved to New York City to study music at New York University, earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Jazz Piano Performance. The experience was life-changing.
“So during the day, we’d be talking about the musicians,” Alterman recalled. “Then there were several times that at night I could go talk to and hear the musicians we’d been talking about in class. It was great. I got to open for a lot of my heroes. It was an incredible experience.”
He’s released five acclaimed albums over the last decade and played major gigs at The Blue Note, Kennedy Center and Birdland, opening for the likes of Dick Gregory, Norah Jones, John Pizzarelli and Philip Bailey.
His latest album, 2018’s “More Cornbread,” came after a bit of a burnout moment. After years of playing six nights a week in New York, Alterman felt like he was “becoming a robot and less of myself.” So he headed back down South for a while for a change of pace. Upon his return to New York, more of his roots had seeped in his playing than he realized.
“Coming back here (South), I wanted to find out what I really love,” Alterman said. “When I did, I went back to New York for my first gig after that little break and I remember someone saying to me, who didn’t know that I had moved, that it sounded like I had been down South for a while. I took that has a huge compliment. To me, truthfully, I like how that album reflects more of my full musical tastes and loves. It was kind of a creative way of saying Southern jazz, without saying Southern jazz.”
He recorded “More Cornbread” live over two nights at the Jazz Corner in Hilton Head, S.C. The album features two original tracks, “Georgia Sunset,” and “Less is More,” sprinkled in with a variety of covers featuring his own arrangements.
“Honestly, I don’t love recording in the studio,” Alterman said. “I really feed off of an audience. I just always had a hard time. I am not a pro in the studio. When you’re playing on this beautiful Steinway piano, but you have to record through the headphones and it sounds like a keyboard, it’s not the same experience. For me, that weird headphone experience and not being in front of an audience, for me, I feel like I come across a little more timid. I just finally wanted to do an album that reflected what my live show was like. It felt like the time was right.”
Alterman’s take on classic pop songs and jazz standards, like “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” “Over The Rainbow,” and “Time and Space,” reveal the discovery moment he found while on his short Southern sabbatical—the reason he was drawn to jazz in the first place.
“The reason I got into jazz, was not because of the solos,” Alterman explained. “What drew me to jazz was when they play variations on a melody that I am familiar with. When Ahmad Jamal plays ‘Like Someone In Love,’ for example, he does these little things that are different than how the melody was written.
“Pretty much when I was living in New York, I was gigging a lot, all of my friends would come see me, not because they liked jazz, in fact they said they didn’t like jazz, but because they liked me. First of all, I’d ask why they didn’t like jazz it was pretty much preconceived notions. They think of the dentist office or their grandparents house. They always enjoyed the music. I felt like my job for a long time was to fight those preconceived notions. But also realize, if they’re coming to my show and I am just playing standards or melodies that they’re not familiar with, they can’t be drawn to the music like I was.
“I think the first ones I did was ‘Isn’t She Lovely,’ and I remember putting a little spin on it. Someone came up to me after, one of my friends, and said that was really cool what you did with it—they didn’t know the word for melody. When I think of it like that, I want them to hear jazz in the way that drew me into it.”