The last time that pianist, Charles Craig Sr. was in The JAZZ ROOM was back in 2015 when he paid tribute to Canadian pianist and composer, Oscar Peterson. It’s fitting that Craig would be back around this way to open the Premiere Thursday series with a visit back to the jazz legend. Charles and his trio, with Ocie Davis on drums and Aaron Gross on bass, will reinvent the music of Peterson’s 1962 album West Side Story, a jazz infused take on Leonard Bernstein’s award winning score from the 1961 film.
When asked what the audience can expect this time around, Craig said, “…this time I’m going to just be in rare form. I’m just going to be me, I’m going to be in rare form for this one. I want to re-imagine the spirit of Oscar Peterson’s interpretation of West Side Story, not so much his playing, which there’ll be a lot of Oscar in there, but I want to re-imagine the spirit of what he did with the music of West Side Story, because that is really some great music.”
Charles has been busy since we last caught up with him. With many projects underway, it will be quite the treat to see him in The JAZZ ROOM both this month as well as in November for his tribute to the legendary jazz pianist, Erroll Garner. “…I’ve been working on my own project involving the tune called ‘Common’s Tune.’ I’ve been doing that and I’m doing a self-release on that. And also I’ve been doing some things with my friends from Lincoln Center, Jazz at Lincoln Center. Doing some different concerts and different dates with them,” Craig said.
Craig is also currently working on collaborating with Roy Hargrove on a piece he wrote entitled ‘La Costa de la Cuba’, and slated to perform with Christian McBride during 2019 as well as playing with JALC Orchestra Members doing Educational Artist in Residence performances.
Craig is classically trained in a number of instruments but chose to focus on piano over them all. “I love harmony. With the piano I can be very, very expressive. I can play accompaniment and melody all at the same time. It’s all inclusive so I can not only come up with simple to very complex harmonies and also accompany myself at the same time so there’s just no limit. That’s why I like and why I figured I’d just concentrate on piano,” he said.
And music isn’t just a casual part of his life. When asked what role music plays for him and how his life might be different without it, Craig said, “…It’s everything. It’s all-inclusive. It’s actually something that I don’t see my life without. Music is that thing that actually is a part of everyone’s life one way or another. You don’t have to be a musician for it to be part of your life but in my sense it’s something that God has given to me. It’s just something that is there and I don’t see it not being a part of my life, actually to be perfectly honest with you. The role that it plays in my life is just very expressive, very bright, very happy, I’m very fun loving so that’s what I have to say about that.”
Charles is multi-talented and very passionate about his relationship with music. It’s no surprise that what inspires him is close to his heart as well. “…Believe it or not, my greatest musical inspiration is actually my wife to be perfectly honest with you. We do a lot of writing, do a lot of writing together. I even wrote a song for her that I’m going to be producing pretty soon to get out and it’s called, ‘Annette’s Dance.’ And it’s a really spiritual piece, every time I play it people hear it and they’re like, ‘wow, what’s that?’ you know. The melody of it is very simple, it’s like a dance in a sense of it being ‘Annette’s Dance,’ it’s like a dance. It’s just very festive, very fun, very bright, and she’s been a great inspiration in my life and that’s where I am with that one. I’d say definitely my wife,” he said.
An additional great inspiration for him was playing with and meeting the great McCoy Tyner at UNC Chapel Hill at which time Charles and McCoy discussed his piece ‘Fly With The Wind’ and the way the song builds with the harmonic and melodic structure using major dominant 7’s.
In a world full of musical greats to call his favorite, Charles said that one in particular stands out to him. “…I really would say it’s so many different ones, but my favorite one actually would be Herbie Hancock. The reason why is because, not only his dominant influence in music but his choice of harmonization of melodies and what he does with his sound with the piano. He utilizes diminished scales and diminished intervals but it’s the way that he does it. It’s very intricate, very intriguing, but it also sets up so many different areas that you can go into. You can go bright, you can go dark, whatever you way you want to go, playing certain ways or different cords, it’s easy to get there. And I just like what he does with the music. He really goes, he really stretches way out,” Craig noted.
Along the lines of musical greats, when asked which period in music history he would go back to and why, Charles said, “Actually I would place myself in the Baroque period with Johann Sebastian Bach, and I would place myself there because number one, he was in church, he believed in God. Secondly I would place myself there because in the fugues, two and three part inventions, sinfonias, and different things that he wrote.
I did a lot of study in Bach in my early years, played a lot of the fugues, preludes and fugues, sinfonias, the inventions. It’s very contrapuntal and that’s what I like about it. You learn so much about counterpoint, how to put certain notes together, especially in four-part harmony. The way that he runs melody in the soprano, alto, tenor and bass, between two hands. That’s very amazing, but it also takes a lot of dexterity to execute that, especially if you’re playing a very fast passage or a passage that has the melody resonating in the tenor but in your left hand you still have to play the bass. The tenor would be played by let’s say the second half of your left hand, then your right hand would be doing other things.”
After talking about music and history we had to make sure to catch up with Charles on something else very important to him: family. When asked about any updates he wanted to share with everyone he had this to say, “…My wife and I are the proud grandparents of three grandchildren, two girls and a boy…Skylar, Grayson AKA Mr. Grayson…and then my darling grandchild, Cherish. Yes, we are the proud grandparents of three grandchildren, and working on teaching them music also. They love to sing, they love to sit at the keyboard, and Grandpa checking the keyboard. They like hearing their mom sing, and we play and everything. And their grandma sings and plays, so that’s a highlight for me.”
See Charles in The JAZZ ROOM Thursday, October 18 at 6 & 8:15pm.