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  • Kirk Lightsey


Clarinet, bass, flute, cello, bassoon & bass clarinet:

Over the years, I’ve played many pianos around the world: in clubs, concert halls, private homes, auditoriums, outdoor amphitheatres, recording studios, etc. From the finest in the world to the worst, perfectly well-tuned to out of tune and in real need of attention. But I was lucky to be born into a home that already had a good family piano owned by my Grandmother Bertha Beam. It was a light brown upright Starck (a Chicago company that went out of business in 1965) which I began to play on when I was around 5. Today I own two pianos: my cherished 1893 Steinway lives in New York in the living room of my good friend François Zalacain who owns Sunnyside Records and in my Paris apartment I have what I call my toy, a black electric Yamaha upright. I have been a proud Steinway artist for many years.

The newest brand of high end pianos is the famous Italian company Fazioli which since 1981 makes about 100 pianos a year. Not too long ago I had the good fortune to be invited to visit the only Fazioli factory, located in Sacile, in the company of two sisters from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where in 1998 pianist Evelyn Hii founded No Black Tie, the premier jazz club in town. After I played a couple of times at No Black Tie, she and her sister Mei Hii wanted me to help them select the best new Fazioli piano for their club. We met in Venice and I took great pleasure in spending a day trying out the ten or twelve sleek, new pianos ready for purchase to select the one with the right size & sound for them. But the first Fazioli I ever tried out was in a piano store in Zurich years ago. I’ll never forget it; the piano almost played itself-so blue, so fat. It was almost twelve feet long, so long that there were four sticks to raise the lid of the piano. It had four pedals instead of three and the fourth pedal was a second soft pedal.

In stark contrast, I had one of the worst piano experiences of my life while on a State Department tour with Woody Shaw in India. The piano is not part of Indian tradition, which has its own rich musical culture also much admired in the West. I knew that when we went for sound check at a concert hall in Calcutta, my favorite city in India, but was shocked when I saw the state of the piano I would have to play the next night. All the black keys had been shaved off to make the piano look better! I lost it. I went nuts. I was cursing and pacing; I couldn’t stand it, but did it anyway. After our sound check, a great Brazilian pianist and his group came for their sound check and he played the shit out of that piano. That experience changed my life; from that day on I only ever complained if and when a piano was out of tune.

From piano shock to piano bliss. I’ve been a student all my life and I still practice the piano. My fondest moments are with my piano, of course. The piano is my heart, my soul, my orchestra. I can remember as a child playing at recitals; I used to bite my lip out of fear I hadn’t practiced enough. I learned to practice pieces over and over and know my pieces so well that I could relax and enjoy playing for an audience. I learned to perform.

But I have also studied, played, performed and enjoyed several other instruments from school assignments back in Detroit to current independent study of the cello in Paris. I keep learning.

In junior high school the first major instrument I was assigned was the clarinet because there was no sax and they needed a clarinet. So I became a clarinetist and made my very first music money with the clarinet. We also had to choose a string instrument to learn. I chose the cello and they gave me the bass and eventually in my senior year of high school I had to take Paul Chamber’s place in the high school orchestra when he left for New York. Paul, Hugh Lawson and I were high school buddies and had lockers together. I asked for sax and got clarinet, asked for cello and got bass. Ron Carter played cello in that same orchestra. I got off the bass as soon as I could.

At one point, I became so interested in the clarinet that I practiced all the time and didn’t think about the piano for a couple of years. And the clarinet became my scholarship instrument for Wayne State University, but I decided not to take the clarinet scholarship and went on the road as a pianist with Albert Aarons and Joe Henderson. No regrets there.

Along the way, I also picked up the flute and continue to practice and perform with it often. I bring it to most of my gigs these days.

When I was in the Army band (1960-62) stationed in Fort Knox, Kentucky, I was playing the clarinet. In the instrument room I discovered two Heckel bassoons. I picked one that suited me best and began to study the bassoon with a teacher in Louisville. After a year or so, I got into the Louisville Civic

Orchestra. It intrigued me, was harder than the clarinet. I like the sound of it. After I left the Army and returned to Detroit, I was lucky to be able to buy for only $150 a Heckel bassoon worth thousands of dollars. The best buy of my life. And it went the way it came because someone later stole it from me.But for a few years when I went on the road with Damita Jo and OC Smith, I brought it along with me.

Along the way, I also picked up the flute and continue to practice and perform with it often. I bring it to most of my gigs these days.

In Paris around the time my daughter Leïla was born, 1997, I started studying the cello. My friend bassist Tibor Elekes, who toured in trio with me and Famoudou Don Moye for 3 or 4 years in Europe, loaned me one of his cellos and I took some lessons. He really spurred my interest when I saw his collection of basses & cellos in Basel. Back in high school I was forced to play bass, but I wanted to play cello. Some years ago, while I was on tour in Hungary, with the good help of our tenor sax player Tony Lakatos (from Budapest but has lived in Frankfurt for decades) and a relative of his who sold instruments and brought 5 cellos for me to choose from, I found my cello. I bought a cello with a lion’s head scroll top like the one Paul Chambers had. I have been learning the cello for over twenty years, but I don’t play the cello yet.

Today David Murray often leaves one of his bass clarinets with me in Paris and I’m glad to have it to play.

The piano remains central to my music, my life and after a life time of being on the road and playing all kinds of pianos, including in countries where the piano is not a part of their culture, in Africa and Asia, I know what I like best. I like certain orchestral tones, overtones and so much depends on the piano. I’ve been a Steinway pianist for over 40 years. Now I’ve even become in touch with a piano equal to Steinway- the Fazioli.

In December, 2018, I had the opportunity to play both in a recording studio in Meudon, a suburb of Paris. Both are wonderful pianos; the Steinway is darker, the Fazioli has lightness with more overtones than with that Steinway.

And just as every pianist is different, every piano is different.

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