Brian Charette: Man in the Moment, Artist on the Fringe

January 15, 2018

There’s a reason why Brian Charette holds status as a first-call organist on the scene today; he knows how to give the producers, label heads, booking agents, audiences, and his fellow artists – what they want. Whether you’re looking for swirling and sustained gestures, gorgeous swells, bluesy underpinnings, left-of-center detours, sophisticated lines, down-home grease, or any combination of those elements, he’s got you covered. Everybody from saxophonist Walt Weiskopf to guitarist Will Bernard and vocalist Tony DeSare to drummer Jaimoe (of Allman Brothers fame) has seen that in the studio and/or on the stage. Charette is a people-pleaser at heart, that’s for sure, but he’s a restless soul in spirit, somewhat at odds with his standing as a jazz mainstreamer.

Some of this artist’s musical idiosyncrasies have managed to surface on different projects over the years – his Messiaen-influenced Music for Organ Sextette (SteepleChase Records, 2012), the audaciously refreshing Alphabet City (Posi-Tone Records, 2015) – but they’ve always been offset by a need to fit into a mold of one type or another. When sitting down for a candid conversation in late February of 2017, Charette was quick to express tremendous gratitude for all of the opportunities he’s had as a performer and recording artist. But he was just as upfront about the fact that his true persona has rarely had the opportunity to peek out from behind the music he’s made. He expressed a strong desire to change that, discussing a far-reaching project in its infancy with a twinkle in his eye. Not five months later, that zany enterprise was a reality.

With the arrival of Kürrent (Self Produced, 2017), this artist on the fringe is finally free to simply be. Charette takes his destiny into his own hands by presenting a “circuit bent organ trio” that redefines his place in the jazz firmament. Guitarist Ben Monder and drummer Jordan Young join Charette, forming a unit that knows tradition yet is willing to ignore it at its own peril. A single song from this trio offers worlds of sound far removed from any mainstream jazz aesthetic. “The Shape Of Green,” for example, opens with some inviting counterpoint that’s electro Baroque nouveau before toggling back and forth between peppy strut music in seven and trippy explorations. Then you have “Doll Fin,” mixing odd-metered ideals with keyboard exotica, shredding guitar work, and allusions to metric modulation; “Mano Y Mano,,” eerie and exciting as possible, with a hyper, interstellar vibe and robotic vocal samples to boot; and a series of “Intermezzo” miniatures that play like soundscapes from the great beyond – alternately eerie, atmospheric, prickly, calming, and frightening. Charette practically wipes the slate clean here, delivering music with no true precedent or parallel. It’s clearly a new day for him, but one born from the many days, months, and years that preceded it.

For a young Brian Charette, the thirst for musical exploration all started in Meriden, Connecticut. The sounds of the piano filled his home – Charette’s mother was a pianist – and the instrument seemed to magnetically draw him in. “At a very early age – around four, I suppose – I would open a music book to a two-page song called ‘The Great Wall of China,’” Charette shares. “It was a very simple pentatonic Asian melody. I would just open the book to that piece and improvise on it at the piano for hours. My mother saw this – my sitting at the piano for a not-so-normal amount of time – and she started to give me lessons. Then I had my first piano teacher when I was about six or seven, and I was off to the races.”

With a budding interest, genetic propensity for piano playing, and hard work all at play, Charette quickly developed into a chameleonic force on the instrument. By the time he was 15, he was playing professionally in the area, and by the time he was making the transition from high school to college he was sharing the stage with jazz royalty. “I knew a booking agent in Connecticut and he used to set me up with some pretty spectacular gigs,” notes Charette. “I played with Lou Donaldson, I played with Houston Person, and I played with Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy from the Blues Brothers. By the time I was eighteen or nineteen, I was working a lot.”

That work coincided with his classical piano studies at the University of Connecticut and continued up to and beyond graduation, eventually taking him from Connecticut to New York by way of the Czech Republic. It was a somewhat circuitous route, but the clearest of paths in the way it presented itself. “Around the time I graduated, I was playing with a pretty popular band called Street Temperature at the 880 Club in Hartford,” Charette recalls. “The bassist in that group had been going on the road with a Czech trumpet player named Laco Deczi, and I ended up joining his band.” Deczi, a legendary and slightly eccentric figure who counted Václav Havel as one of his close friends, opened Charette’s eyes to new worlds and opportunities while also inadvertently presenting a gateway to The Big Apple for him to walk through. “On one of our tour dates we were in Mosel, Germany, a very big wine city known for its Rieslings. We were watching a video of the band from one tour before me, and I was impressed with the piano player. Everybody said, ‘Oh, that’s Leon [Gruenbaum]. He lives in New York City,’” Charette recounts with a smile on his face. “So I said, ‘you know, I just graduated from college, and I want to move to New York.’ Laco then suggested I call Leon when the tour ended, so I did just that and he happened to be looking for a roommate,” he says. “I came down to New York to meet with him… and we talked for a little while and discovered we had a lot in common. Three days later I was living in New York City.”

That apartment on St. Marks Place – housed in the building on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti (Swan Song Records, 1975), one of Charette’s favorite albums from his youth – would come to serve as his home for nearly two decades, from the mid-1990s until his move to his current Alphabet City abode in 2015. While living there, he carved out a tough existence in New York, taking on various day jobs to make ends meet. But little by little the phone started to ring, and all of a sudden Charette was making his way as a musician. That same booking agent who set him up with jobs in Connecticut was hiring him to work with a number of blues acts – Larry Garner, Lee “Shot” Williams – who were all on an English label called JSP Records. That proved to be the impetus to put the piano on the back burner and fully explore the organ. “I needed to get a touring Hammond organ rig because that’s what these bands were using and I didn’t have a keyboard with a decent Hammond sound,” Charette explains. “So I bought what, at the time, was considered an advanced portable rig with a Leslie – a Hammond XP2.” The rest, as they say, is history.

As fate would have it, the phone in Charette’s apartment rang as he was checking out his new purchase. The voice on the other end was looking to have him on organ for a gig – “Nobody even knew I really played at that point since I was literally unpacking the instrument,” Charette exclaims – and he was suddenly crafting an identity on a different instrument. That gig at the now-defunct St. Mark’s Bar was the first of many there for the emerging organist. He made his presence felt in that spot when he’d hit the Ralph Lalama-fronted jam sessions on Sunday nights, eventually becoming the de facto house organist and working there three nights a week. With his name and reputation on the rise, he began to get serious about the instrument. “I bought a Hammond B-3 and put it in the studio of [drummer] George Coleman, Jr.,” he notes. “And I would go in there to practice whenever I had a chance.” As an organ neophyte, Charette took one lesson apiece from Larry Goldings and Sam Yahel – two of his favorite players who were part of the jazz organist niche population in New York – but he picked up most of his knowledge in the practice room and on the bandstand.

Once he established his identity on that instrument, piano work became less common for Charette until recent years. But his existence and pigeonholing as an organist didn’t necessarily hurt him. In fact, it placed him in the center of a very select group playing an in-demand instrument. Charette became an authority on the organ in the new millennium, both tapping into its norms and extending its range in sound and vocabulary on a series of well-received leader and sideman dates for the SteepleChase and Posi-Tone imprints; he joined the roster of Hammond artists, representing the storied company and officially endorsing its instruments, and he literally wrote the book on the B-3 – 101 Hammond B-3 Tips: Stuff All The Pros Know And Use (Hal Leonard, 2014).  All of that, combined with touring, educational pursuits, penning articles for Keyboard magazine and other publications, and conceptualizing new music has kept Charette mighty busy. But he juggles his many different pursuits with a Zen-type grace, boiling it all down to its essence. “I really just like to be there with people, with my hands on the instrument, making sound,” he explains. The style and situation are irrelevant for Brian Charette. It’s simply about the act of doing, being, and connecting.

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