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Music Preview: Jazz pianist known for acoustic work embraces the Wurlitzer piano

Monday, November 11, 2002

By Nate Guidry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The title song to pianist Roberta Piket's new recording, "I'm Back in Therapy and It's All Your Fault," has a neurotic, even crazed quality to it. The way the guitar and Wurlitzer electric piano solo together, then against each other, is like listening to a discussion degenerate into an argument.

Roberta Piket has performed with everyone from Dave Liebman to the late Lionel Hampton.

But when you hear the artist describe the music, you'll quickly find that nirvana -- not neurosis -- is at play.

"I'm always looking for good tune titles because when you write instrumental music you have to think that way," said the affable pianist from her home in New York. "Sometimes when I write tunes, I have a title in mind from something that inspired me. Sometimes you have to come up with things that are abstract because you can't think of anything that specifically inspired you, so I always keep good titles around."

Piket, who has performed with everyone from Dave Liebman to the late Lionel Hampton, said the title was intended to be ironic, in part because she didn't want to alienate her hard-core fans.

"People who know me, know me for my acoustic records, and I wanted to send a message to my fans that this was something different," she continued. "'I'm Back in Therapy and It's All Your Fault' isn't the kind of title you would traditionally find on an acoustic record. Jazz musicians have a reputation for taking themselves a little more seriously than that. I wanted this recording to be more irreverent and adventuresome."

Piket, a gifted composer who has absorbed the language of Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett and others, will be bringing her quartet, Alternating Current, to Dowe's on 9th tomorrow. The group also features guitarist Bruce Arnold, bassist Yoshi Waki and drummer Kirk Driscoll.

Roberta Piket and Alternating Current

dot.gif WHERE: Dowe's On 9th

dot.gif WHEN: 9 and 11 p.m. tomorrow

dot.gif Admission: $10; 412-281-9225


"The band has really grown a lot," said Piket, who is the principal writer for the group. "I really like the different textures the Wurlitzer piano brings to the group. After I got the Wurlitzer, something clicked in my brain -- it brought back all of the sounds I had heard when I was beginning to play this music."

Piket said one of the things she does when writing music is to begin with the bass line. She writes specific parts for the bass, guitar and keyboard. Each player plays different lines simultaneously.

"That's something you don't hear a lot of in mainstream jazz," she said. "The role of the bass player traditionally is to support the rhythm section. The role of the piano is to play chords. In this band I think more as a composer, writing parts for the players. There's a lot of improvisation and opportunity for interaction, but there are also sections where the music is very composed and specific."

Piket, who grew up in Flushing, N.Y., started taking piano lessons at age 6 from her father, Frederick, a conservatory-trained composer and conductor. But after he died two years later, she didn't take music too seriously until high school, when her brother introduced her to the music of Walter Bishop Jr.

"When I got serious about becoming a jazz pianist, I started studying the lineage of the piano," she said. "And for a long time that's where my priorities and loyalty were."

Later, she began to meet musicians who introduced her to fusion groups like Weather Report and Chick Corea's Return to Forever band.

After graduating from Tufts and the New England Conservatory with degrees in computer science and jazz piano, she landed a job as a computer engineer in the Boston area. But after a year, she returned to New York to pursue her passion.

"It was a great job. I was making great money with a great deal of responsibility, but I had to pursue this. I have never regretted leaving my job, and I don't think I would ever explore that again. There are other things that interest me besides music. But I think I got into computer science because of my mother. She wanted me to have a fallback position."

Back in New York, she eventually landed a job in Diva, an all-woman big band, and performed in other groups around the city.

In 1993, she was one of three finalists out of more than 250 contestants in the prestigious Thelonious Monk composer competition.

A year later, she appeared on "Piano Jazz" with Marian McPartland on National Public Radio.

In 1997, she recorded "Unbroken Line" and followed that with "Live at the Blue," which was rated a Top Five recording of 1999 by Jazz Times magazine.

Earlier this year, she endeared herself to local fans when she performed at Dowe's. And tomorrow, she expects a repeat performance.

While she promises to perform music from her vast range, much of the evening will focus on "Therapy," which combines lyricism and groove-altering chord structures.

Nate Guidry can be reached at nguidry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3865.

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