Piano Man: After years of toiling in anonymity in the studio behind big names, Terry Disley struck out on his own as a jazz pianist.
Terry Disley's wild musical ride
By Andrew Gilbert
ROCK & ROLL fought a pitched battle for Terry Disley's musical soul, but the pianist ended up forsaking the fast life to pursue his passion for jazz. As music director for Dave Stewart, who gained fame as Annie Lennox's partner in the Eurythmics, Disley spent much of the 1990s as a studio secret agent, laying down tracks for a succession of pop stars, from Paul McCartney and Van Morrison to Brian Wilson and Bon Jovi. But Disley started his career as a highly touted jazz musician, and he found the lassitude and anonymity of the studio lifestyle dispiriting.
By 1997 he was at the crossroads with the devil murmuring in his ear. Stewart wanted him to tour with a revamped version of the Eurythmics, while Bryan Ferry was looking to jump-start Roxy Music with Disley taking over Brian Eno's original chair in the band. Instead of delving into the rock arena, he lit out for San Francisco, where he has gradually built a reputation as a gifted pianist with a knack for writing catchy tunes drawing on a range of popular styles.
"I just gave everything up," says Disley, 52, who makes his Kuumbwa debut on Thursday. "Dave Steward wanted me to revive the Eurythmics and Bryan Ferry wanted to tour with Roxy Music. He's a great bloke who's really into jazz. But I stubbornly did my thing and I'm still stubbornly doing it."
Disley's recent album, West Coast Jazz Impressions, is his most rewarding yet from a jazz perspective. Instead of the R&B-inflected grooves of his previous CDs, he employs straight-ahead jazz swing, exploring a variety of buoyant moods and vibrantly shaded harmonies with a superlative cast, including veteran rhythm section team of drummer Jason Lewis and bassist Dan Feiszli and Berkeley-raised trumpeter Erik Jekabson. Guitarist Lorn Leber joins the Terry Disley Experience for Thursday's show.
"It's well-designed, well-crafted music, and very fun to improvise on," says Jekabson, a well traveled player who's settled back in Berkeley after years of contributing to the New Orleans and Brooklyn scenes. "The music he writes really connects with the audience. They can grab a hold of it."
Born and raised in London, Disley displayed prodigious keyboard talent at a young age, and by 13 he was composing for his own electric/acoustic chamber ensemble. Interested in many styles of music, he's written for wide array of settings, though he's always returned to jazz.
He cites Joe Sample's funky keyboard work with the Jazz Crusaders as a formative influence, though he also soaked up the sounds of McCoy Tyner, Monty Alexander and Cedar Walton while playing opposite of them at London's premier jazz club, Ronnie Scott's. He gained invaluable experience and encouragement working at British bassist Peter Ind's Tenor Clef club, backing traveling American jazz greats like Cecil Payne, Eddie Henderson, John Stubblefield and Urbie Green.
"I had gotten into the jazz scene and abandoned it to do the pop tours," Disley says. "Ind called me and it gave me a chance to get back in. Eddie Henderson was full of praise. He said, 'You just need to get exposure.'"
Exposure was exactly what Disley got as a member of the popular British world jazz combo Acoustic Alchemy. He contributed to the band's hit GRP albums and toured internationally, sharing stages with acts like the Yellowjackets and Grover Washington Jr.
While he's joined the revamped Alchemy for several tours in recent years, Disley is concentrating on his own music. "I just wrote a new tune yesterday in the middle of the night," Disley says. "It's got a Ray Charles feel to it and I'll introduce it on Thursday. At the moment it's called 'The Kuumbwa Stomp.'"
TERRY DISLEY EXPERIENCE plays Thursday, Oct. 8, at 7pm at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $12/$15 at 831.427.2227 or www.kuumbwajazz.org.
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