Born: May Primary Instrument: Piano
P E T E R Z A K
It’s difficult to believe that Peter Zak was once “uncomfortable with executing melodies,” as he said a few years ago in a DownBeat profile. When it comes to melody, few jazz pianists of his generation—he’s now 48—can equal his depth or command. Working mostly in a trio, which in some hands can be a confining format, he finds continually fresh ways to voice tunes and engage with his fellow players.
That he does, in characteristically distinguished fashion, on his latest album, The Eternal Triangle, which re-teams him with Peter Washington and Billy Drummond—the exciting bass and drum combination featured on his 2012 recording, Nordic Noon.
For Zak, recording with Washington and Drummond—whom he first heard together in 1989, backing the great Steve Kuhn at New York’s Knickerbocker Bar & Grill—is “a different kind of thing.” Washington, a longstanding member of Bill Charlap’s trio, is a model of steadiness and strength. Drummond, who has made his mark in both mainstream settings and freer “downtown” situations, is harder to predict.
“Billy is full of surprises,” says Zak. “He’s more of a chameleon than other drummers, a really interpretive player who likes to go across bar lines during comping. But, you know, Peter is really quite flexible too. He can be very loose and melodic.”
There’s more than a little stealth in Zak’s polished style as well. If you’re not paying attention, he can sneak a nifty turn of phrase or offbeat effect past you. But where other pianists thrive on splashy effects, he strives for an ease of expression, allowing the music to speak for itself. In that, he embodies some of the qualities he appreciates in his good friend and sometime bandmate Walt Weiskopf, a great (and underrated) saxophonist.
“Walt’s conception isn’t gimmicky,” says Zak, who recorded with him most recently on the saxist’s 2010 album, See the Pyramid. “A lot of players do concepts—songbooks, tributes, that sort of thing, but he won’t be put in a box.”
In fact, Zak did record a very good album of McCoy Tyner songs, Blues on the Corner (2009), with bassist Paul Gill and drummer Quincy Davis. But as reflected by the unpredictability of the song selection, this is not a pianist who likes to travel the well-trodden path. In addition to the well-known title tune, the album included less frequently heard pieces such as “May Street” (from Time for Tyner) and “Sunset” (from Inception), as well as a McCoy- inspired original, “The Camel.”
Zak likes to program his albums like a continuous set of music, balanced with familiar and less-familiar songs, originals and standards. The Eternal Triangle, his ninth effort for the SteepleChase label, ranges from the wistfulness of Cole Porter’s rarely heard “Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye,” which he once played in a musical theater production of Anything Goes, to the soulfulness of tenor legend Gene Ammons’s “Hittin’ the Jug,” a slow blues with a melody that proved trickier than expected.
One of two show tunes on The Eternal Triangle, along with Frank Loesser’s How to Succeed in Business favorite, “I Believe in You” (which charms with its quirky hesitation steps), “Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye” proved to be something of an eye-opener for Zak.
“There have been so many bebop recordings of Cole Porter’s songs, going back to Charlie Parker’s ‘Easy to Love,’ that those are the versions many people are most familiar with,” he says. “But when you see the original versions, and see how Porter wrote them, you realize how complicated they are. The jazz versions are much more schematic.”
That said, Zak thrives on bop’s dashing rhythms and improvisational challenges. Players of his generation have been tackling classic bebop and postbop heads in intriguing ways. As Brad Mehldau does on his recent treatment of Clifford Brown’s “Brownie Speaks,” Zak applies some nifty two- hand counterpoint to the melody of “The Eternal Triangle”—“not necessarily because Brad does it, just as an idea.” As affirmed by Drummond’s brilliantly expansive solo on the classic, famously recorded by Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sonny Stitt, it’s a great idea.
In a slower lane, bop legend Bud Powell’s little-heard ballad, “I’ll Keep Loving You,” achieves lyrical force through Zak’s sensitive phrasing and Washington’s luminous, grounded solo. And then there are three strong Zak originals: “The Walk-Up,” a lively minor blues with Miles Davis on its mind; “George Washington,” a bumptious construction with delightful moving parts; and the firmly melodic “A Body at Rest.”
Peter Zak was born on May 13, 1965 in Los Angeles, but grew up in Columbus, Ohio. Neither of his parents were musical, but his mother knew enough piano to give him beginning starting at the age of five. “She thought that all kids needed to study an instrument,” he says. From then on, it was a steady progression of classical music lessons. “I was always playing by myself,” he recalls. “I didn’t start in with chamber groups until college.”
By the time Zak was 16, when his family moved to Oakland, California, he had acquired a bunch of jazz records by the likes of Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, and Bill Evans. But, he said, “I didn’t know what I was listening to.” He continued concentrating on classical music. As he approached graduation, he had thoughts of becoming a rock musician, but the jazz bug finally got him.
At the University of California, Berkeley, where he majored in history, he studied with Susan Muscarella, a prized educator who enjoyed a glowing reputation as a Bay Area jazz pianist in the late ’70s and ’80s. Zak played on an extracurricular basis in combo and big band settings, with the UC Jazz Ensembles. He also freelanced in bands with noted bassist Herbie Lewis, who had recorded with one of Zak’s major influences, McCoy Tyner, as well as Jackie McLean and local hero Bobby Hutcherson.
In the Bay Area, Zak found himself in the heady company of such future jazz stars as Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard (bassist and drummer in Mehldau’s acclaimed trio), Larry’s trumpet-playing brother Phil Grenadier, and multi- instrumentalist Peck Allmond. Peter had some catching up to do: His friends had been playing jazz since they were in their middle teens. Listening to records they loved helped him catch up. Following his graduation from UC Berkeley, Zak played clubs, concerts, and festivals with such notables as saxophonists Frank Morgan and John Handy.
He moved to New York at the same time as several of his young cohorts. With multitudes of musicians competing for gigs in the jazz mecca, it took time for him to establish himself. At times he would even have to borrow money to get to gigs. He gained invaluable exposure through regular appearances at Augie’s, a beloved Upper West Side club, and the Village Gate, where he participated in Saturday and Sunday afternoon jam sessions.
One of the first groups he saw at Augie’s, in 1989, was the stellar trio featuring keyboardist Larry Goldings, guitarist Peter Bernstein, and drummer Bill Stewart. You can imagine how thrilled he was when, in one of his very first gigs in the Big Apple, he subbed for Goldings. He quickly fell in with an ever- widening group of like-minded players including Eric Alexander, Scott Wendholt, Joel Frahm, Joe Farnsworth, and John Webber. He also got to meet such future stars as Mehldau, Roy Hargrove, David Sanchez, and Ryan Kisor, in whose quintet he was featured on the first Smalls Live recording—Smalls being the popular Greenwich Village spot where he has worked regularly as a leader and accompanist (and done plenty of hanging out) since 1994.
In addition to ongoing associations with Weiskopf, Kisor, saxophonist Jim Snidero, and guitarist Tom Guarna, Zak has accompanied such name artists as George Coleman, Billy Hart, Jon Hendricks, Etta Jones, Jimmy Cobb, Scott Hamilton, and Junior Cook. He made his recording debut as a leader in 2005 with The Peter Zak Trio, featuring drumming great Al Foster and bassist Paul Gill. The same year, he received a $10,000 grant from the Doris Duke Foundation and Chamber Music America to compose and perform a new work for his trio. Two years later, he released his well-received solo recording, My Conception.
Zak, who has been on the faculty of the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music since 1995, isn’t as well known as some of his peers. But his body of work speaks for itself. As Ted Panken wrote in DownBeat, “You can’t help but be drawn in by his deep swing, mastery of tempos, horn-like phrasing and orchestrative savoir faire.” You also can't help being captured by the uncompromising manner in which Zak has attained his primary goal: “Finding your own thing that will set you apart from the pack.” •
Peter Zak: The Eternal Triangle (SteepleChase Records) Street Date: October 22, 2013
Web Site: peterzakmusic.com Twitter: twitter.com/zak144
Media Contact: Terri Hinte 510-234-8781 firstname.lastname@example.org
Awards:$10,000 composition grant from Doris Duke Foundation, 2005.
(Down East) Classy set by Peter Zak, accompanied by the stellar rhythm tandem...together they strike a swinging accord... Bill Milkowski, JazzTimes
(Down East) The kind of trio date many aspire to but few reach so effortlessly, Zak and his pals are on the money throughout. A must hear/have date for all straight ahead piano jazz fans. - Chris Spector, Midwest Record
(The Decider) This is another rewarding release by Peter Zak, a talent deserving of wider recognition. 4 1/2 stars. - Ken Dryden, All Music Guide
(Seed Of Sin)...Zak is a focused, original player with fine taste and great chops...4 stars. - Mitch Myers, DownBeat Magazine
(My Conception)...a bouquet of self-assured solo piano performances - Nate Chinen, New York Times
(My Conception) The solo record is the best place to sample Zak's lyrical, harmonically rich approach. - Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings