When I perform, says pianist/composer Kelvin Sholar, I want to eradicate the separation between the bandstand and the floor. I don't want to play to tables and chairs; I want the audience to be involved, like when a church choir sings.
Sholar's performance experience began early; he was already on stage when he was in utero. My mother plays the piano and my father plays guitar and bass, he explains. They did church gigs with my grandmother all around Detroit. Between attending their rehearsals and soaking up the atmosphere in his fusion-drumming uncle's basement (where Sholar's earliest memory is falling asleep beneath a poster of Herbie Hancock's Headhunters album) the pianist's childhood was a pastiche of music, both sanctified and secular.
It is a distinction which blurs when one listens to Sholar's own compositions. His music is both ethereal and funky, a shape-shifting universe of delicate melodies and muscular rhythms which seem to be in constant dialogue and perpetual evolution, spinning fast and slow in an elaborate dance. In fact, Sholar was a composer before he took a single piano lesson. As a child, he says, I always wanted to express complex ideas, and I often found words inadequate. Music addressed a different part of my being. A child might ask a million questions, but when he or she hears some music, there is an understanding which precedes any kind of knowledge. Music reminds us that what's important is not the symbol, but the power behind the symbol. It gets us back to the fundamental idea of communication as love.
By sixteen, Sholar was writing and playing seriously, performing with his high school band and sitting in at his uncle's gigs. The cult of music had taken hold, he says. Soon, Sholar began studying with Marcus Belgrave, the venerable Detroit trumpet master who has taught musicians from Geri Allen to James Carter.
Marcus taught me the importance of knowing the tradition regardless of my personal opinion, laughs Sholar. I was young and I just wanted to play my own way, but he impressed upon me the importance of knowing a song's lyrics, and its proper tempo. He made me realize that to really play this music, you've got to grow up, get over your ego and be a man.
As his reputation grew, Sholar found himself increasingly on the road, first with other young Detroiters like Rodney Whitaker and Karriem Riggins, and then with luminaries such as Wallace Roney, Carmen Lundy, and Jerry Gonzalez. It was the drummer Lenny White who convinced Sholar to move to New York in 1997. Lenny is like Art Blakey, says Sholar. He listens, and he directly encourages young musicians by hiring them. He was the one who got me into Wallace Roney's band.
Now, although he continues to work as an arranger, musical director, and fix-it man--recently lending his expertise to a gospel choir and an album of Earth Wind & Fire songs recorded by White--Sholar is concentrating primarily on his own projects. He has toured extensively, at home and abroad, as the leader of Esoterica, a collective of young musicians who are also featured on Sholar's recent recordings.