Pianist/composer Carmen Staaf is an active voice in the NYC and global music scenes. Her skills and approach have led her to perform in a wide range of settings, with some of the most influential and important musicians of our era. Currently, she is the pianist and Musical Director for NEA Jazz Master Dee Dee Bridgewater. Her past major performances have included the Playboy Jazz Festival in a two-piano setting with legends Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and the Kennedy Center alongside Kenny Barron and Fred Hersch. She has been heard at the Village Vanguard, Blue Note, SFJazz and major jazz festivals around the world, including the Montreal and North Sea Jazz Festivals, among many others.
In anticipation of Staaf’s Nov. 16 show at the Kahilu Theatre, I caught up with her (via phone) at a restaurant near Times Square before her show at Birdland on Halloween.
Will your Kahilu Theatre concert mark your Big Island performance debut?
Yes, it will be. I’m really excited about it! It sounds like there’s a community of music fans who are really appreciative. I’ve only been there on stopovers on the way to New Zealand because my mom is from New Zealand. We used to fly through Hawaii, but I’ve never actually spent any time there.
What inspired you to become a musician?
Great question! Every kid has to take piano for a year and then if they want to switch to another instrument, or stop, then they can. My grandfather was a violinist and was playing for a dance troupe that my grandmother was in. And on my mom’s side, her grandfather was also a violinist. So, there’s a lot of music in my family background. I just climbed up onto the piano bench and would make up little songs and try to figure stuff out by ear. My parents found this wonderful but kind of strict Russian piano teacher who I studied classical with for years. It was really formative.
How did you transition into jazz?
One of my older brothers picked up the tenor saxophone. He was into listening to Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz and Lester Young. People started to give us records like Count Basie and Duke Ellington and big bands. I was hearing that music and just going like, “What is this?” I really wanted to learn it, and I think the first solo I ever transcribed was Ella Fitzgerald. I didn’t write it down, but just started singing along with Ella Fitzgerald, singing “Take The ‘A’ Train” – like her scat solo on that with Duke Ellington. So, that was kind of when I got the bug.
Who is in your trio and how did it come together?
It’s Tony Scherr on bass and Allison Miller on drums. The trio kind of came out of all this playing we were doing in other settings. I met Allison, I think in 2015, while I was a student at the Thelonious Monk Institute [now the Herbie Hancock Institute]in L.A. I heard her play and loved her drumming. As soon as we started playing together, we both just clicked. Tony Scherr was subbing in Allison’s band, that’s how the three of us first met. It’s like we can connect in so many different areas of music and are on the same wavelength in a lot of areas.
Your music history has you playing everywhere from Seattle, Cuba, and even India. Can you talk about how these different world settings influenced your music?
I’ve always been fascinated by different cultures and the ways that people communicate and have conversations through these cultural expressions like music. I’m also fascinated by the idea that when you try to inhabit, really try to understand from an insider’s perspective as much as possible, and really try to get inside of another type of music that’s not the musical culture you were born into, that it gives you this whole new way of looking at the world. I also studied anthropology in my undergrad, and I think about the language of that or the way that has informed my mind by looking at different music.
Tell me about your current release, and are you working on any new recording projects?
Well, there’s a couple of different things that are in the works. Alison and I have a band together called Science Fair. We’ll be playing some of the music from that record that came out last year. She and I are also working on a duo record, and that’s almost finished and coming out next year. I also have a trio record coming out next year on an all vinyl label called Newvelle Records. They only release on vinyl and box sets. Each season is a different group of musicians. The way that they do the artwork is really beautiful, and the music sounds incredible too.
I understand you’ll be working with some of our local music students while you’re here.
I really love doing that because I remember when I was in high school and I was just so excited about the music. I didn’t know really if I wanted to become a professional musician or not. I was not quite there, but I was really serious about it. Just every little piece of information that I could get from somebody visiting the high school. I was lucky that I went to a great jazz camp in the Pacific Northwest. Everything that I got my hands on was so meaningful and special, and I was really hungry for that information. Obviously, nowadays people have access to YouTube, all that stuff that we didn’t have when I was younger. But I think there’s still something really important about that person-to-person connection and getting together and playing and listening to students and offering whatever thoughts might be meaningful to somebody. You never know what one little thing you might say would stick with somebody and how it would change the way that they think about their playing or about music.
Is there anything else you’d like to add before we go?
Just that I’m really excited to be coming and playing this concert and working with the students. I hope that I’ll get a chance to meet lots of music fans over there. I think we’ll have a lot of fun!
Thanks for your time, and we’re looking forward to your upcoming show at the Kahilu Theatre.
Thanks so much, Steve!
In Concert: Carmen Staaf Trio
Jazz virtuoso Carmen Staaf will perform at the Kahilu Theatre with her trio, featuring Tony Scherr and Allison Miller, on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $50/$25 and can be purchased at kahilutheatre.org, (808) 885-6868 or at the Kahilu Theatre Box Office located at 67-1186 Lindsey Road, Kamuela (Waimea).
This interview was edited for space, clarity, and continuity. To hear the full interview, click the play button.
Steve Roby is a music journalist, an L.A. Times bestselling author, and a Big Island filmmaker. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.