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Article by Scott Yanow

Throughout his very productive career, Louis Durra has been involved in many aspects of making music. But his main love has always been jazz and in recent times the pianist has focused on pursuing his dream. His most recent CD, WHAT WE HAVE, and his DVD with bassist Larry Steen and drummer Jerry Kalaf, CAUGHT! showcase him at his best, showing why he is so widely respected and his music so enjoyed.

Louis was born and raised in San Francisco. He remembers hearing classical music as a child. In fact, Louis reportedly taught himself to read by looking at the labels of his parent’s LPs. He took a few lessons when he was eight but was not inspired by his teacher. Things changed when he was 11 and living for a period with his family in London. “I told my father that I was hearing music in my head that I did not know how to write down. He went to the Royal Conservatory to find an answer to the problem. When he explained the situation, the person he was talking to very dryly said, ‘Yes, third floor second door on the right.’ “I started music lessons and right from the beginning I couldn’t let the piano alone." An enlightened teacher, composer Melanie Daiken, soon had Louis reading scores of classical music and he developed quickly as a pianist.

Back in the United States, he attended a Saturday program for children at the San Francisco Conservatory, working on theory, harmony, ear training and sightreading. When Louis was 13, he was scanning the radio dial one night when he heard John Coltrane’s quartet with McCoy Tyner, opening his mind towards the more adventurous side of jazz. He performed with his high school band, worked at parties with a singer, was self-taught on flute, and at 16 was music-directing for school and local musicals, working on eight productions within two years.

While attending the Berklee College of Music, Louis studied jazz and classical piano, arranging and composition. Most important, during this period he developed his own jazz voice. After he graduated, he settled in Los Angeles and worked in a wide variety of musical settings, including R&B bands and lounge acts.

Due to his impeccable musicianship and versatility, Louis can fit into nearly any genre, as he showed during a six-year period playing with guitarist Moris Tepper (best known for his associations with Captain Beefheart and Tom Waits). During that time, Louis became a sound editor, composed for experimental theater projects, wrote music for documentaries, and did studio work. After meeting drummer Jerry Kalaf, the musical director of the dance company Jazz Tap Ensemble, he became involved in playing for tap dancers. In addition to gigging with jazz singer Chris Williams in Orange County, Louis worked with lyricist Mark Winkler’s show Play It Cool, serving as its musical director and appearing onstage with his trio.

Louis Durra brings all of these diverse experiences into his jazz performances, often transforming unlikely pop songs into creative music when he is not introducing his colorful originals or coming up with a fresh slant into interpreting standards. While he names Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, Bill Evans and Hampton Hawes as being among his many inspirations, he has an original style within jazz’s modern mainstream. He swings with his own brand of soul yet can also play fairly ‘free’, constantly stretching himself both in his spontaneous flights and in his compositions.

“In sidemen, I look for players who are deep into the Jazz traditions yet willing to play unusual tempos, harmonies and arrangements. I love to take chances with the music, improvising and taking the music to surprising places." Louis’ recordings include DREAMING (a trio set with bassist Darek Oles and drummer Jerry Kalaf), and most recently, WHAT WE HAVE. The latter teams the pianist with Kalaf, either Lutz, Genova or Larry Steen on bass and occasionally guitarist Larry Koonse and percussionist Scott Breadman. Louis performs Miles Davis’ “Solar" plus ten of his originals including the jazz waltz “Out On The Steps," the melodic “For Joe" (which recalls Oscar Peterson a little), the explorative “Magellanic Clouds," and the catchy “How To Pack A Suitcase." In addition, the CAUGHT! DVD allows one to both see and hear Louis Durra at his best with Kalaf and Steen.

Louis Durra loves performing and especially playing in clubs with his trio. “My curiosity about doing new things in music is very strong. I love to create surprises in the music while still connecting with the listeners. My musical life is about jazz playing, composing and arranging. I feel very lucky to be able to play music all the time." Music lovers and jazz fans are also very fortunate; for Louis Durra’s music, in addition to its creativity and freshness, is just plain fun.


Interview with Melissa Parkerton. Was mostly working as a sideman at the time (pianist on other people's projects). Some of the interests and restlessness that resulted in the current band and group sound...

What was the first time that you remember being really excited by a piece of music?

Louis Durra: I can remember borrowing records from a teacher when I was in nursery school and listening excitedly. I remember being really excited by the last movement of Borodin’s Polyvetsian Dances when I was very small and wanting to jump up and down when the cymbal crashes happened … but having to take care not to because moving too much would make the record skip… INT: (laughing) Yeah, and I remember interrupting dinner to turn the record over. All of these happened when I was very small, probably 4.

INT: And what was the first time that you felt really excited by music that you were making? Not just listening but actually creating or playing?

LD: Well, It was a long time until I began playing. I don’t think I felt that excitement with playing for a while…possibly when playing some of my early attempts at composing. I have a piece that I wrote when I was twelve or thirteen, it still sounds pretty good to me. It’s funny that I called it Sonata #2, because if there was a Sonata #1 it probably was 15 seconds long. (laughs).

INT: How would you categorize the style of it was it in a classical style, the Sonata #2?

LD: It really seemed to be mostly about particular rhythms and some minor or Dorian voicings that fascinated me…
….I was also excited by things I heard on the radio, Motown and pop tunes.
This was the 60s, there were brass or string sections in tunes and I was drawn to more orchestrated pop – “Penny Lane", things by Jimmy Webb. I really didn’t hear much rock until I was nine or ten.

INT: And are you still moved by the music from your childhood? Or do other things excite you now?

LD: Hearing some of those songs will give me a nostalgic feeling -- some favorites from then still sound terrific to me -- I could recognize great performance on some level...My tastes have changed over time, yet I still feel the same kind of glee when music excites me...

INT: Once you talked about maybe doing an album of that music from your childhood. What was it about that music that you wanted to bring forward?

LD: It was the unapologetic lushness… of some of that music, the hyper-sweetness of tunes like, “The Boy Next Door" “Strangers In The Night", or “A Man and a Woman", played with 80 strings and a Bossa Nova rhythm section… They sound completely exotic now. We live in a time where there’s much disappointment and cynicism about so many things, that hearing those sounds… so overtly romantic, with all the strings and background singers and everything, it’s not only music from another time, but it’s really another way of seeing life, seeing the world...

INT: Are those songs still being played?

LD: They might get played but they’ve been re-styled or re-invented. There's a vogue for lounge music now -- I saw the group Pink Martini a few months ago and enjoyed them. The approach they were taking, and other groups I've heard, has been more humorous than I remember that music being. There didn't seem to be anything ironic intended back then, when huge orchestras played sweeping scales behind a vocalist whispering in French… people were looking for that sort of sweetness in their music...

INT: So, would you record a CD of that music now?

LD: I don’t know that the project would be… I don’t know if it would end up feeling rather arbitrary as I got into it, but certainly at times I’ve been inspired or piqued by that music.

INT: So right now, what piques your interest?

LD: Well, a few things. I tend to keep buying albums or listening to albums…, thanks to Youtube I can see video of some terrific performances, and I have a lot of music in my Ipod. I may listen to pieces repeatedly to get something out of them. Last November I heard the Polish trumpeter, Tomasz Stanko, and the group he’s had for a few years with Marcin Wasilewski at the piano. They play with unbelievable…with great sparseness and taste. Sometimes it’s like a game of “chicken", they’re playing so little, and yet it’s beautiful, exciting, interesting. The trio is coming to Los Angeles in a couple of weeks, I’m looking forward to hearing them.

INT: What is it that’s exciting about it?

LD: Technically, sometimes the guys play so sparsely that it would be difficult for most musicians to feel a pulse together. I’d like to be able to do that kind of playing at the level they’re doing it. some of their recordings seem to be group improvisations… and yet they play with like a real rightness. How do they keep connecting and keep the music beautiful and interesting in tracks as far-ranging as Lontano, Part 1? They may be doing some editing after the fact, but it really hangs together as music. It seems like it would be easy for their improvising to sound like some sort of hypnosis tape or something, but it just never does.

INT: Is it this particular group or is it the style that you like?…if somebody else did that style you don’t have faith that they would re-create it

LD: No, it’s this group, they really have something special.

INT: So when you are playing with other people, what are you looking for in the people you play with?

LD: You know, every choice necessitates a trade off!... I have eclectic tastes, both inside and outside of Jazz, and different things I focus on as a player or composer. So if players are well-versed in certain styles or able to play something that makes some sense with it…some way that we can make music together and go a lot of different places. Big ears for harmony are a must. It’s nice if we can vary the changes as we play a tune. I’m a fan of both standard-type harmonies where resolution and modulations are clear and also ambiguous or suprising changes… Also, I like it when we can all lead, follow…or play independently. It’s a nice sound to hear a jazz group subvert the norm of soloist and accompaniment, after so many years… I don’t like all of the lines to be clean and orderly, the bass playing roots on the downbeats, everyone arriving somewhere at the same time… I like surprises. and sometimes I like the sound of everybody in a band playing lines that have their own logic, yet end up in different places, then come back together – even if that means different keys at once or music that is not delineated into a soloist and an accompaniment. So, I like the sound of music where each part has its own logic and yet they may be really independent at times. That being said, there’s a lot of free music that I don’t like… when I’m not hearing connection between players or the tension of dissonance resolving to consonance.

INT: There are a lot of different musical styles that draw you. You’ve been really interested in like Brazilian music; you like Reggaeton (Latin dance/hip-hop); you also enjoy a lot of the old standards. It seems like you have an appreciation for a lot of really divergent music and I’m wondering if that means you will always be looking for different players to play with or if it is your goal to eventually find your style and your people and just work with those people on this one thing?

LD: In some ways the eclectic taste is a departure – I’ve been pretty immersed in mainstream jazz for a lot of years, this is a recent restlessness I'm feeling… As far as players are concerned, you know I’ve been playing with Jerry Kalaf for twenty years at this point and I’ve had long relationships with bassists Larry Steen and Domenic Genova… This is actually typical for piano players. Many of the great pianists have tended to have groups that were together a long time. The idea of working with one group and playing a great deal together has great appeal. Currently I work a lot as a sideman. I enjoy the challenge of playing new music with different musicians and I like having the versatility to do so. it’s a good skill to have but I don’t assign much artistic value to it. if I had my “druthers", I would be leading more gigs or there would be a working unit and we would play a great deal together.

INT: So you have gigs that you take and there is skill involved in being able to play with a lot of different people but that’s not necessarily by choice, that’s just of necessity?

LD: Yes. AND we try to take it further than that. When I work with other players from the “extended family" of jazz musicians in our area, we’re just not playing perfunctorily, but we try to do something fresh with the music and I’m listening closely and seeing how we can connect and just as they are with me. Many jazz players take their craft very seriously and are trying to be creative, keep up with what’s going on in New York and the rest of the world, and make good music.

INT: So if you were always working with the same people...I mean… if you had total control over all of your gigs and you gave up playing with a lot of different people to focus as one group how would that work with your interest in so many different styles of music? Would you have to reach a consensus with the other musicians about what you were going to do…or how does that work?

LD: Often artistic choices of this kind want less discussion than you would think. If one of us has a “jones" to investigate something and it turns out that we don’t all really have that in common or we’re not able to go to the same places…typically what will happen is the person who wanted to check it out is either going to lose interest because playing it isn’t working out with that group…or they may all have the impetus to experiment with that sound and pursue it. If I was working a lot with the same group, especially if we were traveling, then there would be time for group efforts of that sort.. And then there is also… if somebody in a group has an affinity for a type of music then they can often illustrate it through their playing. The other players may come up to the level of that.
It might not be about authenticity in a particular style… Since the ideal of the versatile session musician got glamorized people have this idea that the “best" music is that which is most conservative to its particular style. So that a group playing a Bossa Nova should sound like Joao Gilberto or Antonio Carlos Jobim playing one (two of the inventors of the style). Immersing oneself in a style can be a great and rewarding thing in music – and yet, music, musicians and listeners are always evolving…
Yusef Lateef made albums in the late 50s where he played Middle Eastern-influenced music with New York jazz musicians. Those records sound as though he was pretty much springing those tunes on the players -- “play this beat", “comp like this" and there were some odd and charming results. There were some memorable results when jazz drummers like Elvin Jones started to play mambos and and Brazilian music. There are records where he or Art Blakey are playing mambo bell patterns but swinging 8th notes…so you get these unique feels. There are lots of examples of music traveling from one culture to another -- in all periods of music. Bach's Italian concerto is another.

INT: Tell me about a time that somebody sprang something surprising on you.

LD: Well pretty much the whole time touring and playing with Moris Tepper was like that for me. Moris had played guitar with Captain Beefheart for 8 years and he’d recorded with Tom Waits and he had spent a lot of absorbing the music of Bob Dylan. What Moris was asking of me as a player was new and surprising. At the time I was resistant to some the music (and less of a practicer) so I didn’t investigate the roots of what we were playing thoroughly. Over the years his music had a big effect on me -- maybe more after we stopped playing together. Yeah, that whole period was surprising.

INT: So if you were faced with something like that today, how would you approach it differently than you did then?

LD: I'd investigate the source recordings much more than I did then! Maybe because I realize that now, things that come up musically that are surprising or interesting -- It seems I haven't got the time or energy to investigate them! I’ve been hearing some Tango music lately but am not in any working situation where that music is being played. I’m aware of how stylized that music is so when I consider it I think things like, “Wow, that’s going to be a lot of work". There’s not a situation where I’m playing it with players who know the music so it feels like it would be an arbitrary project. Classical piano, on the other hand, is something I’m called for pretty often and I sometimes have the opportunity to play it with very accomplished players, so I feel the desire and need to keep investigating that. I have a harpsichord that I’m getting some work done on now, I’m looking forward to getting it back and playing more early music... If something is more ongoing -- like the relevance of Brazilian music in Jazz… that seems more direct and necessary to go through, because in almost every Jazz gig I participate in there are Sambas or Bossa Novas played…


Interview by Emily Cohn, jazz piano major at Cal State Northridge.

I decided to interview Louis Durra after talking with my classmate, drummer Adam Alesi. I told him that I wanted to interview a jazz pianist with a performing trio. Adam mentioned that he had played with Durra, a great pianist and composer, in the pit band for a musical last summer.

Later that day I found Durra’s website and sent him an email informing him who I am and why I wanted to interview him. Durra replied the next morning and we scheduled a meeting for the next day.

On October 24th I drove out to Durra’s home in Venice. I got stuck in the typical Southern California traffic and, in keeping with my reputation, got a bit lost. After about 45 minutes of driving, I arrived.

Before starting the interview Durra asked if I would play for him first, yet he made it clear that if I was uncomfortable he would not insist. The fact that he wanted to hear me play really stood out in my mind. This made me realize just how important first impressions are and how important it is to always be ready to perform. Excitedly I walked over to his 7'6" Yamaha Grand piano and played “Autumn Leaves" to the best of my ability without having touched a piano all day. “Ah, now I know who I’m talking to." was Durra’s response when I finished the tune. Then we sat and began the interview.

I asked Durra to describe his career to me. “I am a jazz pianist and my 'day gig' is working as a classical accompanist or as a musical theater director." He added, “it’s nice because it keeps me playing … it’s good for me as a player to do all these different things, it’s good for my chops."

Durra laughed when I asked if he had planned to be a musician for a living. “I never really thought about it, I just couldn’t leave music alone. There was a point in my teens when I thought I should get a liberal arts education, see what I could make of myself… but that lasted all of two weeks!" Durra was just more into music and loved doing it. After his first year at Berklee College of Music he knew that he would be a musician for life. He did take a detour in the nineties, working as a sound editor for movies. He always considered it a temporary situation though. It paid money and he became good at it but it was not what he really loved doing.

When and how did you first realize you were becoming or were successful?
Durra’s answer to the question really surprised me. “I feel that I am doing well but I always have the attitude that things could be better." Durra also stated that even though he has a lot of work he doesn't feel he can take anything for granted. Yet Durra did state that he has had a very good year, probably his most successful financially and musically.

Describe some of the experiences, mistakes, and or opportunities (good or bad) that have affected your career.
When Durra was 18 he auditioned for the classical piano program at New England Conservatory in Boston. He went feeling well-rehearsed and confident that he could play well. “The faculty were cutting my pieces short and at the end bluntly said that I would not be going there." This gave Durra an inferiority complex for years. That is when he realized that he would need to practice harder and study more.

Durra played keyboards and synthesizers with R&B groups while he was in college at Berklee. This gave him experience with styles of music other than Jazz. He was hearing Funk and R&B just like we hear pop and rap in stores every day, often transcribing keyboard parts from recordings.

Durra met drummer Jerry Kalaf 18 years ago and they really clicked as musicians. They have been playing each other's music ever since. Durra met Moris Tepper, former guitarist with Captain Beefheart, around the same time. Durra toured and recorded with Tepper for 6 years. Tepper's music was deeply influenced by Bob Dylan and that musical association introduced Louis to Folk.

Describe the personal and professional characteristics skills of an individual pursuing a career such as yours.
"One needs be 'thick skinned' and be able to deal with rejection, irregular income and odd working hours. It's important to be able to make practice/study a priority week after week. Also one needs to be comfortable with all classes of people. Durra mentioned that even when he goes on vacations he takes a keyboard with him to practice even if it is silently in a hotel. He does this because he loses facility if he does not keep up his playing.

Did you have any mentors?
Durra’s high school jazz band and vocal jazz director was a big help for him. Durra did not really have other mentors as a child or teenager because he was “too much of a bad boy" and would argue with teachers or anyone in a position of authority. He was always trying to show off how cool he was and how well he could play, “so I missed out on some of those opportunities. It wasn't until much later in life that I had those kinds of relationships with players and teachers."

What are the advantages and disadvantages of “growing up" with computers vs. without?
Durra feels that computers and the Internet are great things. He loves how much music is out there to hear and download. “Yet the down side of having so much stuff available on the internet is that people become impatient or overwhelmed." Durra was a big "pen and paper guy" in college but now prefers using notation software because it is faster and easier with all the writing he is doing.

I asked Durra what I need to do to become a professional like him.
He gave me a lot of great tips. He basically said that I am well on my way and that I need to keep a few things in mind. One of the things being that “there are many players out there who can do a job; it often doesn’t matter to the leader if they’re as good as you are." One needs to do the job well, understand the musical or technical jargon, and be easy to work with. Durra stressed that I should get a group together and play gigs even if I have to pay the other musicians out of my own pocket. He also mentioned that being able to play different styles of jazz is crucial.

What is your practice routine?
Durra explained that he does not have a set practice time for every day. Since he accompanies classical performers, he practices that music “the old fashioned way, setting hand positions and writing in fingerings." When it comes to jazz, “I’ll memorize tunes or work on rhythmic or melodic ideas in various harmonic contexts." Sometimes Durra is up in the middle of the night to practice.

Do you do any studio work?
Durra has played on quite a few albums in a wide range of styles. He has also functioned as producer and music contractor for the films he has scored. “I try to get into the esthetic and work routine of each producer or artist. Every project seems to have different needs and call on different resources."

How did you get into sound editing?
Durra was friends with Jim Halfpenny who was doing some film scoring. Jim told him that the Id Group, an audio post facility, was willing to train a sound editor. “I had been looking for a studio job so I would understand more about the recording process." Durra took the job and learned to edit sound effects to picture. The rest is history.

Were you trained to play with R&B and Funk Groups?
Durra had a class or two at Berklee on playing popular music, but he mostly learned how to play the style from listening to the music. “The music was like today's pop music, you just could not get away from it, that is what you heard everywhere."

How important is it to be able to read music well?
“It is very important to develop your reading. Most projects are under-funded and that cuts into the rehearsal time. There’s a big demand for musicians who can learn music quickly." Durra also mentioned that it is important to have jazz standards memorized and to be able to play them in different keys because you often need to change keys for vocalists.

From this encounter I learned that I need to focus my time in college learning and playing as much as I can. I learned that getting trio gigs is not easy and I really need to self-promote and possibly even pay for them. I am really glad and appreciative that I was able to interview Durra; he was very laid-back, kind and straightforward with me.

--Emily Cohn