Nine Lives: Wells Hanley, part 1

Pianist and renaissance man Wells Hanley has begun his first semester as jazz piano instructor at VCU. In the second edition of “Nine Lives,” we learn a little about the man and what — as well as who — has shaped him as a musician.

Editor’s Note: Pianist and renaissance man Wells Hanley has begun his first semester as a jazz piano instructor at VCU. In the second edition of “Nine Lives,” we learn a little about the man and what — as well as who — has shaped him as a musician.

David Tenenholtz: Thanks for sitting down with me, Wells. You’ve just been appointed to be the new jazz piano faculty member at VCU, and you’re replacing the faculty member who has been there basically since the jazz program’s inception, right?

Wells Hanley: Bob Hallahan, yes. He was here for 28 years. Big shoes to fill, no doubt.

He recommended you highly, and it seems that you’re a real heavyweight in terms of the musical situations you’ve been in lately. And with your upbringing here in Richmond, that’s where you got to know him?

Kind of. I was actually a sophomore at James Madison University, and they didn’t have a jazz major, and also didn’t have a jazz piano teacher. There was actually an advantage to that, for sure, because I worked things out on my own to start. But I would also come over to Charlottesville sometimes to meet with Bob, and he gave me some great basics. But the bulk of the work I was doing was really on my own.

And tons of people have come up learning like that.

Exactly, and so I’m of the generation that came up with jazz education, but the generation before me was pre-jazz education, and they learned from talking to older guys that would help you out. You sought out the masters and learned by what they would tell you. There weren’t books about it, so you asked guys, “Man, when I get to this chord change, I don’t know what to think.” And they’d say “Oh, think of this,” and show you an example. That era was over when I came to school, but I took on that method since at school there wasn’t a teacher for me. So I learned a lot from recordings. I liked it because everything you do from the beginning then has your personal stamp on it. There are advantages to both methods for sure though. I certainly feel like I’m helping people when I’m moving them through this method of levels that we move our students through at VCU.

Do you find yourself suggesting recordings to your students?

Definitely an important part of the curriculum is that every semester they are responsible for some transcription. There are tons of transcription books out now, and I
think of them like Cliffsnotes. But I’m adamant that you’ve got to transcribe it yourself. You’ll play a line a different way if you’ve listened to it over and over again. To get deep inside it, your relationship to that music will be there forever.

What were some things you transcribed early on?

I probably did some things before I began transcribing Red Garland, but he’s what I remember first. The solo from “Bye Bye Blackbird” by him, and I probably did another five or six from that era with Miles and Coltrane. I didn’t do the more bluesy players like Wynton Kelly or Horace Silver at that time. I got into Red and Oscar Peterson, and Erroll Garner too. They have a joy in their playing which I liked. The buoyancy and the feel that they have.

Yeah, they’re all super hard swinging pianists.

Totally. And not particularly angsty. I was kind of an angsty kid, and I liked that these players had more joy. Maybe now there’s some more influence from bluesier, or
angsty players.

You’ve studied under Fred Hersch, who has his own voice. I think of it as more angsty or somber.

His voice is so interesting. Certainly his ballad playing has that beautiful quality, and darkness. There’s also a very classical thing about it. When I studied with him, he was really into taking easier classical pieces and playing them in every key. I studied with him for a year in graduate school, and then started going to his house for lessons. He would take something like the Chopin E-minor Nocturne, and play it in all keys. He told me to pick a piece, so I picked the Allemande, from the French Suite No. 5 by Bach, which is not super difficult but not super easy. There are different voices going on at the same time that you have to keep track of. So for a semester I took the first part and learned that in every key. Then I’d go to a lesson with Fred, and he’s say, “Okay, left hand plays it in E-flat major, and right hand plays it in B major.”

Oh, wow!

He would do things like that for himself! He made exercises for himself, which were like piano games really. It’s more fun to call them games. He would do things like, play a tune and pick a direction to go up or down the piano, and play only selected members of the chord until you run out of piano, and then come back down again.

So it’s stuff that would stretch you out of the old clichés.

Exactly, and the jazz tradition informs the way he plays, but the piano itself informs him as well. I really like it. There are things that jazz pianists play that are idiomatic to horn players, and don’t necessarily fit well on the piano. I find that those ideas won’t stick in my playing if they aren’t pianistic and graceful. The games Fred designed could get you out of a certain comfort zone, but they helped you discover what was pianistic. Chopin, for example, was a very pianistic composer. Practically everything he wrote was for the piano. But that doesn’t mean they were easy, although there is certainly a technical gracefulness to his music. Beethoven, on the other hand, had tons of things that he wrote for piano which actually can be awkward. So with learning those pieces, and horn-player lines that are idiomatic to those instruments, I won’t force my hand into submission. I’m certainly into challenging myself and stretching my growth edge, but only in technically comfortable ways.

In addition to these piano games and lessons, you also have done a great deal of songwriting and spent a lot of time on other instruments. Now you have a new album of your own songs that you’ve written and recorded. Tell me about that.

Yeah, that should be arriving in the mail any day now, and it’s called Camels are Coming. It’s the culmination of probably three or four years of work. I sing and play a lot of stuff on it. From around 2002 to 2005 I had a rock band, and it was a collaborative thing. A lot of Richmond guys played with me like Robby Sinclair, Sam Wilson (who is a Charlottesville guy), Curtis Fye, and Colin Killilea, who was the bass player before Curtis. So I was the lead singer in the band, and played keys and guitar, and I was writing the songs and lyrics.

What was that band called?

The band was called “Wells,” which I hate! But whatever. Anyway, as soon as that band was over, the pendulum was swinging from collaboration to solo. I was really ready to do stuff on my own. So during the summer of 2007, I had the thought that every instrument I thought I could play well, I would play on the record. So I laid down the drum tracks, and then because life is so busy, three months would go by and I would do nothing else. Eventually I recorded parts on acoustic guitar, piano, keyboards, organ, and vocals. There were a couple tunes that I wrote during the process that I ended up getting a band together for. We played some of my songs for a concert called Live at Songwire, which was at Songwire Studios. That got me to bring in other musicians to play the gig, and so Matt Wyatt played drums and Brian Chenault played some bass. It was just a process, which started with twenty-four songs, and now is twelve tracks consisting of ten songs and two instrumentals on the album. I’m really excited about it, and felt really good about it at the time of completion.

Excellent, looking forward to it! So you have your solo project, and then some other work with other singers like Lydia Ooghe.

Yes, with Lux Vacancy, which is basically Lydia’s material. Ever since I became interested in song writing and lyrics and how they go together with music, I’ve been on the look out for songs that really grab my attention. I heard some stuff on Lydia’s myspace page that she had recorded with Todd Herrington, and thought she was really onto something.

Oh, so you approached her?

I think so, yeah. Interestingly, she doesn’t know that much about music theory, but her sense of music is really strong. She’ll create totally complex harmonies just by taking two fingers on just a couple of strings and moving either up or down on the neck of her guitar. But it’s just that her natural sense of music and lyrics is really great.

So you’re involved in the songwriting, or filling in the musical elements more as a pianist or accompanist in that band?

Yeah, more like the latter. We went into the studio for her EP, which is coming out really soon. So I put down drum tracks, and Cameron Ralston was brought in to play bass, and Trey Pollard played some lap steel. Out of that process, these guys and drummer Pinson Chanselle got involved. So now it’s this band called Lux Vacancy, and there’s going to be an EP release on the 23rd of September at the Camel.

Do you think of your own jazz piano style within her music, or how do you approach it?

I don’t really think like a jazz pianist with her music, and my way into it is through the song. My understanding of harmony definitely informs how I’m able to play on those tunes, but my role is so textural. She’s playing acoustic guitar, and the earthiness of her instrument along with the warm and electric sound of the electric piano that I play exclusively in the band gives a nice combination. There are tunes when I’m playing exactly the same notes she is, because that’s what sounds the best. And there are other tunes where I may take an eight-bar solo, because it’s not really show-off music. The solos I take are very simple, and based largely around triads.

To be continued next week in part 2…

photo by Rob Collins at Songwire Studios

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David Tenenholtz

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