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Aaron Diehl discusses ‘The Vagabond,’ Mary Lou Williams and what it means to innovate

Aaron Diehl, a man dressed in a black suit, stands at a grand piano looking to the right.
The Aaron Diehl Trio performs at the Modlin Center for the Arts on Thursday. (Photo Credit: Maria Jarzyna)

Aaron Diehl blends jazz and classical influences into his piano work, a practice that’s present throughout his solo endeavors, as well as recent work with vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant and composer Philip Glass.

Diehl caught up with VPM Music ahead of his Thursday trio performance at The Modlin Center for the Arts.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Annie Parnell: You're heading to Richmond with your trio as part of a tour that also features some symphony appearances, as well as a few solo programs. What can listeners expect to hear?

Diehl: It’ll be David Wong on the bass and Aaron Kim on the drums. And we're going to play my trio books, past, present and future, if you will. So, some compositions that I wrote and released on an album called The Vagabond, which was released in 2020. And that was right before the pandemic began — January 2020 was when the CD was released.

I'm playing some music from that album, then I'm also going to be playing some new compositions that I've written in the last year or so. And then I'm going to be playing some things that I'll release, I suppose, next year — particularly the Mary Lou Williams Zodiac Suite, which she arranged for chamber ensemble. This obviously won't be the orchestral arrangement, but it'll be condensed trio.

Mary Lou did not really get a chance to play this arrangement that she wrote in full. She had a premiere in the Town Hall in New York City in 1945 and it didn't go so well, because they didn't have a lot of preparation time. Some of the movements, she had to completely cut the orchestra and just play herself. And so, to bring this piece back to life, with the help of the Knights Orchestra and Eric Jacobson, we recorded it in May in New York City — at Power Station. Actually, I was talking to Eric about the mixing and everything, and we're really excited and happy.

Mary Lou Williams is someone who has such a fascinating career when it comes to the “Zodiac Suite,” but then, you know, when Zoning comes along [in 1974], there're all these crazy funk influences with “Gloria,” “Zoning Fungus II” — it's really interesting stuff.

Her sacred music is just wonderful. I mean, there's some of it that's recorded, but there are other works like her Lenten Mass — I have some of it here in my in my closet because I knew Father Peter O'Brien, who was her manager for the last 25 years or so of her life. And he was a tireless advocate for her music after she passed away in 1981. She really acknowledged this in interviews, that she saw almost the entire evolution of jazz. Of course, she was a mentor to Thelonious Monk, and Dizzy and these folks — Bud Powell. So, she saw this whole evolution, but she never really stopped, you know. She kept challenging herself as a composer, and she never became complacent.

That reminds me of a practice that I think really resonates with me in your work, and also the work of Cécile McLorin Salvant, who I know you've worked extensively with: the kind of pairing of curation with innovation.

I don't really believe anything great is actually innovative. It's just manipulated in a certain way that really resonates and kind of brings out qualities that were not realized before, or obvious before. I think great artists are just able to use so many sources. I mean, if you take Cécile, for example, who is really brilliant at making all of these connections and associations with seemingly disparate elements  — making them into a whole unit that allows the observer to realize the universal nature of the human condition.

“The Vagabond” continues your work with the music of Philip Glass, who you've also performed with. Can you tell us more about your interest in his work?

You know, I got a crazy random call from someone who worked with Glass about seven years ago asking me if I would take part in this project called The Glass Etudes that occurred at BAM — Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. And I said, “Well, you know, I don't know if I'm the right person for this. I'm not really, like, a minimalist music expert and I haven't really functioned in that world.” And they said, “No that's not what he's looking for. He's looking for all different types of musicians to take part in this project.” So, I played this concert.

I played OK — you know, as well as could be expected for somebody who's not really familiar with that music. But then I kept working on it more and more because I was intrigued by Glass’ compositional style, which I knew a bit more through his filmography — “The Hours” and “Candyman,” and these kinds of films. But I didn't really know many of his solo piano works. And over time, I really got much more engaged with the music, and he had given me some opportunities to continue to play his music. [“Piano Etude No. 16”] is a really beautiful piece of music, and I decided to record it with my trio.

And in addition to “Piano Etude No. 16,” there are compositions on the album from Prokofiev, Sir Roland Hannah, John Lewis, as well as some really stunning originals. And there's, I think, such a fascinating interplay between jazz and classical in those pairings.

I don't feel like that's anything new. I mean, you know, musicians have been sort of cross-pollinating since the beginning of music, I suppose. But certainly with regards to jazz music.

I was thinking about how to sort of coalesce more of my interests and influences into one package, and that's something that I continue to do. For me, that's something that I really always aspire to do — to be sincere with whatever music that I'm giving, and not necessarily having to place it in any sort of particular category. I hope that with “The Vagabond,” that it's maybe given listeners a bit more of a glimpse of what I'm interested in and what I would like to do.

In addition to your music, I know you're also a certified pilot. Do you find that music and flying inform each other in any interesting ways?

You'd be surprised at the number of pilot-musicians. There's a conductor named Daniel Harding, I've never met him. But he's, I believe, a British conductor, who flies for Air France. He was primarily a conductor, and then he went to fly for Air France. And now conducting seems like it might be his side hustle, I don't know.

I think there is a correlation between flying and music in that no two scenarios are exactly alike. You have some consistency with your instrument, some consistency with the airplane, as you expect it to function a certain way — your instrument’s going to function a certain way. But you have many variables around you: you’re a musician, you're playing with Musician X and Musician Y, who are different from Musician A and Musician B, who you played with the previous night. The tunes change, the halls change as well — it’s exactly the same in flying. You have a nice day, weather is perfect. The next day could be the exact opposite. And you have to make a decision: “Well, should I go in this weather? Is it safe to go this weather? Or should I stay on the ground?”

Or you're in the air and maybe there's some unexpected turbulence or situation that could be perilous that you have to figure out how to compensate for and get out of, and that's the same with music. If there's a mistake that's made, maybe if there's a note that's missed in a composition, you have to learn how to recover quickly. So, yes, I see a lot of parallels between the two.

You’ll be touring on and off through the spring and into early summer. Beyond that, what's next?

Well, there are few things. I'm working on a few projects with my buddy Timo Andres, who's a great composer — I met him through Philip Glass. He's writing a piano concerto for me, and he also wrote a song cycle for Cécile and I.

[Drummer] Tyshawn Sorey and I have been working together. He just released an album of me, [bassist] Matt Brewer and Tyshawn, I think ["Mesmerism"] was self-released. And we're planning to do some performances together here in the next year. There's also another recording that he's about to release on Pi Records called “The Off-Off Broadway Guide to Synergism.” But he's a remarkable, remarkable artist. So, it's been really exciting to get a chance to know him and work with him.

The Aaron Diehl Trio will perform at the Modlin Center for the Arts on Thursday. Tickets are available online.