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Pianist Lara Driscoll: A Jazz Person You Should Know!

Lara Driscoll, a French-American pianist and composer from Chicago is currently on tour in Canada with her trio but she still calls Chicago her home. Let's get to know how she got interested in music, where she studied, her musical concepts and what she has coming up!

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Where are you originally from and how did you end up deciding on the piano?

Driscoll: I was born in Chicago and grew up in Prospect Heights. My mom is French, my dad is from Chicago, and they met in Nairobi, Kenya. I feel as though I come from many different places due to their many years of world travel before children. Their life experience and wide perspective have blessed me in so many ways. Though not musicians themselves (although my mom can sing a beautiful La Vie En Rose!! :)), they love the arts and have been extremely supportive every step of the way. My mom insisted we have opportunities for music growing up; she did not. She once even came to 3 of my gigs in one day (although that doesn't happen often, ha.)

I felt drawn to the piano at a young age, but I think I felt music for the first time in middle school when I started to understand tone quality, dynamics and expression, thanks to my amazing classical teacher Cheryl Lim. The classical foundation plus a multifaceted band program (I played clarinet, mallets in front line, drum major, etc) were a combined force toward why I chose music. My fantastic H.S. band director, Scott Casagrande, insisted on high level music as well as opportunities to grow, be challenged, create musical synergy, and experience deep camraderie. At that time I also met my musical mentor, trombonist Brian Jacobi (sons Ryan Jacobi- drums, Sean Jacobi-bass, and Kevin Jacobi- sax- all jazz musicians), who took me along like a daughter to jazz clubs, Jamey Aebersold summer camps, and to jam sessions at their home. Mr. J has been a constant source of encouragement and guidance, and even burned me his whole cd collection (before file sharing :)) as a graduation gift.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: What drew you to start playing jazz music?

Driscoll: Initially, the joy that seemed connected to the music. Even while watching the middle school jazz band, I sensed an exposed human spirit, spontaneity and a sense of humor. The connection between music and language is particularly clear in improvised music and I find it fascinating. Then I started listening to albums and everything I sensed began to confirm itself...I also just love playing music of all sorts WITH others. It's such a marvelous way to interact with another person. I have to say that I was scared to death to improvise at first. That's why I make sure all my students have an opportunity to explore it in some capacity. It's fun!!

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Where did you go to college and why?

Driscoll: My undergraduate degree in jazz studies is from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and my masters is from McGill University in Montreal Canada.

Why the cornfields of Illinois? Chip and Chip! John "Chip" Stephens and Charles "Chip" McNeill (and all of the wonderful faculty including Joan Hickey who I should have studied with in H.S., if only!). I met Chip McNeill at IMEA. He has built a very strong program that has in turn also influenced the local scene. In music school, private instructors and performance opportunities are very important. In Champaign, I was lucky in both regards. Chip S. (piano prof) is hands on, versatile, and has an uncanny ability to pianistically demonstrate musical examples at a very sophisticated level. He swings harder than anyone I know. His former students are eternally grateful to him (thank you Andy Nevala for sharing your heartfelt letter back in the day). My undergraduate audition was the first of many experiential learning moments. A simple demonstration for anticipating chord changes immediately transformed my perspective on improvisation and I still think of it every time I learn or teach a new tune. UIUC was also full of experienced graduate students. By the end I was supporting myself gigging 4-5 nights a week playing jazz, Brazilian music, tango, funk and more..I didn't even have a keyboard as a freshman! The combination of dedicated and invested faculty with a welcoming and appreciative local jazz community allowed me to grow in a nurturing environment.

Why Montreal? Why not!! :) European charm meets N. American flexibility, diversity, a continuous conversation about language, a vibrant art scene, and a safe and inexpensive place to live. It's a long story, but the short of it is that I always wanted to study in France and Montreal appeared as the best of both worlds. At that point I was considering studying music therapy, but I happen to meet (sadly, recently late) renowned jazz piano/composition professor Jan Jarczyk (of Polish origin, used to teach at Berklee) in Montreal.

Lara with Chip McNeill (sax), Larry Gray (bass), Joel Spencer (drums)

He encouraged me to apply for the jazz program and within a few weeks I had accepted an offer to do my masters and teach as a course lecturer. I had a wonderful experience at McGill and am so grateful for the opportunity to study with Jan and all the other faculty. The program is set in a way that really emphasizes time spent writing and playing our own music, which I hadn't done much of yet. I also had some really valuable teaching opportunities. The music scene in Montreal is forward thinking, creative, and full of people excited about composing and new projects. Plus you get to play with legends like Andre White!! :)

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Who were some of your major influences in music that helped you shape the way you play today?

Driscoll: All of the MANY wonderful teachers I have had. They exposed me to so much, and I never would have considered this music if it weren't for them. A few pianists drew me in initially: Bill Evans- for lyricism, rubato, harmony and inner voice movement, rhythm, Wynton Kelly (stank!), Red Garland, Gene Harris, Oscar Peterson, Cedar Walton, Thelonious Monk, Ahmad Jamal, Jimmy Smith, Horace Silver, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Brad Mehldau, Fred Hersch, and it goes on.. If I talk about non pianists or composers we will be here all day. Exposure to classical music (especially Chopin), Astor Piazzolla, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and funk music left large imprints as well. Of course, 90's pop and hip hop are in there somewhere.. ;)

Prof. Jan Jarczyk and Lara

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Tell us how you ended up putting this tour together. Why Canada? Why this group of musicians?

Driscoll: I have been to Ontario many times to visit my fiancé's family, and en route back from Montreal, but never played there. It was time to change that! I am grateful for the opportunities. I met drummer Dave Laing when I TA'd for his jazz history class and bassist Rémi-Jean LeBlanc when we played in a chamber jazz ensemble. They are extremely sought after Montreal musicians and I'm humbled that they are into playing my music. I first asked them to perform in my trio at the Jazz Education Network Conference in Dallas in 2013, and I knew from that point forward that it was a special combination. They have different approaches, musically, but they work well together and push me and my music beyond my comfort zone. For part of this tour, I will also have the honor of playing with highly esteemed Toronto bassist Mike Downes, (also bass prof at Humber college), who I met at that same JEN conference. I'm looking forward to working with him!!

Chicago Jazz Magazine: What music will you be performing at the different venues?

Driscoll: We will perform my original compositions for jazz piano trio as well as some of my arrangements of standards. Some of this music is on a forthcoming release of my first trio record, made in Montreal with Dave Laing (drums) and another wonderful bassist (now Vancouver based), Paul Rushka. I hope to release it very soon... It is a culmination of that time period and I can't wait to share it!

Chicago Jazz Magazine: What are the details on tickets and location of the performance?

Driscoll: All details are on my website. We start in Montreal (Resonance Cafe) and then head to Toronto (Gate 403) and Waterloo (The Jazz Room), and return to Toronto (Home Smith Jazz Bar at the Old Mill, and The Rex) Come say hi if you are in the area! Hugs 'n scarves!! :)

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