Ezra Weiss received his first keyboard as a bar mitzvah present from his parents.
Twenty years later, he’s among the top 14 vote-getters in the Rising Star category as an arranger in this year’s Downbeat magazine critics’ poll, and a pianist-composer whose sixth CD, “Our Path to This Moment,” showcases his evocative writing in an imaginative big band context. It’s an elegant recording with echoes of Gil Evans, Bob Brookmeyer and Maria Schneider.
If Mom and Dad had given him a fountain pen, he’d probably have a National Book Award by now.
The real joke is that until he was in college at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, he was as much a saxophone player as a pianist.
“Up until college I was playing both instruments equally,” he said in a telephone conversation from his home in Portland, Ore., last week. “But I realized that I wasn’t good enough at either to make a living in music. I let the saxophone go and made the piano my focus.”
Weiss was born in Phoenix and grew up there and in neighboring Scottsdale. He was raised in a conventional Reform Jewish home, going to synagogue regularly through his bar mitzvah. There is one small quirk in his family’s Jewish history though.
“My father is Ashkenazi, originally from New York, but my mother is Sephardic and came from the Middle East,” he explained. “She was born in Iraq, grew up in Iran and went to college in Israel.”
The couple met in Buffalo, a rather less exotic locale.
The main musical influence on Weiss growing up was his father’s enormous record collection.
“The Jewish music I grew up with the most was Broadway show music,” he confessed. “My dad had a lot of great musicals. I loved the musicals because they told stories and I could understand the music in a less abstract way. You know, ‘It sounds angry because the character is angry.’”
On those rare occasions when he hears Middle-Eastern music, Weiss said, “I hear it with American ears. Contemporary Israeli music comes a bit more easily too me, because it has become so Westernized.”
Weiss’ comparatively late commitment to piano probably served as a limitation on his performing at first.
“The reason I picked the piano was that it was more helpful for composition,” he said. “I didn’t intend to be a performer. Neal Creque, my teacher, was so inspirational that it made me pursue piano. He taught me how to enjoy playing.”
Ironically, Weiss’ hesitancy as a soloist worked to his advantage when he was still a comparative novice.
“I was really lucky that when I started working as a pianist I was still often struggling technically,” he acknowledged. “Because of that I was forced to make good music without using a lot of fast b.s. My composition teacher at Oberlin, Wendell Logan, would come over to me after I was trying to play fast, and he would whisper, ‘There’s a whole other kind of music that’s nice and slow, and grooves. You don’t have to play so much.’”
It was a lesson that Weiss took to heart. He can play fast with more than sufficient facility when the mood strikes him, but one of the pleasures of “Our Path to This Moment” is its exploration of medium tempos and Weiss’s inventive use of space as composer, arranger and soloist.
Jazz composers don’t have many opportunities to write regularly for large ensembles these days. Weiss, like so many of his contemporaries, got his first taste of big-band jazz in college. His regular band is a sextet, and to get the opportunity to work with the Portland-based Rob Scheps Big Band for his new CD, the composer-arranger basically had to create the situation himself, raising the money for the project through Kickstarter.
Weiss found the transition between writing for his sextet and writing for Scheps’ 17 pieces (plus guest trumpeter Greg Gisbert) an interesting one.
“Writing for a sextet is really fun,” he said. “You have three horns [plus the rhythm section] so you have to make each one really count. You think about how to make every part important. With a big band, you also want to make every part important, but you don’t want everyone to be playing all the time. As you get more experienced, you start thinking, ‘If I’m hearing such-and-such many voices, I should only write that many voices.’ You don’t want to be writing stuff for guys to play just so they won’t get bored. And they won’t get bored, because when they play it makes a difference. You want everyone to feel that what they’re doing is pivotal.”
Weiss loves working in almost any setting except, he conceded, solo piano.
“You have to ask yourself a rhetorical question and then answer it,” he said. “It’s not a conversation, it’s a monologue. Well, a soliloquy anyway. I miss the interaction with other people.”
He gets plenty of that in a big band, and quite a bit more.
“There’s nothing like it in terms of power and majesty,” he rhapsodized. “Just the volume you can achieve is pretty intense. And it’s neat to have so many people working together towards the same goal.”
Ezra Weiss’ new CD, “Our Path to This Moment,” featuring the Rob Scheps Big Band, will be released on Aug. 31 on Roark Records. To purchase the album and other recordings by Weiss, go to www.jazzcares.com.