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Collaboration partners jazz with classical

Pianists Siskind, Chang perform at Sweetwater

Michele DeVinney

Whatzup Features Writer

Published March 12, 2020

Sibling rivalry and peer pressure are often portrayed as negative. But they can also be a powerful motivator, as Jeremy Siskind, a critically renowned classical and jazz pianist, has found.

Siskind, who performs next week at Sweetwater alongside equally accomplished pianist Angelin Chang, has found both helped to propel him into a successful career in music.

Sparked by sibling rivalry

A native of Southern California, his interest in the piano began rather simply.

“My aunt was in the middle of moving,” Siskind recalled in a recent phone interview with Whatzup. “She had this upright piano and asked if she could store it at my parents’ house. As the legend has it, I couldn’t walk by the piano without playing a few keys, so they decided that my brother and I should learn to play. My brother is two years older and was better at everything than I was — except the piano. That was when I decided I really wanted to keep playing because I liked being better at it than he was.”

His playing was advanced enough to afford him opportunities to perform abroad, including a trip to Japan. It also put him into a good situation when he went to high school.

“I went to a public school with a really good music program,” Siskind said. “It put me in the company of like-minded people who were taking music seriously. Being in a peer group like that can be powerfully motivating, and it helped me to keep improving. And it provided me with a social group. I was already playing professionally when I was in high school.”

When it came time to consider colleges, Siskind decided a music conservatory was the right way to go and went far from his California home to study at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. There he studied jazz performance and music theory and began composing more.

Stepping out of the box

Since completing his studies, he’s found a myriad of ways to perform, stepping outside the box when necessary to build a base of support.

“Part of working professionally when you’re playing classical and jazz music is to use a lot of different resources,” Siskind said. “If I go out to tour for a week or two, it’s good to get to alternate venues and audiences. House concerts are a good way to get to people who might not otherwise go to a classical or jazz concert if they weren’t being invited to attend. There are people who come and realize that they like something that they had never considered listening to before. Or they discover it’s something that they needed emotionally at that moment. It’s a great joy to be able to be part of that.”

Although Siskind enjoys those kinds of solo performances, he also enjoys collaborations, and his work with Chang is a first for them. While the two have played together a couple of times in Los Angeles in anticipation of their tour together, at the time of this interview they had yet to take the stage together.

“Fort Wayne will actually be our second performance together,” he said. “We’re playing at Cleveland State before that. We have four performances together before we play at Carnegie Hall.”

Visiting universities and teaching by playing alongside students has been one of Siskind’s passions. Now he finds himself preparing to take the stage with a woman already very accomplished in her own right.

finding a way to combine styles

A Grammy winner and critically acclaimed pianist, Siskind has found a way to put their individual styles — as well as his combined love of classical and jazz — to good use.

He puts a fresh spin on his piece “9 Perpetual Motion Etudes,” described as “a major suite for piano that combines jazz harmony with complex pianistic textures.”

The approach to the piece, with Chang playing the written portions of the etudes while Siskind accompanies with improvisational responses to the music, promises that no two performances will be alike.

“When we played together for a couple of days in L.A., it was nice to hear someone else’s take on it,” Siskind said. “Obviously when I compose something, I have some ‘control freak’ tendencies. It’s hard to let go of wanting it to sound like I hear it in my head and the way it’s interpreted by me. Collaborating is a muscle you learn to build. In the end you just surround yourself with the right people and trust them.

“Angelin is a fantastic pianist, obviously,” he continued. “You just look at her Grammys and at her resume, and you know she’s going to be great. Working with her is going to be fabulous. It’s bringing out so many new possibilities, and that’s really rewarding.”

Beyond the tour with Chang, Siskind has a new album in the works, a collection of Debussy interpretations, and touring and teaching gigs that will take him to the far corners of the world.

As much as he enjoys playing solo, he is eager to continue to seek out new collaborations in the years to come.

“I want to bring this music to a lot more universities,” Siskind said. “I’m going to be the featured artist at the New York State Music Teachers Convention, and every summer I work with a few organizations and will be going to Cyprus, Brazil, and British Columbia in Canada. And I plan to keep working with Angelin to spark more interest in ‘Etudes.’”

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