Finding the way is a daily struggle for most of us.
But it may be easy to conclude that for Erik Deutsch, former Boulderite and founding member of the mid-’90s fusion/jam militia Fat Mama, as well as the transcendent folk-jazz experiment County Road X, the way might just be finding him.
A New Yorker since 2004, Deutsch makes another of his periodic returns to the People’s Republic Thursday for a Boulder Theater CD release party of Hush Money, his second recording as a bandleader.
Steeped in furtive melody, moving confidently between lusty groove and reflective balladry, Deutsch bears an uncanny ability to display his strengths with studied understatement, tinkering around the edges of the slower pieces (the title track, the nearly hymnal “Slider,” and the yearning pale blues of “Hearts For Purple Lions”) with synth and guitar (via longtime collaborator Jonathan Goldberger) accents, teasing the lead lines as they find their shifting consonances. And elsewhere, on the Horace Silver-ish rhumba “Black Flies,” Deutsch leads a slowly uncoiled head and elegant reed-stated interlude into a murky, noisy breakdown, returning again cleansed and ready for a return to the proud and confident stomp. “Dirty Osso Bucco,” with its funny-uncle reed section, sounds a little like a Royal Scam outtake filtered through the dangerously fly sessions he did with Charlie Hunter last year for Baboon Strength, and the dissolving cascade of tonal washes of “Incandescence” evokes a sort of Winstonmeets-Jarrett pastoral.
But what’s going on here? Deutsch obviously plays the bandleader and keyboardist roles. The dynamics and gravitational swings suggest the hand of someone who composes rather than orchestrates. But this is a CD that seems to eschew the kind of fiery solo and interplay of the jamband world that Deutsch is often associated with, while also evading the keyboardist-ashighlight-film solo outing that the downtown purists expect from a young player trying to tattoo his name onto the big name rags.
For one thing, Deutsch credits guitarist and longtime collaborator Goldberger as producer for the record. Guitarists hear keyboardists differently from the way keyboardists hear themselves, don’t they?
“A lot of it is just trying things. I guess I have an idea of where I want the music to end up,” Deutsch says.
“But I would agree with that, sure. I’m not sure … exactly how, but I know there’s something different there. Jonathan was in our old band Fat Mama, and a couple of times when we were tracking, I’d say something like ‘I wanna do another Casio part here,’ and he’d go, ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’ But Jonathan’s cool … he knows that I have a lot of ideas about what I want to do, and he just kind of lets me roll with it. I probably put him in some tough spots as a mixing engineer with all the keys I layered on there.”
Deutsch does maintain a close bond with a variety of different vintage keys — they bubble to the surface from time to time on the CD, sounding reedish or textural or just incongruously anachronistic, supporting the melody or challenging it.
“These keyboards are a big part of my personality,” he says. “I’ve had them for a long time. The last record I did was just all piano, and I really wanted to get some other sounds on this one.
“It’s funny. I’ve kind of flip-flopped back and forth, between doing straight piano stuff and doing keyboard stuff. And I like both; I’m cool with either. And in fact, with this band, when we’re on the road, I can do either.”
But for Deutsch, who like most of his peers is at heart a piano player, the acoustic is and always will be ground zero. No jive, no kiddin’ around.
“When I play the acoustic piano, I’m probably at my most comfortable place,” he says. “I have a relationship with that instrument that’s different from any keyboard in that I trust it more. And I understand it more. And it has more character, personality and potential than any keyboard. I think that I’m fortunate that I took the time, especially when I was in Boulder and in college, to study classical piano at CU and study with Art Lande, to develop a sound and a touch for the instrument, and a deeper understanding of how to make it work.”
Deutsch is evoking the name of local pianist/ drummer Lande, one of Boulder’s most mercurial musical personalities, graduate of Manfred Eicher’s Nordic chill school of Euro-jazz from 30 years ago, now an educator and part-time performer.
We wondered what piece of advice Deutsch got from Lande that he carried onstage with him every night.
“It’s kind of funny. One thing that comes to mind is not about the notes but … when I met him I was 18, I was kind of wide open to a lot of things and could have gone in a lot of directions with music, and I remember him telling me that. You had to remember that you were just one little speck in the universe.
And everything else, how people react to you and how they got into the music, all that didn’t matter. It was just you playing your music.”
On the Bill: Erik Deutsch plays the Boulder Theater on Jan. 21. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Must be 21. Jefferson Hamer & Laura Cortese and Tom Hagerman & The Guerilla Ensemble open. Tickets are $12. 2032 14th Street, Boulder, 303-786-7030.