All jazzed up

Harker Concert Series hosts third event of school year with jazz pianist and composer Taylor Eigsti

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Emily Tan

American jazz pianist Taylor Eigsti speaks on the effects of the pandemic on musicians. “To really understand the production of what goes on to put a show on, it really is a deep dive, since we kind of have to do this stuff ourselves now,” Eigsti said. “We have to wear a lot of hats; we have to learn how to be a sound engineer [and] a lighting person.”

by Emily Tan, Features Editor

In a broadcast of his 2018 Harker Concert Series performance, jazz pianist and composer Taylor Eigsti slides his fingers into place on the piano on the Patil Theater stage after a brief pause. With an unbreaking gaze at his sheet music, Eigsti begins his performance, his fingers begin fluttering across the keys as the piano sings a lighthearted melody to the soft beat of the drums in the background. Other performers onstage join the song, creating a blend of soft piano, crisp saxophone and rhythmic drums.

For the 2020-21 virtual Harker Concert Series event on Friday, Harker Concert Series artistic director Dr. Dave Hart interviewed Eigsti, who hails from Menlo Park, CA, in a webinar format that started at 7 p.m. Eigsti not only discussed his current situation as a professional musician in a pandemic world but also gave listeners advice on gathering inspiration for composing music. 

“We’re in such a different time, so to see all these musicians that I love dearly and that I have so much respect for and to have an opportunity to see them and interact with them feels really special,” Hart said. “We’re here to create connections for students, so to see a way that we’re able to do that still over Zoom is special to me.”

After half an hour of live Q&A with Eigsti, attendees had the opportunity to view the broadcast of his Concert Series performance of Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus” on the piano. Eigsti also performed with jazz saxophonist and composer Dayna Stephens on the tenor sax, bassist and singer Zach Ostroff on the bass, drummer and Bay Area native Jason Lewis on the drums and 2018-20 upper school music teacher Naoki Taniguchi on the saxophone. 

“[Eigsti has an] ability to incorporate everyone into the improvisation in such a way that everyone stands out at some point, and [he provides] space during improvisation for each instrumentalist to stand out,” said jazz band member and aspiring jazz musician Rohan Kannan (12), who attended Eigsti’s concert live. “It’s great to see how great of a musician he is in general, not just in jazz.”

For the people who are not necessarily musicians, what you would get out of this is to see someone who’s still finding a way to create a career in something that he loves, which is music. He basically creates his own scene. That’s an inspiring thing, whether you’re in music or not.”

— Dr. Dave Hart, Harker Concert Series artistic director.

Since April, Eigsti has continued teaching online lessons and Master Classes, and he has even performed in a few in-person concerts in the past six months, such as a performance in December with his working trio, which includes drummer Eric Harland and bassist Harish Raghavan. Because of the wide range of activities Eigsti undertakes, Hart notes that the pianist’s dedication and initiative in his career can be inspiring to students, both musicians and non-musicians alike. 

“For the people who are not necessarily musicians, what you would get out of this is to see someone who’s still finding a way to create a career in something that he loves, which is music,” Hart said. “He basically creates his own scene. That’s an inspiring thing, whether you’re in music or not.

At his most recent concerts, Eigsti and his fellow musicians have found themselves “picking the brains” of sound technicians and lighting directors who make the show complete to determine what techniques they can apply in their home studios when teaching classes, for example. 

“To really understand the production of what goes on to put a show on, it really is a deep dive, since we kind of have to do this stuff ourselves now,” he said. “We have to wear a lot of hats; we have to learn how to be a sound engineer [and] a lighting person.”

After describing his more recent experiences, Eigsti then took the audience on a walk down memory lane, recounting memories with musicians he toured with in the past. From “great bandleader[s]” like Gretchen Parlato and the well-known jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, Eigsti learned how to structure a show and a set to give the audience a fulfilling experience. Currently, Eigsti is working on his eighth album as a bandleader, “Tree Falls,” coming May 21; his first-ever single “Skylark”, featuring American Idol finalist Casey Abrams is out now.

“Eigsti talked about how he learned so much from Dave Brubeck as a piano player and as a composer. Those stories that he told and the inspiration that he got from Brubeck was really inspiring,” Rohan said. “[It was] just overall really cool that he knew someone so legendary in jazz.”

In addition to his compositions for symphony and jazz ensembles, Eigsti also composes his own recorded music, receiving a Grammy nomination for Best Instrumental Composition in 2006 for his album “Lucky to Be Me.” He tends to take inspiration from a wide range of sources and artworks and work those ideas into his piece in both significant and subtle ways. 

“My rule of composition is that only 10% of the stuff we write is actually good,” Eigsti said. “I’m constantly using everything I possibly can to find inspiration and to just keep [composing] with no pressure that every song has to be great because I know that they won’t [be].”

When he feels stuck, Eigsti likes going back to tunes he wrote up to 15 years ago or even listening to music he doesn’t like and then composing based on inspiration from those melodies. 

“There [are] all sorts of different ways of looking at [setbacks], and there’s a lot of frustration that goes along with it too, but stay with [composing] and keep doing it because it takes a lot of quantity to get really good quality tunes out.”

Check out the Harker Concert Series website for more information. Subscribe to Harker Concert Series emails here.