A Young Pianist With Old-School Tastes


The first time he realized the power of music, Joe Alterman was a camper in a Jewish summer camp near his native Atlanta.

Sitting on a stool in a Greenwich Village coffee shop, the jazz pianist recalls enthusiastically, “Everything changed when the music started,” Alterman says. It was, he remembers, a mix of old folk songs, some Joni Mitchell and, of course, Jewish camp favorites like “Jerusalem of Gold.” “Everyone would get all happy and swaying.”

It was a lesson that stayed with Alterman as he began playing guitar, and then piano, and rapidly found his way into jazz. Today, the 23-year-old, who has been compared to Harry Connick for his easy sense of swing and tasteful playing, doesn’t play much of the music he learned at a Solomon Schechter day school or his summer camp, although he admits introducing tenor saxophone luminary Houston Person to “Jerusalem of Gold.” But he still is intensely aware of the often visceral reaction that people have when the music starts. The difference is that he’s now the one who provokes that reaction.

Alterman, who has been based in New York City for the past five years, launches his new CD, “Give Me the Simple Life,” with a live gig at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola on Monday, Aug. 27, with Person appearing as a guest with Alterman’s current trio (A-list rhythm section players bassist James Cammack and drummer Gregory Hutchinson).

Person recorded his first album as a leader in 1966, about 23 years before Alterman was born. But the pair has a genuine rapport, as the four tracks on which Person plays on the new CD amply testify.

The key to that surprisingly easy collaboration is mutual respect that has nothing to do with the half-century that separates them and everything to do with a shared professionalism and musical vocabulary.

“Houston is just such a nice person,” Alterman says. “Those times when I mess up he never really says anything. He knows that I know when I’ve made a mistake.”

Perhaps more important is the musical element of their bond. Alterman was a long-time admirer of Person’s playing.

“I’ve been practicing with his records for years,” he confesses. “I was instantly comfortable playing with him. He makes me feel very confident.”

Although as a pianist Alterman is the principal melodic and harmonic voice in a trio setting, when you add a horn player, his role becomes more complicated. That is a change that he eagerly welcomes.

“Working with a horn player gives me a chance to play behind the song and not have to be the leading voice,” he says. “I enjoy ‘comping’ [playing chords that “accompany” the soloist], which is a whole other thing than being the main voice. I have to listen in a different way. I find myself hearing how [the horn player] phrases a melody.”

Person is one of those tenor players with a big, robust sound, particularly in the lower register of his instrument. On the four cuts on which they play together on the new CD, you can hear Alterman making adjustments in his usual musical vocabulary to work in that lower register.

“I like his playing in that register,” Alterman says. “I know that I can’t go as high as I usually do, it just won’t sound right. I have to play below him. I’ll tell you, there’s nothing better than playing behind that.”

The gospel-tinged soul-jazz of Person and the hard bop stylings of Ahmad Jamal, Wynton Kelly, Red Garland and other pianists Alterman cites as his influences are a far cry from the finger-picking bluegrass guitar and classical piano that he started out playing. He credits Oliver Wood (of the Wood Brothers) and his father with the transition that led him to his current musical enthusiasms.

“My guitar teacher [Wood] got me into swinging blues-jazz, and he suggested I learn about stride piano,” he explains. “My father, who has a great ear, started bringing home jazz piano recordings for me to listen to. He brought me a Bill Evans CD and I thought it was really boring. He brought me a Dave Brubeck CD and I thought that was only OK. Then he brought me an Oscar Peterson CD, and that really clicked for me. Then I bought myself a CD with [organist] Jimmy Smith on it, and I knew what I wanted to do.”

Of course, a 23-year-old isn’t supposed to want to play in that kind of classic, old-school style. The only time in an afternoon’s conversation that Alterman appears even slightly nettled is when the question of playing “old-fashioned” music comes up indirectly.

“I’m playing what I want to play,” he says emphatically. “There’s too much focus on whether someone is playing ‘old’ or not. I think they’re all valid musical forms.”

As long as they provoke that reaction.

Joe Alterman will be playing on Aug. 27 at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center (Broadway at 60th Street) with special guest Houston Person; sets begin at 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. For information, call (212) 258-9595 or go to www.jalc.org/dccc.