By Danny R. Johnson
NEW YORK, NY – Every step forward in jazz piano has been taken within a context of what came before, by an artist who is seeking or has found a new direction. That direction could lead back to something from the past, but because it would begin in the present, it would still uncover something new. Joe Alterman is one such artist who fits this description perfectly. This 26-year old cat from Atlanta, Georgia released an album in May 2015 called Georgia Sunset, and one inevitable conclusion can be drawn from this album: Joe Alterman is one of the most amiable improviser of jazz piano since Jacky Terrasson came on the scene in the1990s.
The 12 tracks Georgia Sunset album features such hits as Blue Moon, Hard Times, I’ll Let You Know, and How Deep is Your Love, and has Alterman executing at the keyboard an emphatic swing, an assured technique, and a strong instinct for interactive play. His harmonic work in this album has a firm, chiseled quality, which he softens through careful pedaling and lacy ornamental runs. For all his mainstream eloquence, it is difficult to believe that Alterman stumbled across an interest in jazz in his teens due to a debilitating struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
“Music was everything to me, he explains. “I did not want to tell anyone about my struggle to deal with OCD, so music was the place where I could always be myself. At the end of a rough day, I could sit down at the piano and everything would be all right. That’s when I fell in love with music and realized it was a big part of me.”
Georgia Sunset features the sensitive interplay of Alterman’s trio with the gifted rhythm section of Gregory Hutchinson (drums), Reuben Rogers (bass), along with several guest appearances by the pianist’s mentor, legendary saxophonist Houston Person, who also produced the album.
Alterman performed at venues around the world including the Blue Note Jazz Club in Milan, Blues Alley in Washington, DC, and Preservation Hall in New Orleans; he has led groups at venues in New York City including the Blue Note Jazz Club, the Iridium, the Kitano, 21 Club, Le Cirque, and Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, among others. He also recently performed at the “Marian McPartland Piano Jazz All-Star Celebration” at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, as well as at Jack Kleinsinger Presents “Highlights in Jazz,” as a part of the “Next Generation All-Stars,” where he performed alongside tenor saxophone great Houston Person.
In addition, he and his trio have performed multiple times at the Blue Note Jazz Club as an opening act for greats including Les McCann, Ramsey Lewis, Philip Bailey (of Earth, Wind & Fire), John Pizzarelli and Hiromi, among others.
The key to Alterman’s success on Georgia Sunset is his ability to add a bluesy dimension to an otherwise upbeat sound. Even on slow to modern tunes, such as the Blue Moon track, Joe’s scrambling licks make his playing more accessible. Much of Joe’s style embraces the obvious. As Erroll Garner had done, Joe catered to a broad audience; unlike Garner, he has no affectations that would lend strong distinctive qualities to his playing. His chords reflects a mainstream mentality, his high register solos either spell out the tune or scatter easily absorbed bits.
Still, there are few pianists who can play with the bouncy swing that defines the Alterman style, especially at medium tempos. For Once in My Life literally jumps off the disc, with ripping two-handed tremolos, swooping glissandi, and runs sparked by quick trills that pop like fireworks over a footrace. Stylistically it is somewhat old-fashioned, but its show-stopping razzle-dazzle, especially in the massively extended coda, which cannot be missed!
There is nothing subtle about Joe Alterman’s performances on Georgia Sunset. Few pianists can drench a song with the juicy flavor that Alterman brings to the table. The joy of his playing, not to mention his knack for writing material that manages to sound both fresh and historic, confirms Joe Alterman as capable of working within a somewhat dated style to create a sound that is personal as well as relevant to the trends of our time.
Danny R. Johnson is San Diego County News’ Jazz and Pop Music Critic.