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Joan Stiles On Piano Jazz

Pianist Joan Stiles dedicated herself to jazz after she'd begun classical piano study in college. As a teenager, she sang and played in pop groups; the only jazz records she owned were a solo Thelonious Monk record and Bill Evans' Portrait in Jazz (not a bad start for any beginning jazz student's library). As a young woman in New York, she ventured by herself to see pianist Mary Lou Williams playing at The Cookery, on a tip that Williams' command over the keyboard was a sight to behold.

Today, Stiles is a working artist playing her own dates in clubs like The Blue Note, Birdland and Iridium, and is highly respected in jazz circles. She is also a full-time educator at the Manhattan School of Music and the New School University Jazz Program. For the past 10 years, she has been spreading the music of Mary Lou Williams through a popular lecture/demonstration titled "Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band." On this episode of Piano Jazz, Joan Stiles stops by to talk with guest host Jon Weber and to play some tunes of her own, as well as a few by Williams, Thelonious Monk, Fats Waller and more.

Stiles kicks off the session with her take on Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Surrey With the Fringe on Top," tapping into the spirit of Monk through her sense of time and angular phrasing.

"It's a little bit of the horse's hoofs on the surrey -- that's why I slowed it down at the end, as the horse is getting to the destination," Stiles says, referring to the lyric of the tune from Oklahoma. "And there's a bit of Richard Rodgers meets Thelonious Monk."

Stiles continues with "Spherical," her original tune inspired by Monk, whose middle name was Sphere. The tune is an accurate portrait of Monk: playful stride piano interspersed with gorgeous chords that would be at home in any ballad.

In Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz," Stiles and Weber get together for a four-handed duet on one piano. Each pianist stakes out his or her own melodic territory on the tune, and the result makes for a heady piece, as all 88 keys get a workout.

"The great thing is that we complemented each other," Stiles says. "It sounded great. And now we can compliment each other!"

On the topic of countermelody, Weber is inspired to play an unlikely medley of two tunes: Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" and Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Wave." The arrangement of dark, proto-metal chords transposed against Jobim's breezy bossa nova melody is a humorous but sublime pairing in Weber's capable hands.

"That arrangement was beautiful and hysterical," Stiles says.

The program closes with a trio of Joan Stiles originals: "Past Imperfect" is a reflective waltz inspired by Frederic Chopin: "It was written for a theory class as a solo piece and just sat around, and I decided it could work in jazz setting." In "West End Boogie," native New Yorker Stiles pays homage to Harlem's historic grooves. Finally, Weber joins Stiles for a jumping duet in the Tadd Dameron-inspired "Bebopicity" to end the show.

Originally recorded Dec. 15, 2009. Originally broadcast Sept. 14, 2010.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Grant Jackson