Concerned with Style: An Interview with Jon Wirtz

I first heard about Jon Wirtz’s music a few moons ago, and since then his album Tourist has turned many a morning of mine into a spirit rave up that lasted all day. Shades of Ahmad Jamal are thrown in juxtaposition to minimalist hues full of positive energy and catharsis. The piano is the center of it all, but to label Tourist piano music is misleading. This is music music, and from my interview with him it is clear that Wirtz is a musician’s musician.

The following interview was conducted via email. . .

David Paul Kleinman: How did the song Gratitude come to be?

Jon Wirtz: That was a fun song to watch from its infant to final stages. Originally it was just a simple instrumental gospel groove that I wrote, although I knew I wanted some female vocals in there. After hearing it, it seemed empty without some sort of lyrics, so I asked Stephen Malloy Brackett (Brer Rabbit from the Flobots) to put some words to it. My only instruction to him was that it was a “simple gospel feel, titled Gratitude.” He’s so talented I knew he’d be fine, and I certainly didn’t want to dictate or inhibit his skills as a writer. He killed it. The song was originally twice as long, time-wise, but his verse fit so perfectly that we just chopped out the piano solo which originally followed.

DPK: One thing I like about Tourist is ostensibly it is a piano jazz album, but it has so many different shades and moods, and a few instrumentation shuffles, that such a label no longer applies. For lack of a better term, I’d say it has an “unforced eclecticism.” Was this intentional or a natural extension of you as a musician?

JW: It was a natural thing, honestly. From the get go, I just had various ideas for songs, all of which were fairly simple. Those ideas were anything from a chord progression, a riff, or even a few words or phrases jotted down on paper. Rather than write and over-analyze and say, “Well this doesn’t sound ‘jazzy’ or complex enough” or whatever, I just stuck to writing songs. I wasn’t concerned with style. Once I had an idea of the songs I wanted to record, I knew the challenge would be to make it a cohesive record that told a story. I’m happy with the final product.

DPK: Listening to the album, I am reminded of Brad Mehldau’s Largo. Who are your primary musical influence and why?

JW: Thank you, that’s quite a compliment. I would say Mehldau is an influence, although probably more in terms of his solo piano stuff. Who knows? I was also raised on motown, then blues (primarily Clapton), then Phish and Medeski Martin & Wood. From listening to jambands, I became curious about jazz and just started exploring. Mehldau, Keith Jarrett, Monk, Robert Glasper, Miles 2nd Great Quintet (with Ron Carter, Miles, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams)–there are too many influences to name. I know for every artist I name, I’m probably forgetting ten.

DPK: Your bio is full of some big names. Is your final goal to be solely a frontman?

JW: Hmmm . . . I wouldn’t say the goal itself is to be a frontman. If that were the case, I would have already reached that goal a while ago, leading my own projects. I’d say the goal is to make the best and most honest music possible, which best reflects my own artistic vision, and to share that music with as many people as possible around the world. I wanna be consistently creating and playing great music on the same circuits as my musical idols.

DPK: Does jazz smell funny?

JW: In my experience jazz smells like pepper jack cheese, ranch dressing, and chocolate sauce.

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