Improvisation without Premeditation

“Such virtuosity! Captivated by the artist, we decided to book him on the program. A judicious choice. The synergy was very quickly realized between the charmed audience and the musicians,” says Jacques Panisset, director of the Grenoble Jazz Festival in France in 2006. Such an enthusiastic tribute to the talents of the Larry Redhouse Trio.

To listen to Larry play a track from his Spirit Progression CD utilizing the talents of Robin Horn, drummer, and Mike Levy, bassist, click the arrow:

Larry Redhouse

Following in his mother’s footsteps, Larry’s talent first appeared at the age of 3 in Seaside, California. He reached with his right hand up to the keys of the upright piano in the corner of the living room and picked out the melody of the Marines’ Hymn. His father Rex, a Navajo, was a civil auditor at the army base at Fort Ord, just north of Seaside. Rex met Larry’s mother, a classically trained pianist, in the Philippines where she played “Boogie Woogie” for the GIs during World War II.

There was a lot of music in the Redhouse home. He listened to the Beatles on the radio in the early to mid 60s. The youngest of four brothers and two sisters, he remembers the backyard concerts for the neighborhood kids in Seaside. The siblings cut out cardboard guitars and colored them with crayons. With the radio blasting and using milk crates to bang on for drums, they put on a show. There was a sense of performance and musicality even then. His father had a tenor voice and liked to sing. Not only Native American chanting but he also sang popular songs on a local radio program. He enjoyed opera and mimicked the great tenor opera stars. Larry remembers watching him driving with one hand and tapping the steering wheel with the other while he hummed a Navajo chant.

When the family returned to California after a short stint in Southern Arizona, Rex involved the family in Native American dancing. He taught them the intertribal dances and made native regalia to wear. He started a dance group, the Amerind (American Indian) Intertribal Dancers that performed at local functions, schools, cultural events, and other venues in the Monterey Bay area. Even without Facebook, he was able to network and locate another Native American family at Fort Ord that had a dance group. They combined their troops for a while. He also started a native drum group where he taught natives and non-natives how to sing and dance.

Although piano was the first instrument Larry encountered, he didn’t take formal lessons. He just experimented in playing the right hand melodies of Beatles’ tunes and top 40s hits. When he was in the 5th grade, he and his siblings listened to an eclectic mix including Santana, Chicago, and James Taylor. His eldest sister Mary found a Pacific West Coast album at Goodwill and gave it to Larry. It was Chet Baker, a well-known jazz trumpet player. Watching Fat Albert cartoons on television led him to Herbie Hancock, the pianist who played the soundtrack.

Larry played percussion for a while with the family Redhouse Band. His brother Lenny was also interested in drums. The two of them would race to the garage when coming home from a family outing to be the first to get to the drums. The brothers were constantly pounding on newspapers and sofa pads and metal car doors. There was always some sort of rhythm going on in the household. They drove everybody crazy. Larry played the timbales with the Redhouse band. Timbales are shallow, single-headed, metal encased drums that were invented in Cuba. There is a pair of them on a stand with cowbells attached. The player (known as a timbalero) uses a variety of stick strokes, rim shots, and rolls on the skins to produce a wide range of percussive expression. They are very high-pitched sharp-sounding drums. The organ player in the band also played cornet. He left his cornet at the Redhouse home, one day. Larry found the fingering book in the case and taught himself the fingering. That grew into a passion. Saving his earnings from working in the strawberry fields for a few summers, he bought a trumpet in Santa Cruz.

Larry Redhouse

Larry listened more and more to saxophone and trumpet players. He discovered such players as Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard, both jazz trumpeters. When the family moved to Tucson again, the trumpet was the instrument he played on through high school although he still experimented with piano. He played in the marching band, concert band, orchestra, and stage band at Sahuaro High School but kept up his exposure to the Baldwin grand piano on the auditorium stage. Larry didn’t have a knowledge of music theory but he played the piano by ear. He realized that if he wanted to excel at the piano he needed to understand chord progressions and scales. He had limited exposure to theory in a small class taught by the high school band director.

Larry attended concerts by the Pima College stage band and at the University of Arizona. He watched some national acts that came to Tucson such as Buddy Rich and Woody Herman. Larry started to play trumpet in a dance band and decided he could do that for bands that went touring. It was a good excuse to drop out of school. He joined the band Full House playing the trumpet. They played top 40 and dance tunes in Tucson clubs. He didn’t feel challenged, in the jazz sense, on the trumpet.

After this dream folded, he returned to high school and graduated. His interests started to shift back to piano. He did take some theory classes from Pima College but they were classical-oriented. He learned more from his sister Mary who taught him difficult chord progressions by introducing him to a samba song by a band called Sea Wind. The song had more than 50 chords but after conquering this song, it was easier to master the other progressions that he needed to learn. He didn’t have any other teachers but sat at a piano at home for hours and explored different tonalities.

Piano became his primary instrument in the mid 70s. He started a fusion band in the early 80s and played music he composed in clubs in Tucson. His whole focus was on doing original songs or jazz tunes or jazz standards. He would do his own version of whatever interested him but an addiction problem was starting to nag at him.

Larry never wanted to do anything else but have a career in music. He began taking side roads and detours while fighting substance abuse. He couldn’t continue in music because people knew that they couldn’t count on him to finish a gig. He swung sledgehammers for building demolition, sold newspapers on street corners, and sold jewelry at Tucson Mall. He lost all his material possessions. He was out of music for 10 years. He hadn’t forgotten about music. It was always burning through his head. He is a firm believer that a musician can work out and practice in his mind.

After his “surrender”, he made steady progress back to full recovery. He started his recovery by doing native dances with the family in Tucson again. He practiced native spirituality and participated in sweat lodge and talking circle ceremonies. When the Pow Wow at San Xavier was rained out, he went to the casino and won $900 on the slot machines. Then someone called him for a gig. Since he didn’t have a keyboard, he took his winnings to Beaver’s Band Box and bought a Casio keyboard to play for the gig. It was successful and people realized that Larry is back in town again.

People realized that he was trustworthy and listened. The addiction no longer seemed to be an issue. Larry had replaced it with knowledge of how to live without it and was at peace. He started doing his own trio. He reconnected with the Redhouse family jazz band and still does that. He primarily seeks to play with musicians that understand the concepts of music that he is into and play that concept. That doesn’t necessarily mean playing with family. The concepts are those that he creates in his own mind in his own style. He plays to the audiences that like his jazz styles.

The hardest part of performing for Larry is being consistently edgy with creativity. His experience with improvisation piano is that there are cycles of creativity. Sometimes he is at the top of his game and at other times just mediocre or in the cellar. It is a priority that he is on top of his playing. It may depend on whom he is playing with and who is available. The other members of the trio give him support and interplay and musical encouragement. They push him forward. Larry listens to them and thinks, “Oh. I like what that guy is playing. Let me play something to complement that.”

The number of improvisational pieces in a performance depends on the venue. He played recently at La Encantada shopping center and did mostly jazz standards with two originals. He doesn’t use a set list of songs. He looks at the audience and feels how they are responding to what he is playing. More often, he totally forgets that they are there because he doesn’t want to be preoccupied with seeing their reaction. If the crowd reacts positively, that is a plus. He wants to be totally creative and take chances and still be in the realm of making a completely balanced statement. His music is reflective of his life. He exposes his deeper feelings through the keys.

The absence of formal training on piano has a positive effect on the originality of his playing style. His approach is to play freely in his improvisations while lacking strict guidelines. It allows him to be in the present without premeditation. He has fun with his music.

Larry would love to be able to sit in the audience and listen to himself playing from an objective point of view. He is starting to use a videocam as a self-teaching tool. It makes him aware of when he is totally focused or if he is distracted and looking at the audience to see how they are reacting.

Playing in Grenoble, France was a high in his career. The country is beautiful. The audiences are different because they are actually listening and don’t talk while the musicians are playing. The venue is dead silent which was briefly scary for Larry because he wasn’t prepared for that. The culture of the French and their attitude towards music and art was an eye-opener. Now, he wants to play more concerts for similar audiences. He has played with his trio at the Kennedy Center Jazz Club in Washington, D.C. where the audience was just as focused. Playing at the Smithsonian Institute with the Redhouse family was also a high point for him.

Even though he emphasizes piano, he is still messing around on trumpet. He plays trumpet with the Tucson Civic Orchestra, but he is more a collector of trumpets now than a player.

Larry is investigating an opportunity to take his trio to Serbia in the coming year. A Serbian pianist with a jazz trio knows a promoter who discovered Larry through an agent Larry had worked with. The promoter deals with performers of a variety of cultures and liked Larry’s music. The promoter suggested that he and the Serbian pianist connect by email, which they did. He wants Larry to bring his trio to Serbia to do dual concerts. Larry is hopeful this concert opportunity will materialize.

Larry wants to be wherever there is music and musicians he is compatible with and where there is a sense of creativity and a spiritual connection. He believes that music is spiritual. He would like to eventually return to Santa Cruz where he bought his first trumpet. On a recent summer trip to Santa Cruz for a family reunion, he got out of the car to 65-degree temperatures. The ocean was right there and the fog was silently rolling in across the rocky shore.

Learn more about Larry Redhouse at http://larryredhouse.com;.

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